MARGARET WARNER: The details were murky, but the outcome seemed clear. Aslan Maskhadov, once the undisputed leader of the Chechen independence movement, was dead.
Russian Television today showed gruesome images of a bearded man lying on the floor. Maskhadov died in what Moscow called a "special operation" by Russian security forces. One report said he was accidentally killed by his own bodyguards.
A one-time Soviet army colonel, Maskhadov led the Chechen rebels during their 1994-96 war of independence from Moscow. After fighting the Russian troops to a standstill, he signed a cease-fire with President Yeltsin in 1996. The Russians pulled out, and in 1997, Maskhadov was elected president of an autonomous Chechnya.
But in 1999, shortly after Vladimir Putin became prime minister, Russian troops reinvaded. In the years since then, the Putin government has blamed Maskhadov for a series of bloody terrorist attacks against civilians.
The Chechen takeover of a Moscow theatre in 2002, in which 130 people died; and the 2004 seizure of a school in Beslan, which left 300 children and teachers dead. Maskhadov denied he had authorized either attack. Shortly before his death, he proposed peace talks with President Putin. Maskhadov's offer was rejected out of hand.
And for more, I'm joined by Yo'av Karny. He's an independent journalist and author of a book about the Caucasus, titled "Highlanders." He's traveled frequently to Chechnya, and Yo'av Karny, welcome.
YO'AV KARNY: My pleasure.
MARGARET WARNER: First let's talk about the circumstances of his is death. We're told that he was found or killed in a cellar somewhere in a small town in northern Chechnya called Tolstoy Yurt. What can you conclude from that?
YO'AV KARNY: I was a little bit surprised. If you would ask me yesterday where I felt he would be hiding, I would say probably in the caves in the mountains, and Tolstoy Yurt is in a plateau, easily accessible from the Russian border, from Grozny, not an ideal hideout. He must have, my guess is he was probably on the move, Saddam-like, not sleeping in the same bunker more than a couple of consecutive nights.
MARGARET WARNER: And, as you know, there's some still confusion about who actually fired the fatal shots. Do you think -- was it in the Russian self interest to take him alive or kill him?
YO'AV KARNY: My guess for whatever its worth is get rid of him because by removing him from the scene, they pulled the last vestige of legitimacy from underneath the feet of the resistance. He was the legitimately elected president of a democratic government that is no longer.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, help us now understand how he got where he was. He started out, at least when he burst on the scene sort of internationally; he was an effective military commander for the independence movement.
YO'AV KARNY: In an extraordinary way. He received, under his command, the tiniest military force at the time of Russia's first invasion in 1994, and he led it eventually to the most improbable spectacular, sensational victory 20 months later.
MARGARET WARNER: And then I gather that at the time of independence somewhere in there, you actually met him briefly.
YO'AV KARNY: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about it and what were your impressions?
YO'AV KARNY: Very mild mannered man, completely lacking the firebrand qualities of other Chechen leaders, the hyperboles, the overstatements, almost whispering to you. He came from a small clan in the plateau; it was not part of the mainstay of the resistance movement and probably never felt comfortable with that lot.
MARGARET WARNER: So then he became president. It was early 1997 and really just things came apart. He couldn't govern at all. Tell us what happened. What went wrong?
YO'AV KARNY: Well, he won a resounding victory in the elections - about 2/3 of the vote -- elections that were largely certified as reasonably free and democratic. He had a mandate to govern to bring back Chechnya from the dead.
Now the Russians didn't make it easier for him. They committed themselves to funneling funds for reconstruction. They didn't keep their word. But he should have started sort of a mental, psychological reconstruction. He should have first of all dissolved the military formations, should have tried to instill discipline really, but apparently was out of debt. And also he didn't have much of a political tradition to fall upon.
The Chechens were never good in generating politics of consensus and consultation. He at some point should have decided to flex muscles against extremists and arms bearers. He didn't have it in him -- for understandable reasons; he didn't want to engulf his nation in civil war. Eventually, he realized he had to do it and it turned out to be too late.
MARGARET WARNER: So basically in this period before the Russians returned, really Chechnya descended into a kind of lawlessness with foreign Jihadist elements coming in?
YO'AV KARNY: It was a black hole; the foreign Islamic missionaries, mostly Arabs, were trying to impose on Chechnya an alien Islam. Chechnya had been Muslim for three centuries before they arrived, but it was indigenous Islam.
It was largely tolerant, inclusive and spiritual, not obsessed with legalisms and the law and so on. And that collision between tradition and newly imported revolution is what undermined him and the entire movement.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as we mentioned in the piece that originally he was seen, even by Washington, as the best hope for a negotiated settlement once the Russians had reinvaded. But then at some point about three years ago, Washington even turned away and said, well, he had made common cause with these more extreme elements. Do you think that's true? Had he sort of joined with the more extreme?
YO'AV KARNY: Well, you know, nominally at least he presided over that deterioration of the independence movement toward terroristic conduct and therefore should be held responsible. If he had ever to be taken seriously as a person aspiring to be president, surely should have been held responsible.
Whether he took a conscious decision to turn the independence struggle into terrorism, I doubt it very much. I think terrorism was largely the reflection of his weakness, of his incompetence and of the hopelessly divided Chechen political culture.
MARGARET WARNER: So you don't necessarily agree with the Putin administration, which claims or asserts that he personally either masterminded or was really behind both the Moscow theater siege and the one at the Beslan School?
YO'AV KARNY: I think it's silly in the extreme, and I think it's self-serving. And the Russians have engaged in that for quite a while. The Russians know better. And the fact of the matter is that as late as 2001, they engaged in publicly in negotiations by proxy.
MARGARET WARNER: With Mr. Maskhadov.
YO'AV KARNY: With an envoy of Aslan Maskhadov.
MARGARET WARNER: So, where does this leave the Chechen independence movement and Chechnya?
YO'AV KARNY: I would imagine that the Chechen independence struggle as is we've known it in the last 15 years has come to an end. It is now bereft of legitimate leadership. There is no serious mechanism in place to replace Aslan Maskhadov even if there is a claim to that effect.
The lack of discipline that manifested itself under his presidency is going to get stronger and stronger; we are likely to see more terrorism, but the Chechens, not to engage in excessive romanticization, the Chechens have come back from the dead so many times. They have struggled with the Russians since the 1780s, for about 230 years. I imagine that you can't really get rid of them that easily.
MARGARET WARNER: But does it leave this warlord, Shamil Basayev, who was also considered the other important leader, does it really leave him as the most influential figure and what does that mean?
YO'AV KARNY: I think that would be a reasonable conclusion. He is certainly the best known, the most charismatic and possibly the most effective as a military leader. He's also will one who showed the greatest amount of political ignorance, lack of understanding of the realities of the region, and he alienated the Russians hopelessly and enjoyed it very much.
I suspect that under him, whether he assumes the title of president, I don't think that's likely, but if he becomes the de facto leader of the resistance, things are going to get worse.
MARGARET WARNER: Yo'av Karny, thank you so much.
YO'AV KARNY: Thank you.