IF, IN THE 1980s, the South African apartheid regime had killed Nelson Mandela, it would have committed the same kind of blunder that Russian special forces committed this week when they killed the Chechen separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov. This is not because Mr. Maskhadov was in any way similar to Mr. Mandela in personality, values or stature; he was not. But he represented, in Chechnya, the same kind of relative moderation. The South African regime knew that if Mr. Mandela and his allies were not made part of a democratic settlement, it would be left to deal with a younger, more violent and more radical generation of activists later on.
And this is the scenario that has come to pass in Chechnya: With the death of Mr. Maskhadov -- a secular Muslim and a former Soviet army officer -- the Russians are left to face a younger, more violent and more radical generation of activists. The man most likely to emerge as their leader is Shamil Basayev, the terrorist behind the murderous attack on the school in Beslan.
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The death of Mr. Maskhadov probably eliminates for the near future any chance of a diplomatic end to the war in Chechnya. Mr. Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya at a time when Russia recognized the election as legitimate -- had requested talks with Moscow but was repeatedly refused: The Kremlin insisted on calling him a terrorist, despite his condemnation of terrorism, and would not negotiate. On the same grounds, Russian authorities are refusing to hand over what they call "the body of a dead terrorist" to Mr. Maskhadov's family for burial. Thus will the spirit of brutality continue to perpetuate itself in Chechnya.
The Bush administration's non-policy on the Chechnya conflict remains, as it always has been, to state a preference for a "negotiated settlement" but to do nothing in practice. Now that a "negotiated settlement" has been effectively removed as an option, perhaps White House spokesmen should, at the very least, think up a new line.