Russian security officials are stating with satisfaction that despite Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov’s death, the situation in the Caucasus has not changed radically for the worse, contrary to all expectations. A downed helicopter doesn’t count; things like that happen all the time in Chechnya. Nonetheless, Maskhadov’s death could prove to be a turning point, and more for Russia than Chechnya.
Everyone knows that federal forces have tried more than once to get rid of the separatist leader. Anton Surikov, an old special forces hand, commented that “Maskhadov was not planning any terrorist attacks but was simply staying for a while with his supporters in Tolstoy-Yurt. The feds had a very good idea where Maskhadov was, and he probably knew that they knew. After all, he’d been living that way for many a year.” Maskhadov was in relative safety, as his demise would obviously have done Moscow more harm than good.
The Russian authorities had been burned before. When they offed Dzhokhar Dudayev, they not only failed to win the first Chechen war, but got closer to defeat. While Maskhadov was still alive, the theoretical hope for negotiations remained. Moscow, despite its tough guy stance, was not ready to reject this option completely.
Clearly, the order came from on high. What forced the people in command in the Kremlin to decide to get rid of Maskhadov? What had changed in Chechnya?
At first glance, nothing had. The war was grinding on. From a military point of view, Maskhadov’s death was just as disadvantageous for the federal forces last week as it was three years ago. The resistance was divided into numerous bands, all operating independently. Maskhadov had lost the ability to direct day-to-day affairs long ago, along with much of his political authority.
Now, of course, he has become a national hero, a symbol of the fight and an undefeated commander, even outdoing the legendary 19th-century Imam Shamil, who surrendered to Russian troops in the end.
With no one to hold them back, the field commanders will now escalate their military operations, which have already extended beyond the borders of Chechnya. And the most radical separatists will undertake terrorist attacks on Russian cities in retribution. Supporters of fundamentalist Islam are getting stronger in the area (not just in Chechnya but all over Northern Caucasus), and secular nationalists, who are always ready to negotiate with Moscow, are going to get weaker.
The Kremlin knew this would happen. Yet, in deciding to kill the separatist leader, the federal authorities were obviously thinking about what was going on in the rest of Russia, not in Chechnya.
During the second war in Chechnya, the federal government appeared to strive not for military victory but for propaganda points. Now, President Vladimir Putin can claim he kept his promise to hunt terrorists down, even in the john, and hopefully raise his faltering ratings. Now, after Maskhadov was declared to be a terrorist, the Kremlin can report a success in its struggle against terror.
But it’s too late to worry about ratings now. They aren’t falling because of some failure in Chechnya. They are falling due to the president’s anti-social policies. His popularity will not get a boost from the latest big score. However, today’s political logic no longer has anything to do with the fight for higher ratings or votes. With a restless public and an alienated elite, the Kremlin can’t just wait passively for the elections in 2007 and 2008. A political crisis is emerging that the government may just solve using force. The faster it does, the more likely the current authorities will emerge victorious. In other words, the worse things get, the better.
The powers that be are destined to start tightening the screws. They simply have no other choice. However, it will not be possible to do so without an excuse. Not only will the West not get it, Russians will also demand an explanation. There are plenty of people willing to trade freedom for security in European countries, let alone in a country with less than stunning democratic traditions.
After hostages died in Beslan, gubernatorial elections were eliminated. If a rash of terrorist attacks or military blunders follows Maskhadov’s death, the next steps will come, which could mean anything from censorship to dissolving the State Duma, shutting down opposition parties and rewriting the Constitution yet again.
Of course, the opposition today is no threat to the authorities. But a year ago, the governors weren’t exactly presenting any direct challenge to the Kremlin, either. Maskhadov, too, was a man of compromise. This in effect doomed him.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.