Basayev's Death and Putin's Standing
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
More now on some of the points that Gregory Feifer just raised. More from Andrew Meier, who joins us from New York. He wrote the book Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict. Welcome back to the program, Andrew Meier.
Mr. ANDREW MEIER (Author, Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict): Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: In Shamil Basayev, do you think the Chechen separatists have lost a symbol? A leader of unique importance? Or one leader among many of equal stature?
Mr. MEIER: Well, you know, I think in some of the commentary that's already come out. They've compared Basayev to the Jordanian al-Zarqawi, who was so vexing to the Americans and coalition forces in Iraq. It's an inexact analogy. Basayev is much, much more. He's really, he was the Che Guevara of the Chechen separatist movement. He was not only its chief strategist; he was really its heart and soul for over a decade. This is a man who has planned and executed an unprecedented series of terrorist attacks on a mass scale that reaped not only hundreds and thousands of dead but also a tremendous amount of publicity for the Chechen cause.
And as you know, Chechnya, this is the one issue that Mr. Putin cares most about. It's the one button that, when you press it, he gets emotional. And the death of Basayev will be a tremendous triumph for him.
SIEGEL: And what is the currency of that triumph? Is it greater public support in Russia? Does he fare better at the G8 summit because of it? What do you say?
FEIFER: It's all of those things. You know, Russia's still a land in turmoil. We often don't see it in scanning the headlines. It is a country still in economic limbo, flush with oil dollars. It's an outsized petro-state.
But it's also a place where Putin has his own unruly oligarchs. He's selectively prosecuted some of them, quite effectively, obviously silencing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was the former head of the YUKOS oil giant.
But there are others who've taken his place and who don't always see eye-to-eye with Mr. Putin. There's also, of course, the old Russian diseases: corporate greed and old state corruption, alcoholism. And new diseases, things like TB, HIV, that Mr. Putin has to deal with.
Chechnya, however, is the open wound. It's after a decade it is still the one thing that unites all Russians in a quandary, and Mr. Basayev was literally the embodiment of that problem.
SIEGEL: So you're saying to a public that might well ask of its president, what have you done for us lately, he can say, as of today, well, we got Basayev.
Mr. MEIER: No question about it. This is something that will play very big and he will use it as effectively as he possibly can at home. Also coming, you know, coincidentally in the same week, just on the eve of the G8, it's extremely important for Mr. Putin. This is a man who, as you know, cares deeply about how he appears on the world stage. He is easily offended and obviously this is a tense time between Washington and Moscow.
You had Vice President Cheney in Lithuania give a speech which was remarkable in its acerbic and acidic language. He spoke about manipulation, blackmail, intimidation, language that we haven't heard for years from Washington. So this is one thing that both Washington and Moscow have worked on and will agree on: that terrorists, like Mr. Basayev, need to be eliminated, liquidated in Mr. Putin's phrase.
SIEGEL: So when the G8 gather, there will be Prime Minister Tony Blair just after the subway bombings in London, and President Bush with Iraq on his hands. And President Put suddenly looking like someone who has scored some successes in dealing with a domestic insurgency.
Mr. MEIER: This is, as I say, this is the element Putin enjoys most. It's where he's most comfortable. You know, if you remember back in the months after 9/11, Putin called Mr. Bush, they had a great rapport, there was a united war on terrorism. This was an area that Mr. Putin felt most secure in, that Chechnya suddenly was no longer seen as a separatist region within Russia, it was seen as a new front in the war on terror. That's where he feels most comfortable.
SIEGEL: Your book was called Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict. I want you to talk about the heart of this conflict when, after Basayev is gone, after Vladimir Putin has initiated a policy of Chechenization of it, what's it all about? What is the conflict between Russians and Chechens?
Mr. MEIER: Well, that's really the question at the crux of it all. They have centuries of enmity between them. Originally, under Boris Yeltsin, the war, of course, started as a political war for a separatist movement. People who wanted independence. Shamil Basayev himself was not a radical Muslim. He became more and more Islamist, more and more radical, more and more militant in the years of the war.
Today, however, there is this young generation of young Chechens who grew up only in war. They speak very poor Russian. They are unschooled. They are only schooled in Islamist thought and in military tactics, paramilitary tactics. And unfortunately they have proven time and again that they're quite adept at it. So will it go away? It doesn't look likely at any time soon. Mr. Putin is well aware of that. He can bask in the glory and the rhetoric that was sure to follow the demise of Shamil Basayev, but it is unlikely that the Chechen conflict will go away any time soon.
SIEGEL: Andrew Meier, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. MEIER: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Andrew Meier, who wrote Chechnya: To The Heart Of A Conflict, is a former Moscow correspondent. He's now a fellow at the Coleman Center of the New York Public Library.
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