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Putin's hand in Chechnya

THE KILLING of Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997, leaves many questions unanswered. Because the official Russian version of the event is unclear -- giving credit to the KGB's successor agency but also to an experienced Maskhadov bodyguard who allegedly fired his weapon accidentally -- there is no certainty about how Maskhadov was killed, when he died, or who really killed him.

The most important question, however, concerns the intent of Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Putin's stance toward the conflict with the Chechens has been stubbornly bellicose. Putin persisted in branding Maskhadov a terrorist bandit and disregarding the Chechen leader's repeated offers of dialogue, which could have led to a negotiated political resolution of a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 Chechens and more Russians than were lost during the war in Afghanistan. The Putin line was not merely that Maskhadov's offers to negotiate were insincere or untrustworthy but that in any case Maskhadov had no authority to deliver on any agreement.

This Kremlin assertion was made to look particularly vapid when Maskhadov declared a weeklong cease-fire in late February that was observed until the Feb. 22 anniversary of Stalin's 1944 deportations of all Chechens from the Soviet Union. The stark fact that Chechen fighters heeded the Makhadov call for a cease-fire made Putin look foolish.

No less foolish was the strategy of pretending -- while Maskhadov was alive -- that Putin had nobody among the Chechens with whom the Russians could negotiate. Maskhadov said in an interview posted this month on the Kavkaz Center website: ''We believe that 30 minutes of honest dialogue face to face is enough to stop this war and explain to the president of the Russian Federation what the Chechens want." Many Russians outside Putin's orbit believed that Maskhadov was both sincere in his desire for a political solution of the conflict with Moscow and capable of bringing the Chechen people along with him in the event of an internationally backed peace settlement. An organization of mothers of Russian soldiers held a meeting recently in London with Maskhadov's representative there, Akhmad Zakayev, and declared afterward that the terrorism springing from the war with Chechnya was the consequence of Putin's ''shortsighted and criminal policies."

The crucial question that hangs over Maskhadov's murder is whether Putin is waging war in Chechnya out of an unthinking Stalinist reflex or whether he wants to prolong the conflict so that he can use his own war on terrorism as justification for an increasing concentration of power in the Kremlin.

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