North Caucasus Rebels Seek to Expand into Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Azerbaijan

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 36

Last fall, the top leader of the rebels in the North Caucasus Dokka Umarov declared the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate, an underground state that unites all rebel groups in the Caucasus in one political structure. In the statement declaring the Emirate, Umarov stressed that the Caucasus Emirate “will have no fixed borders.” One could assume that Dokka Umarov meant that the rebels would try to expand their activity from the Caucasian republics northward to ethnic Russian-dominated Stavropol Krai and Krasnodar Krai. However, it now seems that the insurgents are also trying to expand their activity to the south—to the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Azerbaijan.

Umarov said in the same statement that “we have bases along the whole Caucasus, from Azerbaijan to Abkhazia.” At the time Umarov made his declaration—the end of 2007—it sounded more like bravado. Yet now given the recent events in northern Azerbaijan, one should take this declaration more seriously. Clashes between rebel groups from Dagestan and Azeri forces that took place in August and September in parts of Azerbaijan adjacent to Russia (North Caucasus Weekly, September 11) demonstrated that the North Caucasian insurgency indeed has the capability to set up its guerrilla network in the regions of Azerbaijan populated by minorities from Dagestan—the Lezgins, Avars and Kumyks.

The recent events in Azerbaijan also make the rebels’ declaration a more vital issue given that they claim that they also have supporters in Abkhazia. A majority of Abkhaz regards Georgia as their main enemy and look at the Russian authorities as their main defender from Georgian domination. However, some Abkhaz Muslims may have another opinion.

There are three main religions in Abkhazia: Orthodox Christianity, paganism and Islam. Paganism in Abkhazia has deep historical roots, while Christianity and Islam do not have a significant weight in Abkhaz society. Many Abkhaz can be called Muslims or Christians only nominally. The primitive state of Abkhaz society gives an opportunity for Muslim and Christian preachers to spread their religions to more and more pagans in Abkhazia. As has happened elsewhere, propaganda on behalf of Islam has been more effective in Abkhazia than propaganda on behalf of Christianity. A group of devout Abkhaz Muslims positioned itself as an active and independent force in the republic. Khamzat Gitsba became the main unofficial leader of the Muslim community in Abkhazia. He had become the imam of the first mosque in the republic, in the town of Gudaouta.

Abkhaz Muslims receive financial support from Turkey, where there is a large Abkhaz community, but it is the North Caucasian insurgency that is really interested in spreading Islam in Abkhazia. Only Muslims of the republic can support the rebels’ anti-Russian propaganda. Imam Khamzat Gitsba, who was also nicknamed Rocky because of his big interest in boxing, had close ties with the Chechen rebels and their supporters in Turkey. Some sources even say that he was a brother-in-law of the famous Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, who helped the Abkhaz in their war against the Georgians in 1992-1993 (Kommesrant, August 18, 2007). Gitsba was a member of Shamil Basaev’s squad during the war in Abkhazia and was one of those terrorists who took Russian tourists hostage on the Avrasia ferry in Turkish waters in 1996. The terrorists demanded the end of war in Chechnya (Kavkazky Uzel, August 18, 2007).

Gitsba returned to Abkhazia after 2000 and became a member of the Spiritual Directorate of the Abkhaz Muslims and he opened the first real mosque in the republic. Gitsba had many contacts with informal Muslim leaders in Russia. Whether he was linked with the Caucasian rebels or not, it is now clear that the Russian security services regarded him as a rebel envoy in Abkhazia. On August 17, 2007, Khamzat Gitsba and a guest, a Muslim from Bashkortostan (a Muslims-dominated region in Russia), were killed by unidentified gunmen. At a press conference organized by Abkhazian Muslim leaders after Gitsba’s murder, they made it clear that the imam was most likely killed by Russian or Abkhaz security forces. “We appealed to the leadership of law-enforcement bodies of Abkhazia, informing them about our worries about our security,” they said. “We knew that we were under surveillance and informed the security service about it, but without any results. Finally, the leader of the Abkhaz Muslims was killed.”

The Muslim leaders said that over several years they tried to prove that they had no links with extremists, but the authorities still regarded them as a potential threat to peace and security in Abkhazia (the website of the president of Abkhazia, August 20).

Gitsba’s murder demonstrates that Russia’s security services indeed fear rebel penetration into Abkhazia and have taken measures to prevent it. Even if the rebels cannot initiate military actions against Russian forces on Abkhaz territory, they can use their supporters in the region to buy weapons and ammunition in the republic to use them in the North Caucasus. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are regions where there is a huge black market for weapons that is not easy to control.

Given the porous nature of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz borders with Russia, it does not look like there are any serious obstacles to smuggling weapons and ammunition into Russia. In 2006, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested five Russians for attempting to sell several shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles that they had bought in Abkhazia in the North Caucasus. In 2008, they were sentenced to long prison terms (RIA Novosti, September 3).

Abkhazia is now full of trophy weapons from Georgia, which are difficult to control given the level of corruption in the Russian army, so that the problem of illegal arms trading is becoming more acute there.

The situation in South Ossetia is similar. On March 8, a group of Ossetian Muslim rebels issued a statement saying that they are “analyzing the situation and plan tactical operations in South Iriston (South Ossetia-AS), in the zone of conflict between the Ossetian and Georgian crusaders” (Kavkaz-Center, March 8).

Thus the anti-Russian war in the North Caucasus could easily move to the south.