BOOK REVIEW: TEN KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING CHECHNYA

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 24

Comite Tchetchenie, Tchetchenie: Dix cles pour comprendre (“Chechnya: Ten Keys for Understanding”). Paris, La Decouverte, 9 bis, rue Abel-Hovelacque, 75013 Paris (www.editionsladecouverte.fr). ISBN 2-7071-3997-1 125 pages. Price: 6.4 Euros (@US$ 7.35).

The situation in Chechnya is changing so rapidly that even the best books soon show their age. Authoritative studies such as Carlotta Gall’s and Thomas de Waal’s “Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus” (1998) or John Dunlop’s “Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict” (1998) provide invaluable historical background, but nothing about the current war. We can be grateful for this new study from the French speaking world’s leading organization devoted to a peaceful settlement of the war, and can hope that it will be published in other languages as well.

Le Comite Tchetchenie (website http://tchetchenieparis.free.fr) makes no pretense of academic neutrality: It is an anti-war organization, founded in September of 1999 specifically for the purpose of “informing and mobilizing public opinion and decision-makers against the war in Chechnya.” The committee therefore deserves all the more praise for producing a study that reflects its authors’ principled opposition to Russia’s current policies, but which nonetheless remains considerably more judicious and even-handed than one usually expects from an advocacy group.

The book’s ten chapters are the work of eleven authors, several of whom have visited the northern Caucasus on missions for human rights or charitable organizations. Frustratingly, the chapters are anonymous; one has to guess which individual author or group of authors is primarily responsible for each one. One also wishes that “Dix cles” had included endnotes with source citations and documentation. The more specific the evidence provided for its conclusions, many of which some key decision-makers simply do not want to hear, the harder it will be for those conclusions to be dismissed.

The authors present their “ten keys” in the form of ten questions, such as “Is this a war for oil?” and “Who is responsible for the violence against civilians?” Among their most compelling chapters is the one that poses the question “Are the Islamic fundamentalists responsible for this war?” The author or authors of this chapter provide some welcome clarification to this often misunderstood subject.

“Dix cles” properly emphasizes the late arrival of Islam in Chechnya (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) and the marginal status of the puritanical, Saudi-based Wahhabi movement, which has always been alien to the Chechen religious mentality. (Only 0.9 percent of the Chechen electorate voted for Movladi Udugov, the most Wahhabi-oriented of the candidates in the 1997 presidential race.) At the same time the book avoids the mistake of over-emphasizing the far more widespread Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya brotherhoods, which play social as well as religious roles. These institutions check and balance the even more deeply rooted clan structures of Chechen society. Two Chechens can belong to the same “teip” or clan but not to the same “vird” or branch of a Muslim brotherhood. It is worth remembering that Dzhokhar Dudaev and Aslan Maskhadov belonged to different brotherhoods.

The chapter on Islam is especially helpful in understanding how religious ideology does and does not motivate the rebel guerrilla bands. As the author (or authors) observes, “One does not join an Islamic battalion because one is an Islamist, but rather one becomes an Islamist in order to be integrated into the battalion in which one already wants to fight for other reasons (because ties of family, friendship or community make it easier to enter, or because it has better weapons, or enjoys greater military prestige).” Hence, they note a “great fluidity and mobility between groups”–some guerrillas have been able to “navigate” between Islamist units and more secular ones. Some even switch back and forth between the hard-drinking customs of mainstream Chechen male society and the abstinence from alcohol expected in religiously stricter units.

Thus “Dix cles” advises that we use terms such as “Wahhabi” or “Islamist” in a relativistic way. Elements usually seen as irreconcilable, such as the Wahhabi and Sufi traditions, are often combined in one individual and adapted to his concrete situation. We should note that “many combinations can be seen: One can be a Sufi and an Islamic commander, a Sufi and a partisan of Sharia law, etc.” Also, there is reason to suspect that the Wahhabi movement may have been manipulated by the Russians for their own purposes: For example, the ties between the Wahhabis and the now-disgraced oligarch Boris Berezovsky have never been fully explained. Almost incredibly, an official Russian state commission on extremism actually stated in 1998 that Wahhabism was not an extremist movement and did not constitute a danger to Russia.

Thanks to the war itself and to the resulting social turmoil, Wahhabi influence has been growing; this is one reason for the balancing act pursued by Maskhadov. Haunted by the fear of a civil war, says “Dix cles,” he has chosen to incorporate Islamists into his apparat and thus to try to control them, rather than excluding them from power and then seeing them constitute themselves as the opposition.

What about allegations of Chechen links to al Qaeda and similar movements? “Dix cles” reminds us that not one Chechen has been arrested among the foreign militants fighting for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, even though that regime was the only foreign state to give Chechnya formal diplomatic recognition as an independent state. The book notes that the number of foreign militants fighting in Chechnya is in the hundreds, not the thousands–and that some of these are Muslims from immediately neighboring countries in the Caucasus while others are Ukrainians or Balts. One can be certain only that al Qaeda propaganda gives prominent mention to the Chechnya struggle.

“Dix cles” also includes a useful list of Chechnya-related websites, in both French and English. Its publisher is now seeking help to produce the book in English; interested readers can contact Delphine Ribouchon, e-mail .