Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 43

Early in November, the Kavkazcenter website posted a short video film showing Chechen rebel president Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev visiting secret bases in the mountains to meet with rank-and-file guerrillas. One can see Sadulaev sitting and eating together with mujahideen and answering their questions. The most surprising aspect of the visit was that Sadulaev speaks with the militants in Russian, which means that the group of militants with whom he was speaking did not consist of Chechens alone. It is the first clear confirmation of information suggesting that an increasing number of non-Chechen fighters are joining the insurgency. In his speech on the video, Sadulaev Abdul-Khalim speaks not only about Chechnya but also about Dagestan. Sitting in the center, he has the commander of the Chechen Eastern Front on his left and Rappani Khalilov, the leader of the Dagestani insurgency, on his right. It can be inferred from Sadulaev’s speech that, in addition to Chechens, his audience included Avars and Laks, two minority groups in multiethnic Dagestan.

Another interesting aspect of the film lies in its title: “Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev visits bases in the south of Chechnya,” with no mention of Sadulaev’s title as the separatist Chechen government’s president.

Almost simultaneously with the release of the film, a group of radical Chechens—Movladi Udugov, the rebel spokesman; Saad Minkhailov, a political scientist; and Usuf Ibragim, a journalist—held an Internet session to discuss the future of Chechnya and the North Caucasus after “the expulsion of the occupiers.” The main theme of their discussion was that it was useless now to talk only about independence. Kavkazcenter posted the exchange on November 7.

“The issue has already left the borders of Chechnya,” said Usuf Ibragim. “One should understand that not only the problem of Chechnya, but the problem of the whole North Caucasus will have to be resolved. Our enemies speak for us, saying that we are talking about a territory from sea to sea. And we, too, recognize that it would not make sense to limit ourselves to 17,000 square kilometers [the area of Chechnya].” Ibragim added that it was not only the opinion of the separatists, but also of the Muslims of the North Caucasus, who “demonstrate their choice by organizing military jamaats.”

Following Ibragim, Movladi Udugiv raised the issue of Abdul-Khalim’s status. “Mujahideen of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia had given an oath to Sheikh Abdul-Khalim. It is well known that Abdul-Khalim is the president of Ichkeria. In this case one can ask: if the Muslims of the Caucasian regions gave an oath to Sheikh Abdul-Khalim, does it mean that he is the Emir (the ruler) of these territories? If it is so, his power cannot be limited to the Chechen leadership.”

Udugov’s words explain why the session was organized: to prepare public opinion for declaring Sadulaev the leader of the Caucasus rather than of Chechnya alone.

It is likely that this is not simply Udugov’s idea, but a new strategy of the Chechen separatists. In a statement posted by the separatist Chechenpress website on September 17, Sadulaev openly declared: “Russia will not only leave Chechnya, but also the Caucasus.”

The rebels explain the legitimacy of Sadulaev’s new status by Sharia Islamic law. “Sheikh Abdul-Khalim has become the most legitimate leader of Chechnya and of the North Caucasus since the time of Sheikh Mansur, Imam Shamil, and Sheik Uzun-Khadzhi [leaders of the anti-Russian rebellions in the Caucasus in the 18th and the 19th centuries],” Udugov declared. “The Muslims of the Caucasus have reconstructed the Sharia legitimacy of the Islamic state de-facto and de jure.” According to the Islamic doctrine used by the rebels, Sadulaev’s legitimacy as a Caucasian leader is based on his status as Sheikh, the highest religious position in the Muslim world, and all the Muslims of the region should obey him because he is directing a jihad against the enemies of Islam.

Clearly, the separatists no longer see any sense in claiming that they have spread the war beyond Chechnya in order to force the Kremlin to negotiate with them about the status of the republic. Even if they wanted to do so, their allies in other Caucasian regions would not let them do this. In Shamil Basaev’s letter to Vladimir Putin, which was handed over to the Russian authorities by the terrorist group that had seized the school in Beslan, the Chechen warlord offered to stop the rebels’ armed struggle in the republics of the North Caucasus in exchange of for recognition of Chechen independence. The commanders of the non-Chechen rebel groups were furious at Basaev’ proposal. They did not like the idea that the Chechens just wanted to use them to achieve their personal goals. Clearly, the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria or Dagestan will not just give up after the end of the Chechen war.

At the same time, the Chechen rebels do not want to look like imperialists who fight to control new territories and impose their leadership on neighboring nations. They want the situation to look as if the spread of the war was provoked by Russian policy in the Caucasus. “Today the nations of Russia are awake,” Sadulaev declared in a statement posted by Chechenpress on November 11. “Having no other methods to fight Russian policy, the uprising groups have become comrades-in-arms of the Chechen fighters.” However, the rebel leader did not hide the leading role of the Chechen resistance by saying that the Chechen militants will help the insurgents in other regions of Russia by all means. We can see now that this assistance is not confined to the military sphere, but goes wider, with Sadulaev becoming the political leader of the North Caucasian anti-Russian resistance.