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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death of a Patriot

Some nine years ago I interviewed Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen separatist leader who was killed on Tuesday, in the middle of a beech forest in southern Chechnya. He was brimming with confidence and looking forward to swapping the woods for the halls of the Kremlin. The volatile rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev had been assassinated and now Maskhadov, his natural successor, was being invited for talks in Moscow by President Boris Yeltsin. In retrospect, that was the high watermark of Maskhadov's authority as both successful warrior and peacemaker. Those talks in the Kremlin helped lead to a peace settlement that ended the first Chechen war of 1994-96. Maskhadov then went on to be elected president of Chechnya in 1997 in a vote that was recognized by Russia and the world.

At that time there were hopes that Maskhadov could become a latter-day Chechen Ataturk, a martial leader who had turned to politics and would build up some kind of statehood in his unfortunate republic. Announcing his death this week, the Russian authorities called him a "bandit" and "terrorist." Neither description was true. Maskhadov was a tragic figure, a guerrilla leader who could not transcend his own limitations as a politician and the appalling situation around him.

Everyone has failed in Chechnya. Maskhadov failed in his attempts to lead his republic from 1997 to 1999, not managing to confront a rising tide of radical Islam and criminality. That anarchy was the prelude to the Russian government's second military intervention in Chechnya in 1999. And although he repeatedly called for negotiations with Moscow over the last five years, Maskhadov failed to rein in the radicals who have turned from partisan war to acts of terrorism, like the one in Beslan last September.

The most colossal failure in Chechnya has been that of the Russian government. Its soldiers have done everything in their power to make Chechens feel an alienated people and a conquered nation. No one knows exactly how many civilians have died there since 1994 but the number runs into the tens of thousands and is a catastrophe for this small republic. The city of Grozny, its only urban and professional center, still lies in ruins more than a decade after the fighting started. President Vladimir Putin's latest policy of "Chechenization" -- delegating political and economic power to a loyal pro-Moscow government -- has put an end to full-scale fighting; but in practice it has empowered a brutal and criminalized group that is implicated in daily abductions and killings. Little wonder that terrorism still sprouts in the cracks left by this cataclysm.

Killing Maskhadov risks being a Pyrrhic victory for Moscow. His standing had declined in recent years, but his election still made him an important political symbol for many ordinary Chechens. Now that that symbol has been killed, a whole constituency will feel disenfranchised. Maskhadov's death will strengthen the radical Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for the death of more than 330 people in Beslan, half of them children.

The West has failed, too, in Chechnya and has never given it the attention it deserves. All too often the subject has been pushed down the list of topics under discussion. In 1994, a more forthright stand against the bombing of Grozny might have made Yeltsin think again, but Western politicians hesitated to pick up their telephones. Other Westerners have lectured Russia without taking into account its real security concerns, or offering any practical assistance.

Much Western categorization of Chechnya has been misleading and superficial. To call the conflict a front in the "international war on terror" obscures more than it reveals. The number of international jihadis in Chechnya is tiny and it remains essentially a homegrown problem. Terror is now one part of the equation but simply killing terrorists will not solve the problem. But nor is this "deliberate genocide." Moscow still promises the Chechens high levels of autonomy and pours money into Chechnya. The problem is that the executors on the ground of whatever policy there is -- Russian soldiers and their Chechen cronies -- tend to be brutal, xenophobic or highly corrupt. It is not even very helpful to think of this as a colonial war: Most Chechens now probably reject independence and accept that they should be part of Russia -- if only Russia would respect their elementary rights.

Is there a way forward? Clearly the time for polemic is past and the Western institutions making a difference on this issue are those that seek to engage on as practical level as possible. The European Court of Human Rights delivered an important verdict on Feb. 24, upholding the claims of a group of Chechen civilians who had lost relatives to Russian violence and demanding the Russian government pay damages. The money is less important than the signal that sends to ordinary Chechens that the outside world cares about their rights and to Russian soldiers that their behavior is under scrutiny.

Above all, Chechnya needs reconstruction. Putin himself pronounced himself shocked when he flew over the ruins of Grozny last year and saw himself that a Russian city in the early 21st century still resembles the hulk of Stalingrad in 1945. Unemployment is nearly universal. But, as ever, economic rehabilitation falls foul of the perennial problem of systemic corruption, both in Moscow and Grozny. Western governments have enormous experience of bringing reconstruction and aid to war-shattered regions in the Balkans. To help rebuild Grozny and its destroyed university, oil institute, factories and schools would be to offer a real pledge in the future of Chechnya.

This, of course, needs the consent of the Russian authorities -- and a very real obstacle remains in the form of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, which monopolizes power and rewards only its friends and business partners. Parliamentary elections are due later this year in Chechnya and a positive step from Western governments would be to offer support and recognition for them -- on condition that they are as democratic as the situation in Chechnya allows and include a wide range of Chechens who have been hitherto shut out from the political process.

The Chechens are Europeans too, if very distant and alienated ones. The death of Maskhadov should be a moment to try to lure these unfortunate people with the promise of practical assistance, not push them further into the embrace of revenge and terror.

Tom de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. He is co-author, with Fiona Hill and Anatol Lieven, of a recent Carnegie Endowment for Peace policy brief, "A Spreading Danger: Time for a New Policy Toward Chechnya." This comment first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.