When the Candidate was a Terrorist

By turns, Shamil Basayev has been an Islamist terrorist in the murderous mold of Osama bin Laden, a top candidate for the presidency of Chechnya and the Chechen prime minister. Now he is back in his Osama bin Laden mode.

As Americans debate future foreign policy–in an era when terrorism is the greatest threat–we would do well to study the Russian experience with Basayev. It raises the question: Will promoting democracy in remote lands be effective in defending America against terrorists?

Basayev took credit last week for the hostage-taking raid on the school in Beslan, Russia. He also claimed responsibility for other recent terror attacks: the suicide bombing of two Russian jetliners, a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station, another bombing at a Moscow bus stop.

For Russians, it was no surprise Basayev was behind the Beslan raid. He had done this before.

In Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucuses co-authors Carlotta Gall and Thomas De Waal, who worked as reporters for the Moscow Times during the first Russo-Chechen war, describe the June 14, 1995, raid Basayev personally led against the Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Basayev and his raiders shot up the police station, rounded up civilians–“many of them old men and women and housewives sitting at home”–and blockaded themselves in a hospital with more than 1,000 hostages.

He was contemptuous of innocent life. “I thought, what difference is there, whatever means I use, if they are Russian, they are jackals. My people are more important to me than these Russian children or women,” Gall and De Waal quote him as saying.

After the Russians failed to free the hostages through force, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chenomyrdin agreed to allow Basayev and his terrorists safe passage back to Chechnya in a convoy of buses. They took hostages with them as human shields.

A year later, Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from Chechen territory and allow a Chechen presidential and parliamentary election. But the Russians did not recognize Chechen independence, saying Chechnya’s status should be decided in five years.

Now, Basayev, the bloody terrorist, became Basayev, the presidential candidate.

His main opponent was Aslan Maskhadov, the one-time Soviet colonel who had commanded Chechen forces in the war. Both candidates stood for Chechen independence, but Maskhadov was deemed the “moderate”.

Basayev ran on his war record. “Candidate Basayev,” reported the Philadelphia Inquirer, “has compiled what amounts to a greatest-hits video of his audacious war exploits and turned it into a campaign advertisement. At any hour of the day or night, people in this ruined land can tune to a pro-Basayev television station and watch graphic reruns of the most savage moments in Chechnya’s 21-month-long war with Moscow, all starring the controversial rebel. There’s Basayev, the daring commander, laying siege to the Russian town of Budennovsk, where civilian hostages were doused with gasoline.”

One Basayev supporter told Moscow Times correspondent Gall: “I voted for Basayev because I want to show Russia that they may see him as a terrorist, but we do not.”

To the relief of the Russians, Maskhadov beat Basayev, 59.3% to 23.5%. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent 72 observers to monitor the elections, raved about its fairness. “It’s astonishing that out of death and destruction comes an election which can be termed free and can be termed fair,” said then-OSCE Chairman Niels Helveg Peterson of Denmark.

Then Maskhadov named Basayev deputy prime minister. A year later, he made Basayev prime minister and asked him to form a government. But by October 1998, Basayev was out of the government, calling for Maskhadov’s removal. “We do not want to behead Maskhadov,” the Associated Press reported him saying. “We do not crave his blood. [But] we say he is not fit to serve as the Chechen president.”

In August 1999, fighting broke out near the Chechen border of the southern Russian region of Dagestan. “Mr. Basayev,” reported Reuters, “said he planned to lead the revolt and would not stop until ‘infidels’ were expelled from the North Caucasus.” Russian troops reentered Chechnya. War was on again.

Five years later, former Prime Minister Basayev remains at large, plotting evils acts such as blowing up airplanes and seizing schoolchildren.

Obviously, the Russian experience differs greatly from our own. They lack our splendid armed forces, our great wealth and our matchless democratic tradition. And certainly we wish democracy, and liberty, for all peoples. But if free and fair elections could not defeat, contain, or long deter, Shamil Basayev in Chechnya, is it realistic to assume they will defeat, contain or long deter, terrorists elsewhere?