. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yandarbiyev, Chechen Rebel of Letters

STARY ATAGI, Chechnya -- "When he was small he always dreamed of becoming a poet. God willing, he would say," Emi Yandarbiyeva, 51, said of her brother-in-law, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the new rebel president of Chechnya.


"He was always bright, clever. He knew words that amazed people," she said, cracking a wide smile, rocking on her chair in the backyard of her house in their native village of Stary Atagi.


He surprised them all, she said, breaking from his humble origins and his early life as a carpenter and builder, becoming a poet and journalist, later turning to politics and founding the Vainakh Democratic Party in 1989. He became vice president to Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya's first president, in 1993 and two weeks ago took over the presidency after Dudayev was killed in a rocket attack April 21.


He could not be more different than the tall, clean-shaven, Soviet general who was his predecessor. A big man with flowing black beard and a traditional papakha, worn by the heads of Chechen families, His writings concentrated on raising Chechen national consciousness and a Caucasian identity.


"I remember his poems published in 1983. He wrote them in Chechen and there was not one reference to the party, communism or our leaders. I remember them for that," said Makhmud Chermekzayev, 29, a pro-independence fighter resting up in a camp in the mountains.


Yandarbiyev studied in Moscow, later working as a literary consultant and chairman of the Chechen-Ingush Writers Organization. Made a member of the Soviet Writers Union in 1985, he took advantage of glasnost to found and run for five years a Chechen magazine, Raduga, which means Rainbow, in which he published much of his own verse.


He became an early enemy of Doku Zavgayev, the Communist leader of Checheno-Ingushetia, now reinstalled by Moscow to head the Chechen government since last autumn.


Leading a pro-government democracy demonstration in Grozny's central square in the heady days of 1991 in defiance of a ban by Zavgayev's government, Yandarbiyev was arrested and held for two days. He became a stalwart supporter of Dudayev's creation of an independent state, taking on the role of chief ideologue in Dudayev's government, a task he kept up throughout the war, ensuring that pro-independence newspapers were published and distributed and personally acting as courier across rebel-held territory, according to a member of the government who only gave his name as Mumadi.


Despite his lack of military background, Yandarbiyev has nevertheless won the approval of Chechnya's field commanders, proving his courage on the front line, sticking with them through some of the fiercest fighting.


He stayed to the bitter end in the presidential palace in Grozny, leaving on the last night with the fighters and their Russian prisoners, according to the head of the palace guards, Akhmed Zubhadzhuddin.


"We know Yandarbiyev as a constant, staunch fighter for us. For 1 1/2 years of war, Yandarbiyev showed his bravery in terrifying places and went through the hardship and bitterness with us. We know his brother died, [as well as] several nephews, who fought exceptionally well," said top Chechen commander Shamil Basayev. "That is enough for us."


"I know Yandarbiyev, he is a good man, clever, restrained, sensible," said Khunkar Israpilov, commander of the southeastern front and co-leader of the hostage raid in Dagestan in January.


Yandarbiyev, dressed in military fatigues, but still wearing a patterned civilian shirt and red tie, readily acknowledged his lack of military background at a joint press conference with his chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, last week.


Maskhadov's burden of responsibility would inevitably increase, Yandarbiyev said, adding praise for his proven military ability.


The chief of staff added that Yandarbiyev's role would be more political as president, although he will have to approve large-scale military operations as commander-in-chief of Chechen forces.


"It was not like Dudayev's press conferences," Abu Arsanukayev, Dudayev's security chief for five years, said afterward.


But if Yandarbiyev does not have the flamboyance and caustic humor of Dudayev, his reserved manner belies an equally hardline stance. He has insisted that talks with Moscow can only begin after a Russian troop withdrawal, drawing praise from hardline commanders like Israpilov.


Yandarbiyev was in fact repeating Dudayev's demands, made shortly before his death, and has vowed to carry on in the slain leader's footsteps.


"For people who want independence he is more adamant than Dudayev," said Selim Aidamirov, administration head of the village of Gekhi, where rebel government leaders and field commanders are said to have held a meeting Monday.


Yandarbiyev has few personal ties with Russia, unlike Dudayev who married a Russian and lived most of his life in Russia and Estonia, serving in the Soviet Air Force.


Yandarbiyev has, Chechen acquaintances say, far less sympathy for Russian ways. Certainly his hatred of the Russian "occupation" matches that of any of his fighters.


He ended his press conference last week, held in a safe house in a rebel-held village, by reciting one of the 30 poems he has written in Russian about the invasion:


By the sword of slaves,


Unclean forces,


Masses speaking in different


tongues,


Rootless bastards,


Spread like the plague,


Branding and rejecting all other


peoples,


Even itself, its sons and God.