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Surrealpolitik

Akhmadov fidgeted with his frothy stein while our burgers arrived. He was surprisingly particular about his beer. It had to be Sam Adams, and it had to be draft, not bottled. "You don't need to write that," he fretted. "I don't know how it would go over back home."

By back home, of course, he meant Chechnya's capital, Grozny, though it's unlikely he can ever set foot there again. He was worried that some factions of the Chechen resistance might react badly to news that their unofficial representative in America consumes alcohol. Most Chechens are only nominally Muslim, thanks to 70 years of Soviet-enforced atheism and centuries of cultural isolation. But a more firebrand form of fundamentalism has taken root in some quarters of the underground, which has fallen under the sway of al Qaeda-type radicals from the Middle East who came to Chechnya in the 1990s to help fight the Russians and preach jihad. Unfortunately for Akhmadov, the head of Chechnya's deadliest jihadist movement is his former friend and field commander, Shamil Basayev, the man who in an Internet posting asserted responsibility for killing more than 300 people, most of them schoolchildren, in Beslan. A hero of Chechnya's war of independence, a former deputy prime minister and in many ways Akhmadov's mentor, Basayev has split from the mainstream resistance and started routinely targeting Russians.

Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov might look like a Washington wonk, but he's among Russia's most wanted fugitives. (Greg Miller)

"With Beslan," said Akhmadov, who was in the United States at the time and, like many Chechen leaders, condemns terrorism, "Basayev cast a death sentence on all of Chechnya and any hope of a negotiated settlement. He has dug our national grave, and foolishly played right into Putin's hands."

Basayev, who is in hiding somewhere in the Caucasus region, is unavailable to join the debate, but what Akhmadov says about him is a common refrain among those in Washington who follow developments in the Caucasus for a living. "The Russians are trying to treat Chechen separatism through the prism of 9/11 and terror rather than as a nationalist movement that has been defying Kremlin rule for 200 years," explains Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank with roots in the Cold War that has long taken a critical view of Russia and is among Akhmadov's most ardent backers. "Unfortunately, the strategy has been very successful."

Akhmadov took a long, frustrated swig of his beer. He developed an affinity for the Massachusetts ale during his days in Boston, where the immigration courts spent months grilling him on his relationship with Basayev. That the two were once close, Akhmadov does not deny.

"I remember the first time I met him," he said. It was in 1992, a heady time. Akhmadov had gotten his master's degree in political science after serving five years in the Soviet strategic nuclear rocket forces, had done a stint teaching high school and was looking to get involved in the democratic movements sweeping the former Soviet bloc. One after another, the 15 republics of the U.S.S.R. had declared independence, and Chechnya had followed suit. But unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states or Kazakhstan, Chechnya was an internal republic of the new Russian Federation. Grozny had declared independence not from the Soviet Union but from Russia proper, a dangerous precedent that could pave the way for any of the federation's 88 other provinces to split. While the separatist movement was alarming in Moscow, there was too much chaos in the wake of the Soviet collapse to do anything about it at the time.

Basayev had been among the thousands of people on the barricades with Boris Yeltsin in 1991 defending the parliament building against hard-line Communist coup-plotters. At 27, he was a few years younger than Akhmadov, and seemed almost terminally shy at their first meeting, Akhmadov recalled. "He was addressing a group of soldiers. Big, tough guys. His voice was barely a whisper, and he never looked up from the ground when he spoke. But all these huge guys hung on his every word. I was amazed by his quiet authority, the obvious respect these fighters had for him."

The reason for that respect quickly became apparent when the first Chechen war started in late 1994. Yeltsin, who by then had called out the tanks to put down a parliamentary revolt the year before, was contemplating a run at a second term as president in the 1996 election. Trailing badly at the polls, with only single-digit support, he launched what his advisers assured him would be a brief and popular campaign to return Chechnya to the Russian fold. A short, victorious war, as his advisers described the offensive, would restore Yeltsin's standing with the voting public. Akhmadov was in Moscow when he heard state television read a telegram from a pro-Kremlin faction in Chechnya asking Yeltsin to reinstate constitutional order in the breakaway republic. He says he knew instantly a war had begun: "In 1979, state television had broadcast an almost identical message for help from Afghanistan. So it meant only one thing."

Akhmadov rushed home and signed up as a foot soldier in a unit Basayev was organizing to defend the outskirts of Grozny. "I found my old [Red Army] uniform and borrowed a revolver from a neighbor." The gun only had seven rounds of ammunition, but Akhmadov supplemented his meager arsenal with two hand grenades, borrowed from another neighbor. Ironically, his old Soviet army-issue fatigues almost cost him his life. On his way to link up with one of Basayev's ragtag battalions, Akhmadov suddenly found himself under intense machine-gun fire. "I hit the ground, and bullets went right between my arms and legs," he laughed. "I was furious. The guy firing at me was a Chechen. When he emptied his clip, I shouted, 'You idiot, I'm one of yours.' 'Me, idiot?' he yelled back. 'You're the one going around dressed like a Russian.'"

Basayev, meanwhile, was quickly proving himself an able commander. From the war's first skirmish, in which Russian tank battalions masqueraded as pro-Kremlin Chechen forces, Basayev displayed cunning and courage. "We were terrified," Akhmadov recalled. "But Basayev told us not to worry, that tanks only make good targets for RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades, a favorite weapon of insurgents]. Well, we routed the offensive, and captured 60 Russian tank officers."

From there, Basayev's reputation as a daring field commander only grew. "Everyone wanted to be in his battalion. He was a master tactician and had the lowest casualty rates. It was astonishing. He remembered the name of every single soldier under his command, and knew their strengths and weaknesses."

Basayev, Akhmadov recalled, never invoked religion as a rallying cry in the early days of the war. "We had foreigners, mostly Arab veterans of Afghanistan, who came to join the fight and preach jihad," Akhmadov remembered. "But Basayev treated them with contempt and kept his distance. He used to make jokes about the fundamentalists. He called them blockheads."

If Basayev had made an impression on Akhmadov, Akhmadov must have also favorably impressed his commander, because Basayev promoted him out of the ranks and appointed him his aide. Later, Basayev introduced him to Maskhadov, a rebel commander who would be elected Chechen president in 1997 after forcing Moscow to sign a humiliating cease-fire. Eventually Maskhadov would appoint Akhmadov his foreign minister.

"What about Budyonnovsk?" I asked. A pained expression formed on Akhmadov's narrow, intense features. "Yes," he acknowledged, after a few seconds' pause. "That's where Basayev first crossed the line."

Budyonnovsk was the site of a 1995 raid, ostensibly targeting a forward Russian helicopter base 100 miles north of the Chechen border. Basayev and a group of 150 heavily armed commandos, according to the Chechen version of the story, were repelled from the base and chased to a nearby hospital, where the commandos took more than 1,000 hostages in a weeklong standoff. Using the patients and staff as human shields, the Chechen version goes, Basayev was able to return safely to Chechnya, though more than 100 Russian hostages died when Russian forces tried unsuccessfully to storm the hospital.

Moscow has a different version of the events, asserting that the whole enterprise was intended as a terror tactic, that the hospital was always the intended target and that the Russian hostages were executed by the Chechen rebels, and not the victims of Russian friendly fire. Akhmadov says he had been hospitalized with a leg injury during the Budyonnovsk siege and was not privy to its planning or execution. But he remembers being troubled by the use of civilians. "This is the sort of thing the Russians did, intentionally target noncombatants." As soon as he had convalesced, he sought out Basayev. "I asked what the truth was," he recalls. "And he was very evasive." Basayev had not wanted to discuss the operational details, and Akhmadov said he had let the matter drop out of respect for the man who had defended Grozny on so many occasions. Akhmadov now concedes that he did not grasp the raid's full implications. "It was war -- we had stray dogs eating corpses in Grozny, and different rules seemed to apply. You, too, in America," he added, "are learning this in Iraq." With the benefit of hindsight, he said, "I think [Basayev] realized that even if he had failed to take out the attack helicopters, he had nonetheless scored a huge psychological victory. All of Russia watched while the Kremlin was powerless to stop him. I think the success of Budyonnovsk started him thinking like a terrorist."

But Basayev was still a hero to most Chechens, including Akhmadov. After the August 1996 Russian withdrawal, President Maskhadov named Basayev deputy prime minister. "Maskhadov needed to unify the country," said Akhmadov. Chechnya, at the time, was in complete chaos. Much like Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, the tiny enclave quickly degenerated into a lawless chasm of feuding clans. There was no economy to speak of.


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