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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hope for Peace Set Back

The death of rebel Chechen leader General Dzhokhar Dudayev is now an established fact. His death in battle from a rocket attack may have been the desired end for a man whose name is linked with heroism, tragedy and the last desperate dash for Chechen independence from Russia. Dzhokhar Dudayev proved unable to survive this war.

In August 1995, I spoke with the rebel president all night in a wooden house in the very village of Gekhi-Chu, not far from where he was destined to die less than nine months later.

The path that led to the meeting place was lit up by rockets fired by the Russian side from behind the front line. When we sat around the table, one such rocket flew over the house. Dudayev became anxious and said it was time to leave. The firing suddenly stopped, however, and we stayed in the house until morning.

I had the distinct impression the Russian military was watching our meeting place, but that it had not received any commands to take further action. Not that time.

That evening, Dudayev told me with indignation that the head of the Russian delegation in the negotiations, Arkady Volsky, had offered him a large sum of money to leave for any part of the world outside of Russia. But Dudayev did not leave Russia in this way.

Dudayev, who made a career in the Soviet Air Force, was unfamiliar with Chechen political circles in 1991, when he first appeared on the scene. Local politicians conceded the general's priority and symbolic role in the fight against communist dominance and independence from Russia.

Driven perhaps at first by sincere democratic impulses, Dudayev could not manage to assume the role of a responsible leader. Instead, he found himself in a position of political bankruptcy, finally heading a military junta that was at odds with its former comrades-in-arms and the population.

His understanding of the Russian army's weaknesses tempted him into taking risks with the armed forces, and the Russian politicians who opposed him overestimated his cleverness.

The idea of a personality cult is very alien to Chechens. Even those who took up arms under Dudayev and were willing to die to defend their national dignity still held the rebel leader responsible for the poor state to which their republic had fallen.

Dudayev will now go down permanently in historical memory.

As for the Chechen crisis, however, his death leaves the prospects for a solution even dimmer.

As the legitimate ruler of Chechnya in the eyes of the Chechens, Dudayev was the only person who could take responsibility for leading negotiations with the Kremlin and ensuring they were carried out. In August 1995, the cease-fire agreement that was signed with Volsky raised a storm of indignation among the armed insurgents and their commanders. They considered the permanent presence of Russian troops on Chechen soil and the promise to hand Shamil Basayev over to be a betrayal.

At that point, Dudayev publicly, and disingenuously, disavowed the agreement, citing the fact that it was only a Defense Council resolution and did not have the force of law. Usman Imayev, head of the Chechen delegation at the negotiations who was acting on Dudayev's behalf, was accused of treachery. Aslan Maskhadov, the chief of staff of Dudayev's forces, nevertheless continued to carry out the agreement, and not a hair on the head of the "traitor" Imayev was touched.

The control over the armed detachments was maintained and the agreement was carried out. Indeed, Dudayev's resourcefulness proved to be entirely adequate to the erratic environment in which he acted.

Dudayev's vice president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who has been named his successor, is said to be far more uncompromising than Dudayev himself. This is not, however, what is most important.

What is most unfortunate is that the influence he has in political circles hardly extends to those who hold weapons in their hands. General Maskhadov, the chief organizer of the military actions and an advocate of peace negotiations, always acted under the aegis of Dudayev. Without Dudayev, however, he will have trouble holding on to his authority.

Russian troops may be pleased that their opponent has lost its ability to defend itself. For all that, though, the tendency to engage in terrorism and the role of its main inciter, Shamil Basayev, will most likely grow.

The Russian president did not want to recognize in any way that negotiations with Dudayev would provide the only sure way of ending the war. Dudayev could have agreed to an honorary status for Chechnya on condition of a direct agreement with Boris Yeltsin and reliable guarantees. With the death of Dudayev, there is no longer anyone to agree with or anything to agree on. Neither Yeltsin nor his rivals for presidential election know how to solve the Chechen problem. People have long insisted that the physical destruction of Dudayev was needed, naively thinking that this was the fundamental cause of the war. But Dudayev's destruction occurred the moment it was clear that Yeltsin's stillborn peace plan would not succeed.

There will be boastful hints about the planned character of the killing and there will be feelings of satisfaction over having avenged the recent defeat of the Russian military around Shatoi. (By the way, there were several similar defeats of this kind such as the one on the very road to Shatoi on Jan. 9, but for some reason, military authorities decided to talk about only the last incident.) There will be points scored for Yeltsin's election campaign, which are badly needed. And there will be hopelessly endless war.

Anatoly Shabad is a member of the leadership of Russia's Democratic Choice and a former State Duma deputy. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.