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Interview on Chechen Terrorism

Transcript of radio interview, evening of 2 November 2002, with John Batchelor on "Batchelor & Alexander", WABC (New York).

Question: The reports today out of Moscow say that Aslan Maskhadov, the president of Chechnya, is a wanted man and has gone into hiding.

Answer: Yes, you may recall that it was alleged that Maskhadov was behind the hostage-taking. The first documented source for this assertion was a telephone call by the head of the hostage-takers Movsar Baraev with a media outlet in Azerbaijan, in which he was asked specifically whether Maskhadov knew anything about it, and he answered that, yes, Maskhadov was the leader and was in on all the planning. This made Maskhadov a political outcast in Moscow. Of course, official Moscow was looking for a reason not to deal with him, was in fact not dealing with him, and now they have best reason of all, this being a declaration by chief hostage-taker Baraev that Maskhadov was behind it all; although there are reasons to doubt that statement. It is more likely that Maskhadov knew what was going on and was unable to stop it.

Question: Why would the Russian government be interested in discrediting Maskhadov?

Answer: The Russian Federation has its own administrative unit for Chechnya, sort of like Northern Ireland when Northern Ireland was under British "direct rule." In this set-up, there is an envoy of the Russian president with his own authority given by Moscow. That is why they don't recognize Maskhadov's authority and would like to see him disappear politically.

Question: Exactly who is Maskhadov?

Answer: He is a former field commander during the 1994-1996 Russian war in Chechnya, who was elected in 1997 as president of what they call the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. It's necessary to add to what you've already said, that it's not only the Kremlin that would like to see Maskhadov sidelined. There are other Chechens both inside and outside Chechnya who would also like to see him disappear.

Question: So if Maskhadov wasn't behind the hostage-taking, then who was?

Answer: There is at present no reason to discount the claim of Shamil Basaev, a Chechen warlord linked to Wahabbist sects in Saudi Arabia who has always dissented from Maskhadov's government and frequently been opposed to him personally, particularly during the period between the two Chechen wars, 1996-1999, which is when the kidnapping became really big business. One of the biggest in the business, by the way, and the one with the most brutal reputation was Arbi Baraev.

Question: Baraev? Wasn't he the chief hostage-taker?

Answer: That was Movsar Baraev, his nephew. Arbi Baraev was an uncompromising enemy of Maskhadov who died in mysterious circumstances in 1999, so this also raises questions about the latter's complicity in Movsar Baraev's actions in Moscow. Indeed, in the theater itself Movsar Baraev was in cellphone touch with his uncle's associate Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, and texts of their conversations were made available by the chief Chechen separatist ideologue Movladi Udugov. Along with Basaev, Yandarbiev and Udugov were opponents of Maskhadov during the late 1990s, and at least Yandarbiev is reported to be living at present in Qatar. In this connection, bear in mind that it was the Qatar-based television channel Al-Jazeera that broadcast videotape of Movsar Baraev and his group in front of an Arabic-language banner declaring their anticipation of becoming martyrs. Moscow has now demanded Yandarbiev's extradition from Qatar, in addition to the extradition of Maskhadov's associate Akhmed Zakaev from Denmark.

Question: There's an opinion poll out in Moscow that says 85% of those questioned approve the way Putin's dealt with the crisis, and only 10% disapprove. Also, I recall that the authorities ordered a Russian television station off the air for broadcasting Chechen rebel statements, and they have forced a newspaper to take an interview off their website. Yet the Russian public seems to support this.

Answer: This is what happens in any country where a national tragedy occurs with great loss of life that traumatizes the population. The political authorities use the opportunity to enforce control over either a willing or an unwilling media system. Given the recent evolution of domestic politics in Russia, this is no surprise. You may recall the names of people like Gusinsky and Berezsovsky, the "oligarchs" under Yeltsin. Some of them were big media wheels, but under Putin they have gradually been forced to relinquish the levers of information.

It is also worth noting that Putin has ordered the responsible government ministries to revise the country's national security doctrine so that it's almost a carbon copy of what recently came out of the Bush administration in the U.S. The Russian defense minister stated on October 29, after coming out of a meeting with Putin, that Russia would strike anywhere anytime against "terrorists, those who finance and inspire them, and their accomplices."

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