Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 228

Yesterday federal forces backed by members of the militia headed by Bislan Gantemirov, the former mayor of Grozny (the Chechen capital, now called Djohar), occupied the town of Urus-Martan, the main center of resistance in western Chechnya (Russian agencies, December 8).

The taking of Urus-Martan is unquestionably a victory for the federal forces. Following the end of the 1994-1996 war, Urus-Martan became the center for the so-called “Wahhabis” in Chechnya and the main bastion of the most radical and anti-Russian of Chechnya’s field commanders. As used in the former Soviet Union, the term “Wahhabi” is a catch-all for various groups of Islamic fundamentalists, whose ideology in fact differs greatly from Wahhabi Islam. In Chechnya and other Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, relations between the authorities in various republics and Muslim fundamentalists remain extremely tense. In July 1998, an armed confrontation took place in the Chechen town of Gudermes between fundamentalists and units loyal to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov accused the “Wahhabis” of inciting violence and began to take active measures to neutralize them. It was at this time that Urus-Martan became a center of anti-Maskhadov resistance and a de-facto ministate. In particular, Urus-Martan became the base for Mullah Bagauddin, an Islamic fundamentalist leader from neighboring Dagestan, who advocated that republic’s secession from Russia. Maskhadov signed a decree ordering Bagauddin’s deportation from Chechnya, but Bagauddin continued to operate in Urus-Martan without hindrance. Dzharull Gadzhimagomedov, a fundamentalist leader from the Dagestani town of Karamakhi, reportedly was recently seen in Urus-Martan (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 9).

Urus-Martan became, in essence, the base for the most radical Chechen and Dagestani field commanders–those who see “liberating the entire North Caucasus from the Russian occupiers” as their goal. It also became known as one of the main centers for the hostage trade. Arbi Baraev, one of the most influential field commanders there, was better known in Chechnya as a key player in this criminal business. For instance, about a year ago, Baraev’s group kidnapped four British telecommunications engineers. After the kidnappers were unable to negotiate the ransom they sought, the engineers were accused of espionage and beheaded. As a rule, the Chechen government’s secret services knew where such hostages were being held but were unable to free them, because this would have led to a war with the fundamentalists. Maskhadov and the fundamentalists made peace with each other only after the start of the current Russian military operation, when Chechen field commanders of various political orientations united against the Russian army.

It is interesting that Bislan Gantemirov’s armed militia joined the Russian forces in occupying Urus-Martan. In 1991, Gantemirov, who himself hailed from Urus-Martan and served as its governor from 1991-1993, set up a presidential guard which helped Djohar Dudaev come to power. In 1993, however, Gantemirov and his armed followers went into opposition to Dudaev, and set up their base in Urus-Martan. In 1995, after Urus-Martan was occupied by Russian forces, Gantemirov again became Grozny’s mayor. However, in May 1996, he was arrested and jailed by the Russian authorities, who accused him of stealing funds earmarked for rebuilding the Chechen capital. Last month, Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly amnestied Gantemirov, who, with the Kremlin’s blessing, immediately began to put together a new private militia to support the Russian forces operating in Chechnya. Just after being released from prison, Gantemirov told the Monitor’s correspondent that he was counting, above all, on support from the residents of Urus-Martan. The Kremlin’s calculation in freeing Gantemirov from prison was clear: Prior to the introduction of Russian forces there in December 1994, he had genuinely enjoyed great authority among the Chechens. However the Gantemirov card is unlikely to work today, given that he discredited himself in the eyes of most Chechens after agreeing to cooperate with federal forces in 1994.