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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldier Maskhadov Emerges as Politician

The Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov, already well-established as an outstanding military commander, is fast emerging as Chechnya's foremost statesman.

The modest, gray-haired former colonel in the Soviet Army has successfully negotiated a military agreement to end hostilities in Chechnya, but now, unusually, he is turning his hand to politics.

He chaired a congress of 350 Chechen delegates from different political parties and movements in Grozny on Tuesday, while the Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev stayed away. It is Maskhadov too, who has been invited to speak on the peace process at a hearing of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg later this month.

As the commander of Chechnya's fledgling military forces, he was always overshadowed by his president, the flamboyant former Soviet Air Force general, Dzhokhar Dudayev. In the early days of the war, Dudayev spoke to the world's press, threatening to set Russia ablaze, while Maskhadov, largely unacknowledged, masterminded the defense of Grozny.

He worked out of the bunker of the Presidential Palace, pitting his poorly armed fighters against the might of the Russian army with devastating effect.

Maskhadov's motivations can be hard to interpret. He has, for example, consistently sought to negotiate an end to the war with his Russian opponents, even when more hotheaded separatist commanders wanted to fight on. Yet he also takes an uncompromising line on Chechen independence.

With Dudayev gone from the scene -- he was reported killed in April this year -- Maskhadov has taken on a more prominent role in political as well as military negotiations, overshadowing Dudayev's successor, Yandarbiyev.

Observers have suggested that Maskhadov's latest prominence is a result of his personal rapport with former general Alexander Lebed, whom President Boris Yeltsin put in charge of ending the war this summer.

"There is a bond between Maskhadov and Lebed, they speak the same language," said Charles Blandy of the Conflict Studies Research Center at Sandhurst Military Academy. "And like most military men they probably hate politicians."

They both served in the same army, and respect each other's word as officers, Maskhadov said at one of their meetings in August. From a poor family in the Nadterechnoye district of northern Chechnya, Maskhadov joined the Soviet army in 1969, attending Moscow's elite Kalinin artillery school in 1981.

He commanded a regiment in Hungary, and later an artillery division in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. He was there in 1991 when army units stormed the television center to break up a pro-independence demonstration. Maskhadov says he played no role in that incident. He spoke recently of his shame at the army's performance that day.

He resigned from the Soviet army to return to his homeland to head Chechnya's armed forces in 1994.

As Lebed no doubt also recognizes, Maskhadov carries most of the armed fighters in Chechnya with him and much of the civilian population too, probably more reliably than Yandarbiyev.

Top Chechen commanders Ruslan Gelayev and Shamil Basayev also enjoy a relationship of mutual respect with Maskhadov, said Blandy, who spent several days with the chief of staff last December.

Whatever unsavory decisions Maskhadov may have made in the course of the war, he stands impressively on military codes of honor.

At the inauguration of the joint Russian and Chechen patrols for Grozny, for example, several hundred Chechen fighters lined up opposite Russian soldiers in an open field. When it came to Maskhadov's turn to address them, he stood studying the ground for two whole minutes, his hand on his chin, the silence around him total.

Finally he spoke, only to rip into the Russian soldiers for their conduct during the war, blasting them for bringing shame on their units and exhorting them to serve in their new roles with honor and dignity.

It was an electric performance from the unassuming man who is known more for his sticking-out ears than his rhetorical talents.

"He is a quiet man, with a wry sense of humor," said Blandy. "But he is also a pretty hard man. I would not like to be at the receiving end of one of his rockets."