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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Northern Alliance for Chechnya

When a U.S. State Department official furtively met with a representative of Aslan Maskhadov, former leader of Chechnya, toward the end of January, he could have delivered a simple but effective message from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush: If you want international legitimacy and respect, join the anti-terror coalition by turning the Chechen forces you claim to command into a "Northern Alliance for Chechnya."

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The Russian authorities are urged by many in the West to engage in political dialogue with what are called "moderate Chechen leaders," including Maskhadov. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently portrayed Maskhadov as someone who is not a terrorist and is worth entering a political dialogue with.

The situation, however, is not so clear-cut. Before engaging in a political dialogue with someone like Maskhadov, it is entirely justifiable to ask him which side he is really on in the war on terror. Does Maskhadov actually want to free his native Chechnya from international terrorists? His answer so far has been very vague.

Maskhadov's track record in fighting terrorism in Chechnya is not good. Soon after he was elected president in January 1997 (after an "election campaign" in which many of his opponents were not just muzzled but killed), he allowed the territory of his republic to become a safe haven for international terrorists and Islamic extremists, some with direct support from Osama bin Laden. This is not because he supported their cause but simply because of the ineptness and pervasive corruption of his administration and his own indecisiveness.

Under Maskhadov, Chechnya rapidly descended into anarchy and complete lawlessness. Field commanders established control over small pieces of territory and eroded his authority. Kidnapping became a growth industry. More than a thousand people were abducted and held hostage. Many were tortured and mutilated, sometimes on direct orders from bin Laden. A few lucky ones were exchanged for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

Public executions under Sharia law were the norm and, as in Afghanistan under the Taliban, women's rights were trampled on. Ethnic Russians still living in Chechnya, including small children and elderly people, were slaughtered and raped. Maskhadov himself issued public statements that fueled ethnic and religious intolerance.

Criminal raids across the Chechen border became daily events that terrorized the surrounding populations. In 1999, militant groups from Chechnya led by Jordanian-born commander Khattab, a close associate of bin Laden, launched a large-scale invasion of Dagestan killing dozens of local people, most of them fellow Muslims.

The Russian authorities repeatedly offered help, including military assistance, to Maskhadov's government to deal with the terrorist threat. But just like the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Maskhadov promised to fight terror and then did nothing. For example, he failed to bring to justice Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev for his hostage taking and killings in Dagestan (Russian human rights activists describe Raduyev as "ultimate scum") because Raduyev belonged to the same clan as Maskhadov's wife. So much for leadership.

In the fall of 1999, after the al-Qaida raids into Dagestan, Maskhadov was given an ultimatum: hand over the terrorists or share their fate. He opted for waffling and then joined forces with the terrorists.

In short, Maskhadov failed every basic test of good governance in Chechnya and essentially forfeited his moral right to lead the Chechen people.

After Sept. 11, Maskhadov was quick to distance himself verbally from the al-Qaida crowd. In an act that smacked of monstrous hypocrisy, he even sent a letter of condolence to Bush. Some analysts, misled by these statements, have suggested that Maskhadov now wants to play the role of the Northern Alliance in Chechnya.

However, his actions in the past six months prove otherwise. Unlike the Northern Alliance, Maskhadov has not openly condemned Chechen terrorists like Khattab and Shamil Basayev, although he did issue statements condemning Wahhabism and terrorism more generally. Nor has he taken military action against foreign fighters and al-Qaida operatives in Chechnya. In fact, he continues to maintain extensive ties with extremist Islamic groups around the world.

To restore his moral and political credibility, Maskhadov needs to demonstrate, with deeds rather than words, that he is prepared to fight international terrorism in Chechnya. Although joining forces with Russian troops in combat operations against Khattab and Basayev is probably impossible for practical reasons, extensive intelligence sharing on the whereabouts of the terrorists might be in order.

Is it worth having a political dialogue with Maskhadov? So far, he has not proven himself a viable partner for peace. Neither is he any longer the only force on the ground with whom to conduct a dialogue.

There is already a mechanism for structuring a political process in Chechnya. The joint working group of the State Duma and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is working hard to establish a broad-based consultative council with the objective of initiating a political dialogue between Chechens with different views.

This consultative council is not a stooge for the Russian government, it is an NGO. Several pro-Maskhadov groups and even some members of his 1997 parliament have agreed to participate in it. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has endorsed the creation of the council in its latest resolution on Chechnya. And it has called upon the appropriate Russian and Chechen authorities to actively support the council's work. An invitation to Maskhadov's representatives is still standing. So far, they have refused to participate.

Today Maskhadov has a clear choice. He can either become another Gerry Adams by directly confronting the al-Qaida terrorists and fundamentalist radicals in Chechnya or he can be a Mullah Mohammed Omar by continuing to coddle them. He cannot be both. It is up to Maskhadov to decide.

Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. The views expressed are his own.