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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prison Turns Khasbulatov Into a Chechen Hero

He may be locked in a cell in Moscow's most notorious prison, but former parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov is causing political tremors in his Caucasian homeland, 1,500 kilometers to the south.

Once disliked for playing Russia's part in a phoney war with Chechnya, Khasbulatov has now become virtually a Chechen national hero.

Meanwhile, amid economic ruin and a continued blockade the star of the man he sparred with for two years, Dzokhar Dudayev, the Chechen president and flamboyant air force general, is falling.

"We are an emotional people. We see that Khasbulatov has behaved bravely and decently," said Said-Khamzat Nun-uyev, a Chechen former colleague of the former speaker of the Supreme Soviet.

Ramzan, a Chechen, 19, in Grozny's central square, had a typical response. "Khasbulatov is a clever man. He could put this country on its feet," he said.

A spark of Chechen anger was lit the day after the White House parliament building was stormed by President Boris Yeltsin's tanks and Khasbulatov was arrested. For three days crowds held protest meetings in one of the central squares of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Dudayev, famous for his blood-curdling threats against Moscow, and an old foe of Khasbulatov, then made a spectacular turnaround. On Dec. 20 he signed a decree re-instating his old adversary with the citizenship of independent Chechnya, of which he had stripped Khasbulatov two years before.

However, two official letters sent by Dudayev to Moscow, copies of which have been obtained by the Moscow Times, suggest that Dudayev's change of tack is recent, prompted by the perceived threat of Khasbulatov as a rallying-point for the opposition.The first letter addressed to Yeltsin and dated Sept. 26, or five days after the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet, congratulates the Russian president for "putting an end to the pointless confrontation between the two branches of power."

"The people and government of the Chechen Republic not only approve and support the progressive initial measures begun by you and the government of Russia but they are ready to provide actual help at any moment," it goes on.

The second message undated but apparently from around Oct. 10, a few days after the storming of the White House, is addressed to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and requests a resumption of talks with Moscow.

"We consider that all the necessary conditions and prerequisites have been fulfilled at last for the renewal and successful conducting of negotiations with the government of Russia on a whole range of questions," it says.

Chechnya's government could not be reached for comment on the telegrams.

The letters stand out for two reasons. First they suggest Dudayev is much friendlier to Moscow in private than he is in public, where he has threatened Moscow with "holy war." Secondly they show that he welcomed the defeat of Khasbulatov as the removal of an obstacle to rapprochement with Moscow.

Khasbulatov's ex-colleague Nunuyev was cynical about Dudayev's position. "Khasbulatov enjoys authority here. Dudayev understands that," he said.

Nonetheless Khasbulatov may not turn out to be the missing leader the Chechen opposition yearns for. The former economics professor has never lived in his home republic after growing up in exile in Kazakhstan and is unlikely to return.

His brother Aslambek, five years older than Ruslan and a professor of history at Grozny University, thinks Khasbulatov will probably give up politics when he is released."I'm convinced that Ruslan won't agree to return to political activity, either in Russia or in Chechnya," he told the Moscow Times.

Aslambek, greying and mellower than his brother, visited him in Lefortovo Jan. 13 and said he found him in good spirits, although complaining that his case was dragging out and he had not been interviewed for two weeks.

"In general I liked the way he was. He is feeling cheerful. He admits to no feeling of guilt, he is convinced that he defended the constitution, he denies that he made any appeals to violence, he doesn't regard what happened as his fault," Aslambek said.

Khasbulatov said he had been "heart-broken" by the meeting, the first since his brother was jailed. He noted he was holding a pen and exercise-book and was doubtless getting on with his academic work.