Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Solidarity After Dudayev

By chance the Chechen leader I know best is Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. When the mercurial Dzhokhar Dudayev was not available for interviews, his more stolid deputy usually made himself available.

In January 1994, Yandarbiyev received me sitting behind a vast desk in his large chilly office at the top of the presidential palace. Where Dudayev was sharp and fanatical, Yandarbiyev was slower and more sarcastic, but also more thoughtful. He presented me with a poem, written in Russian, about the treachery of Russia through the ages. It was a kind of mirror image of popular prejudices about Caucasians, a warning not to trust the duplicitous men from the north.

Even then it was obvious that the two Chechen leaders were not a happy tandem. Each plowed his own furrow. Yandarbiyev was co-opted in April 1993 as vice-president because his Vainakh Party had a network running throughout all the Chechen villages. Also he was eloquent in spoken Chechen in a way that Dudayev, who had not lived in Chechnya before 1991, never was. But Yandarbiyev never commanded the loyalty or devotion that Dudayev did.

Last September I met Yandarbiyev again in his hideout in Roshni-Chu, sarcastic and jovial as ever and wearing camouflage fatigues over a jacket and red tie. He said he had spent most of the war in southwestern and eastern Chechnya, crossing the hills five or six times. He had another big desk in his farmhouse and said he had spent much of his time -- and he seemed to have a lot of it on his hands -- writing seven big articles on history and politics.

Although Yandarbiyev was as routinely hardline as any other Chechen rebel I never got the impression he was as fanatical as Dudayev and I am skeptical about the labeling of him as a "hardliner." He was fairly serious, for example, about the military agreement signed with the Russian in July and talked down ideas of a terrorism campaign inside Russia, something Dudayev used to routinely hint at.

All the same, Yandarbiyev would not be an influential leader. As a non-combatant he did not command much respect amongst the fighters and, unusually in Chechnya, he has a reputation as a bit of a coward. The line of succession from Dudayev passes directly to the field commanders and there are only two capable of playing a big political role, Shamil Basayev Aslan Maskhadov.

Some Russian commentators like to see potential for a split here between the supposedly pragmatic Maskhadov and the fanatical Basayev. They like to think that Moscow can seduce Maskhadov into negotiations that will divide the Chechen movement down the middle.

It is a tempting view but misleading. There are indeed big splits within the rebel movement. In the first winter of the war, Yandarbiyev and Maskhadov traveled the front-line together and Maskhadov allowed himself to be just a little disparaging about Dudayev.

There is also a regional dimension. With poor communications and separated by mountain ranges, the regional commanders attend to their own sectors and are not necessarily subject to central authority.

But there is also a strong solidarity principle amongst the rebels, which is much firmer than Russian attempts to divide them. Last summer for example, when Moscow fondly believed it was splitting Maskhadov from Dudayev, the whole rebel delegation would meet for dinner every night with Dudayev in Roshni-Chu.

The death of Dudayev does leave a power vacuum and the Russians are rushing in to exploit this. Various Russian experts paint a picture of bandits fighting amongst themselves for money and influence, like the remnants of a criminal gang on the run.

But a determined resistance movement that has held out for 16 months against the Russian army is not a collection of bandits. And there is no reason to believe any of them will suddenly cut and run. The rebels will need each other now more than ever to survive and it would be ideologically impossible at the moment to sit down and talk to the Russians.

The "divide and rule" tactic runs counter to the first rule of the Caucasian Wars, which is that the more pressure the Russians apply the closer the mountain tribes cleave together. The best way for the Russians to fracture Chechen society would be to pull out all the troops and leave the Chechens with only their hatreds for each other to deal with.