On August 26, John McCain, the presumptive U.S. presidential candidate for the Republican Party, suggested that “after Russia illegally recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Western countries ought to think about the independence of the North Caucasus and Chechnya.” McCain added: “Russia accuses the West of double standards. We will reply to these accusations of the Kremlin and point to its double standards regarding Chechnya and the North Caucasus” (Georgian Daily, August 29).
This is not the first time that an American politician or government official has linked Chechnya with the issue of the two Georgia’s breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In December 2007, Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew J. Bryza said in an interview with the Azeri TV channel ANS that recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia could negatively influence the situation in the Russian North Caucasus, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan and North Ossetia. Such a strategy looks logical, because pointing to the North Caucasus could be a good way of dissuading the Kremlin from recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
However, the Russian government’s recent decision to recognize the independence of Georgia’s separatist enclaves demonstrates that the Kremlin is not particularly worried that Georgia or the West could do the same thing vis-à-vis Chechnya or other North Caucasian regions. The Russian authorities have already prepared an argument they could use if somebody were to start talking about Chechen independence. That argument is Ramzan Kadyrov.
Almost immediately after McCain’s statement about possible recognition of an independent Chechnya, the pro-Russian president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that he supported Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and insisted that this recognition had no links to the Chechen issue. “I am extremely surprised by statements made by U.S. presidential candidate John McCain and some other American politicians of intent to return to the issue of Chechnya, and all but calling for its independence,” Kadyrov said in a statement.
“There is no connection between the events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the Chechen Republic,” Kadyrov continued. “The Americans try to pull Chechnya by the ears to these events, but this is fruitless,” he noted. “In Chechnya, where Mr. McCain is not known, we’ve had a referendum [in 2003] in which people voted for the constitution, recognizing the Chechen Republic as an integral part of Russia. We have made our choice … We are fed up with conflicts” (Interfax, August 27).
Kadyrov said that McCain is unknown in Chechnya, but ironically Kadyrov’s response to the Republican candidate’s statement, which was widely broadcast by the Russian mass media, has been a kind of advertisement for McCain in the republic. Ordinary Chechens have heard about McCain’s declaration and, according to the independent Russian website Kavkazky Uzel, they support it with great enthusiasm.
A Chechen named Aslan told the website that Ramzan Kadyrov and other leaders of the Caucasian republics are simply clients of Moscow and that their reaction to McCain’s words was predictable. “Kadyrov does not need independence because in that case he will have to cut and run out of here, leaving his luxury mansions and cars behind,” he said (Kavkazky Uzel, August 28).
Another Chechen told Kavkazky Uzel that Chechnya could not exist within the borders of Russia because every 50 years Moscow kills Chechens. “Neither Ramzan or somebody else can talk in the name of the whole Chechen nation,” he told the website. “We do not have so short a memory to forget all the atrocities that were committed in Chechnya by the Russian army.”
A Chechen human rights activist told Kavkazky Uzel that “it is funny to say that in 2003 all Chechens voted for Chechnya [to remain] a part of Russia because there was no real referendum that time. Referendums and elections are not held at gunpoint. I am absolutely sure that a majority of Chechens will vote for independence if the Russian troops withdraw from the region. Kadyrov is the Kremlin’s client and he will always say what comes from above. It is a fate of all puppets: they pretend they can do what they want, but they are just puppets.”
Such opinions are crucial to understanding the real mood of ordinary Chechens, despite the fact that people do not give away their names, apparently for security reasons. Nevertheless, some public figures in the North Caucasus are not afraid to blame the Kremlin openly. “When I see Putin on TV talking about Georgian actions in South Ossetia I feel disgusted,” said Aslanbek Apaev, an expert from Moscow Helsinki Group in the North Caucasus. “All this pompous rhetoric about genocide, mass killings, sufferings of women and children, ethnic cleanings and the fascist regime of Sakaashvili are no more than propaganda. The same could be said about the actions of Moscow in the Chechen Republic during the two military campaigns” (Kavkazky Uzel, August 28).
If anyone is really interested in what people in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus think about their independence from Russia, one should first of all listen seriously to people in the streets and only after that to Ramzan Kadyrov’s declarations. The interviews taken by Kavkazky Uzel demonstrate that if the United States ever recognizes Chechen independence, it could make the Chechens the best friends the U.S. has ever had. These interviews also confirm again that the issue of Chechen independence is still alive.