Political Disunity Mars Chechen Rebel Strategy in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 23

Early this year Chechen separatists began to discuss holding a major meeting among North Caucasian rebel commanders and underground Muslim religious leaders to transform the Caucasian insurgency into a unified political force.

In an interview posted on the Kavkazcenter website on January 9, Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev declared that this spring the rebels would organize a Great Majlis (Great Council) to unite “all Muslims of the North Caucasus” and to proclaim the imam of the North Caucasus as their supreme leader. On January 20, the president of the rebel Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, issued three decrees ordering the creation of a Council of Ulema (Council of Islamic religious scholars) and declaring that the commanders of rebel groups in the republics of the North Caucasus should be made members of the Military Council (Majlis-ul-Shura) of the Chechen rebel field commanders. According to the rebel plans, the members of the Council of Ulema and of the Military Council were to become deputies to the Great Majlis (see Chechnya Weekly, February 2).

The rebels returned to this subject in April. Movladi Udugov, the rebel spokesman, told the Caucasus Times there would be an All-Caucasian Majlis-ul-Shura “in the near future” or that it possibly had just concluded. This time, however, Udugov focused only on military issues that would be discussed at the meeting. He said that rebel activities would intensify in accordance with decisions made by the Shura (Caucasus Times, April 23).

Months later, nothing has been heard about the meeting. Leaders had billed the Great Majlis as a grand event that would rival the summer 2002 Great Chechen Majlis in Chechnya. At that meeting almost all Chechen field commanders, as well as some Chechen elders and members of the separatist parliament elected in 1997, gathered in a mountain forest to resolve all conflicts among the rebel groups and to declare the start of an offensive to “liberate Chechen land from Russian occupiers.” Even journalists from some Arab newspapers managed to attend. Separatist websites subsequently posted video footage from the event.

Observers believed that the proposed 2006 Majlis would be an even a greater show and that a documentary video would appear on the Kavkazcenter website showing religious scholars and rebel commanders from all over the Caucasus pledging an oath to their leader, Imam Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev. However, nothing seemed to come of these plans. In May, Akhmed Zakaev, the Chechen rebel envoy outside Russia, told a Radio Liberty correspondent that Chechen field commander Doku Umarov had informed him by phone that the great council of rebel field commanders had already taken place in Chechnya. Zakaev did not say whether political issues had been discussed during the meeting or whether Sadulaev had been proclaimed imam of the North Caucasus. Apparently, the rebels had encountered some problems and decided not to hurry with an official declaration of North Caucasian independence led by Sadulaev.

Relations among different Caucasian ethnic groups have never been easy. During the Caucasian war of the 19th century, the nations of the North Caucasus united many times to fight against Russia, but they could never formulate a unified list of political demands or peace proposals to present to the Russian authorities. In 1837, when Russian Emperor Nicholas I visited the North Caucasus, local leaders failed to organize a unified delegation to meet him. Instead, representatives of each nation had their own demands for the tsar (Mayrbek Vachagaev, Chechnya in the 19th Century Caucasian Wars). Russia has always been able to exploit disagreements among the Caucasian groups in order to control the region.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the North Caucasian republics faced a new factor in the regional equation: the independent Chechen state. The attitudes of other Caucasian nations towards Chechnya are not simple. While the Caucasians admire the ability of the Chechen nation to defend its independence against Russian invasion, they are also afraid that an independent Chechnya would dominate the Caucasus. Although anti-Russian feelings are growing across the Caucasus, many locals are not ready to recognize Chechen leadership over the whole region. Islamic separatists are ready to accept military support from the Chechen rebels, but not all of them would welcome Sadulaev as their political leader.

When talking to Jamestown, one well-known public figure in Kabardino-Balkaria did not hide his sympathy for the rebels who attacked Nalchik, the republic capital, on October 13, 2005. Nevertheless, he fiercely rejected the claim that all Caucasian rebels were operating under the control of Chechen field commanders. “Of course,” he said, “they [the rebels] have a unified network all over the Caucasus and they cooperate with each other, but at the same time the insurgency in each republic has its own leadership.”

Afraid of inspiring anti-Chechen feelings, the Chechen separatists are usually very cautious when they talk about establishing an independent state in the Caucasus. Sadulaev has always tried to stress the equality of all Caucasian regions and of all Caucasian rebel groups in his statements. “In the future,” he has said, “there are plans for creating a confederative state like the European Union” (see Chechnya Weekly, February 16). However, since Sadulaev has not officially been proclaimed imam of the North Caucasus, it means that he is still hard put to convince all North Caucasians who are in the anti-Russian camp that they need to have a single political structure and a single political leader.

This is not likely to influence the military strength of the Caucasian insurgency, since all the rebels in the region are determined to fight Russia together and to coordinate their operations with the Chechens. Regardless of whether the militants in Kabardino-Balkaria or Dagestan recognize Sadulaev as their political leader, all of them need the experience and the military skills of Basaev and other Chechen commanders. The Caucasian rebels cannot recognize Sadulaev as their political leader, but they must recognize Basaev as their supreme military commander for the sake of their own their survival. Nevertheless, if negotiations between the rebels and the Kremlin start one day, the political disunity of the North Caucasian insurgency could make their dialogue with Russia even more complicated.