Former Chechen mujahideen leader, Shamyl Basayev was elected leader of Ichkeria’s unofficial new Mekh Khhel (Shura Council) on February 20. The 35-member Council was established by opposition leaders on February 9, apparently in an attempt to create a de facto alternative to president Aslan Maskhadov’s increasingly isolated and beleaguered government. It brings together long-established critics of Maskhadov, such as Basayev and former acting president Zalimkhan Yandarbiyev, other leaders who had previously remained outside the long-running debate about Ichkeria’s future, such as Ruslan Gilaev and Ahmed Zakayev, and even former allies of Maskhadov such as vice-president Vakha Arsanov.
The Council’s broad membership reflects the coming together of a range of leaders who have long been critical of Maskhadov’s rule but had differing ideas on how to respond. Events in the last few months have increasingly persuaded many Chechen leaders that Maskhadov is too secular and pro-Russian to lead the country, and that his responses to constructive criticisms of his rule have made it impossible for him to continue.
The debate is one seen repeatedly in post-colonial Muslim countries, between westernised ‘modern’ leaders, who have emerged from the training and institutions of the colonial State, and community leaders whose outlook is Islamic and whose vision for the post-colonial State is totally different. Moreover, within the broad terms of this debate, Maskhadov is increasingly being seen as authoritarian and confrontational with his critics, who are trying to work through traditional Chechen methods of collective decision-making based on discussion and consultation between community leaders.
Late last year, Basayev and other leaders, including Salman Rudayev, put their reservations about Maskhadov’s dealings with Russia to the country’s Supreme Shari’ah Court, a move which outsiders wrongly described as trying to ‘impeach’ Maskhadov for treason. On December 24, the Court - consisting of Maskhadov appointees - rejected their case that he should resign, but accepted some of their other points, including questions about the role of the country’s secular parliament in the legislative process and criticisms of parliament chairman Ruslan Alikhadjiev for secularism and criticising Islam and the Shari’ah. The Court suggested that a Shari’ah Council be established for legislative purposes, instead of the parliament.
They also agreed that Maskhadov was wrong to appoint Chechens who had collaborated with the country’s Russian-appointed puppet regime during the 1994-96 war to senior government positions. The court recommended that Maskhadov dismiss a number of officials, including prosecutor-general Mansur Tagirov, who had served in the pro-Russian police, and deputy prime minister Yusup Soslembekov.
Senior opposition leaders hoped that Maskhadov would accept these points in traditional Chechen style, as the opinions of important community leaders who ought not be ignored. They were disappointed with his response. Speaking on Chechen television on January 9, Maskhadov announced the creation of a State commission to draft ‘a concept of an Islamic State and a new constitution... based on the Qur’an.’ The commission would report in three years and new parliamentary and presidential elections would then be held. This was widely seen as politicking intended to sideline the issue while Maskhadov remained free to act as he chose.
Moreover, on January 21, deputy prime minister Turpal Atgeriev, who heads the government law-enforcement agencies, announced on television that government forces had fought and defeated an opposition Islamic force in Urus Martan, south-west of Dzhohar-Ghala (the capital, formerly Grozny). Atgeriev said this force had been planning to overthrow Maskhadov and depose the government.
This version of events was supported by Maskhadov two days later, but it later emerged that all that had taken place was a minor scuffle between police and the mujahideen monitoring traffic for security
reasons. Again, this incident was seen by many leaders, including some who had previously stayed out of the debate, as deliberate and dangerous politicking on Maskhadov’s part, intended to discredit his critics and mobilise support on a wholly false basis.
Meeting on January 26, community leaders, including Basayev, Yandarbiyev, Gelayev, Zakayev and Khunkar-pasha Israpilov, drafted and published a set of proposed measures to reorganise the State, saying that the country was in crisis but denying any intention of overthrowing Maskhadov. These proposals included curtailing the power of the president and the creation of a Mekh Khhel. On February 1, the same leaders formally petitioned Maskhadov to adopt their proposals and to introduce the Shari’ah immediately.
Two days later, on February 3, Maskhadov suspended the functions of the Chechen parliament, ordered the immediate implementation of the Shari’ah, and ordered the creation of a commission to draft a new Islamic constitution within three months. He then met with Basayev and other opposition leaders, who expressed support for him provided the new measures were implemented. Maskhadov then demanded that they stop meeting and working outside the State system, which they refused to do. A previously-arranged congress of war veterans, which Maskhadov had demanded they cancel, went ahead as planned on February 4. It was attended by some 1,500 people, while thousands more rallied outside to celebrate Maskhadov’s announcement.
Maskhadov’s moves towards implementing these pledges over the next few days caused further disappointment, however. He dismissed the parliament and his vice-president Vakha Arsanov, who had supported the community leaders and favoured an Islamic system. He also announced the creation of a Shura Council. However, he emphasised that this Shura Council would be appointed by himself as president, and its role would only be to provide non-binding advice to him.
At the same time, his announcement was being cautiously welcomed in Moscow, where politicians and commentators hailed it as a master-stroke for disarming Ichkeria’s opposition; this reaction was also noted by Maskhadov’s critics. (Maskhadov, criticised for being too close to the Russians, has complained before that Russia’s open support is a problem for him in Ichkeria.)
It was against this background that the opposition leaders unilaterally convened their own Shura Council on February 9, and appointed Shamyl Basayev its head 10 days later. Maskhadov is now isolated and beleaguered, but appears determined to cling to office despite the honourable way out offered to him as a member of the Shura Council.
A large part of the confrontation is due to the two sides’ different backgrounds and understandings of the nature of the State and of Maskhadov’s position. Maskhadov, who is Russian educated and a former officer of the Red Army, was elected under the western-style 1991 constitution unilaterally declared by Dzhohar Dudayev. He commanded Ichkerian forces under Dudayev during the 1994-96 war, and was elected in 1996 largely on this basis.
However, he is western in outlook, essentially a technocrat used to working within a rigid, authoritarian eastern-bloc style State system. Having been elected president, he expects to be in sole charge. He is also used to dealing with Moscow and the Russian system, which has made him acceptable to Moscow, but has caused suspicion among other Chechens, who fear that he may be open to Russian manipulation
Opposition leaders such as Shamyl Basayev and Zalimkhan Yandarbiyev come from more Islamic and traditionally Chechen backgrounds. They are altogether more suspicious of Russia, and their vision for Ichkeria’s future is based on Islam, although-like many other post-colonial Islamic leaders in other countries - they may prove to have a limited understanding of what building a State based on Islam actually entails. They are also influenced by the traditional Chechen social order, based on clan loyalties and collective decision-making by clan elders.
Although Maskhadov considers his position to be impregnable, having been constitutionally elected president, and that any opposition to him is totally out of order, other community leaders tend to see him more as one of many, who should accept the criticisms and advice of other leaders, and stand down honorably if he loses their support. Each side, in its own way, considers that the other is acting ‘undemocratically’.
Meanwhile, Russia lurks as a dominant and malevolent power biding its time to regain control over Ichkeria one way or another. Part of Maskhadov’s problem is that the Russians, although preferring him to his opponents, have been reluctant to meet their obligations to help rebuild the country without first tying Ichkeria into a network of regional co-operation agreements and treaties by which they hope to ensure that it never formalises its independence. Like other post-colonial Muslim States before it, and in a position far worse than others in many ways, Ichkeria continues to face a difficult future in a hostile world.
Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1999