The killing of Chechen spiritual and political leader Aslan Maskhadov by Russian forces has been presented to the West as a triumph in the Global War Against Terror. Foreigners who understand little of the Caucasian Muslims and their causes and struggles -- meaning just about everybody else in the world, including the majority of Russians -- may be taken in by such claims.
Maskhadov was reported dead on Tuesday, March 8, following action by Russian agents in a Chechen town with the evocative name, as will become clear, of Tolstoy-Yurt. Although the full details of his death have yet to be released, usurpers of his position -- so-called Chechen Wahhabis, who are adherents of the state religion of Saudi Arabia and malignant infiltrators of the Chechen national movement -- named one of their number to replace him in the presidency of this small, historically victimized people.
Wasting no time, radical Islamist websites on March 10 identified the successor to Maskhadov, the sole elected president of the Chechen Republic, as a Wahhabi cleric named Abd al-Khalim Saidullayev. The transfer of authority was proclaimed by Shamil Basayev, a supposed Chechen patriot who is, in reality, known to the Muslim world as a fundamentalist fanatic and bloodthirsty bandit. The Chechen struggle had been a virtuous and righteous one for 150 years, but in the late 1990s Saudi-financed extremists began its subversion and betrayal.
That Wahhabi radicals, thanks to Russian violence, have now claimed total authority over the Chechen struggle is not a victory over terrorism, but a major gain by the terrorists themselves. This terrible reality was reportedly acknowledged by the foreign ministry of the nation that represents the conscience of the ex-Communist world: Poland, whose government has selflessly committed itself to assisting the Ukrainians in their transition to democracy, notwithstanding centuries of conflict between the two nations. Warsaw spokesman Alexander Szesko is said to have described the slaying of Maskhadov as "not just a crime but political stupidity and a big mistake."
Russia's increasingly neo-Stalinist leader, Vladimir Putin, who brags of his career in the ranks of the fearsome KGB, blustered absurdly when the Ukrainians took their freedom into their hands. Russia will not dare a serious challenge to Poland. According to Russian media, Moscow representatives were appropriately subdued in their reaction to the alleged Polish rebuke, while continuing to blame Maskhadov -- falsely, according to numerous reliable commentators, including Russian intellectuals -- for the Beslan massacre last year and other horrors.
Russia fears the spread of real liberty in the former Soviet Union far more than Syria does a similar development in Lebanon. The Russian nationalist ideologues and demagogues unmistakably resemble the paranoid and backward rulers of Saudi Arabia. It is therefore unsurprising that many moderate Chechens and other Muslims believe Moscow and Riyadh cooperate to exploit the fighting in the Caucasus.
For his part, Putin remained silent as a Sphinx when at least 118 Russian sailors died on the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, in the aftermath of suspicious terrorist assaults at a Moscow theatre in 2002 and on the capital's metro in 2004, and during the Beslan events themselves. Only last month, according to the London Times, the nightmare of Beslan was magnified when parents from the town, to whom the authorities had yet to return the bodies of child victims, discovered the clothing and cadavers of some of the young hostages on a garbage dump. That was how the Russian state allegedly handled the crime scene. Residents of Beslan have demanded an inquiry by the Russian parliament into this latest atrocity, which is about as useful as asking for help from al-Qaida.
As for the dead Chechen leader, destined to be defamed as a terrorist, Aslan Maskhadov was born in exile in 1951. His family was one of the thousands deported to Kazakhstan from the Chechen and Ingush Soviet territories, by order of Joseph Stalin, during the second world war -- even as Chechen soldiers were fighting to defend the Soviet Union against the Nazis.
Like many other Chechens, Maskhadov would serve honorably in the Soviet armed forces. And like the first Chechen president, Dzhokar Dudayev, Maskhadov witnessed the last acts of Soviet aggression against the Baltic states, which regained their independence in the early 1990s. Dudayev, a major general in the Soviet air force and commander of a nuclear bomber division, became a hero in 1990 when he refused an order from Moscow to attack the Estonian independence movement, instead raising the reborn nation's flag at the base he commanded.
Dudayev was removed to Chechnya and killed by the Russians in 1996. He was succeeded by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was murdered in a car bombing in Qatar last year after coming under radical Islamist influence. Qatar tried and convicted two Russian agents, sentencing them to life imprisonment, and expelled a diplomat for that extrajudicial execution.
Maskhadov, who became an army colonel, witnessed the death agony of Communism in Lithuania, culminating in Russian aggression in Vilnius in 1991. I was in Communist East Europe at the time and vividly remember headlines in the uncensored Croatian press: BLOODY MASSACRE IN LITHUANIA. I was moved to pray for the dead then, and for other dead later.
Now Aslan Maskhadov is dead, and I must confess to subjective feelings about this seemingly distant fact. When I published my book The Two Faces of Islam, my acknowledgements included Maskhadov, whom I had met and for whose guidance I will always declare my gratitude.
Maskhadov, whose first name, Aslan, means "lion," was a genuine moderate, who sought peace and compromise with the Russians. All objective observers, including the journalists of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, agree that Maskhadov was the only influential Chechen who truly believed that peace was equally in the interest of Slavs and Chechens, Christians and Muslims and Jews.
But as in the past, the Russians have acted to make an end to the horror impossible, and to replace it with a horror without end. Russian mothers weep to see their sons sent to the hell of Chechnya, to fight in a useless and dishonorable war, only because the Russian rulers need an internal enemy as a pretext for more repression and violence, with the country marching further backward into crude dictatorship. Yet some Russian politicians find the war on the Chechens insufficient for this purpose, and preach a revival of hatred and brutality against the diminishing Jewish population.
Russia seems destined inexorably for national suicide, in the form of heightened xenophobia, racist and fascist agitation, including numerous skinhead assaults on non-whites, Jews, and Muslims, as well as a "new" authoritarianism.
Last month, President George W. Bush cautioned Putin about the drift of Russia away from its transition to democracy. U.S. official sources say our president will repeat the warning, in stronger terms. The time for American action on Russian human rights policies is sooner rather than later. The Russians could kill Dudayev, Yandarbiyev, and Maskhadov but somehow Basayev, a genuine terrorist, remains untouched. How can they explain that? And Maskhadov's widow Kusama, son Anzor, and daughter Fatima have still not received his corpse, which according to Muslim law should have been given an undelayed and dignified burial, at least. Perhaps, like the parents of the Beslan children, they are destined never to be allowed the right of a proper funeral for him.
Maskhadov was killed in a town named for the Russian author Lev Tolstoy, whose last work was a short novel called Hadji Murat, based on his own reminiscences of the war against the Caucasian Muslims in the middle of the 19th century. Therein, the great writer eloquently expressed his admiration for the courage of the Chechen fighters. His character, Hadji Murat, escapes from Russian captivity and dies fighting. Tolstoy concludes his narrative, "It was of this death that I was reminded by crushed thistles in the middle of a ploughed-up field." I am told Aslan Maskhadov similarly perished in combat, and it was of Tolstoy's words, and the honor he granted to the Chechens, that I was reminded when I received the news from a tiny place that bears his name.