After the death of Aslan Maskhadov on March 8, 2005, experts have noted a number of reasons behind the radicalization of the Chechen resistance. First, Shamil Basaev attained significant influence over power ministries with his appointment as the leading figure of the Islamist struggle in Chechnya. Second, Chechen Acting President, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev has left little doubt about his willingness to rule out compromise with Russia in any peace negotiation. Third, on several occasions over the past summer, both men gave priority to armed operations throughout the North Caucuses.
Importantly, Shamil Basaev, the mastermind of the bloody hostage-taking operations in Moscow (Dubrovka Theater in October 2002) and in Beslan (School no 1, North Ossetia in September 2003), has not assumed total control of the Chechen resistance. Nor is the new separatist leader a puppet in his hands. Chechen politics are far more complicated and do not revolve around a single person. It was Maskhadov’s death that brought Sadulaev to power and radicalized the conflict, rather than Basaev’s comeback to the political scene. Shamil Basaev’s influence is often overestimated; he is not a political figure in Chechnya. His political program is neither Islamist, nationalist, nor an Islamo-nationalist admixture. According to his own words, he is fighting to “defend freedom and independence, to stop the undisguised genocide of the Chechen people.” His only clear political aim is the withdrawal of Russian forces.
Basaev’s appointment to the Cabinet of Ministers reflects his military and symbolic authority, rather than his political prowess. Basaev’s responsibilities, like Doku Umarov’s within the Chechen resistance, are tightly linked to armed field operations. Both warlords command strong military authority not only among fighters but also among the local population in Chechnya. Many Chechens, interviewed once they have fled Chechnya, state that Basaev is simultaneously admired and feared for his violent but necessary methods, “as Russians only understand violence” . Considering this authority, there is no other choice but to associate him with the Chechen leadership. Basaev and Umarov have become symbols of the Chechen struggle; they are the last of the “historical” warlords who began the first war with Russia in 1994 and who currently sustain the resistance. Thus, they embody the continuity of the fight between the generation who started it and the one who chooses to continue it. As long as no alternative leaders arise, Basaev and Umarov will maintain the credibility of the resistance and continue to mobilize people. Basaev’s symbolic status, coupled with the continuance of the status quo, renders his comeback a “non-issue” from a political perspective.
In contrast, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev carries real political authority and wields greater influence. International analysts should not underestimate his political role and independence from Shamil Basaev. If the Chechen resistance is searching for legitimacy in political Islam, then it is largely the result of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev. The new President has his own Islamist positions, which he acquired even before Basaev’s radicalization in 1997. At that time, with a religious and secular education from Chechen State University, he often watched Islamic lectures on TV. Ideological influences came essentially from Dagestan through Akhmed Akhtaev, Abbas Kebedov, and Baggaudin Kebedov—all of whom later “exported” political Islam to Chechnya. The new Chechen President lies perfectly within the regional framework of Islamic rebirth against old and traditional religious habits. Reacting against Sufis, this new trend sought to promote a renewed Islam purged from superstition and able to constitute a political basis for the new Caucasian autonomous states that were to be built in the 1990s.
This movement has gained adherence in Chechnya, where the context of war has undoubtedly helped to further political Islam. Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, heir of Dagestani Islamist ideologists, is the first from a young, radicalized Caucasian generation to come to power. All his recent speeches in August 2005 contain several verses from the Qur’an, and Islam appears to justify most—if not all—his decisions. This exclusive reliance on Islam in formulating political decisions is the first factor of radicalism in Chechen politics.
This is the second factor in the radicalization process is Sadulaev’s allocation of more influence within the movement to Chechens in Chechnya, and his exerting tighter control over activities of the Chechen diaspora. Sadulaev wrote in a letter published on August 22, 2005 on the Chechen press site, “in the composition of the independent government, the domestic factor plays a fundamental role.” He strongly criticized in the same letter some initiatives within the Chechen diaspora that did not achieve results that benefited the Chechen people. Indeed, his recent decrees elaborating the role of Akhmed Zakaev reiterate this theme. Zakaev will coordinate activities in the diaspora and with external partners that have first been decided in Chechnya by the Cabinet of Ministers. Such a decision reflects thinking that internal, domestic priorities are the dominant source of decision making and legitimacy.
This emphasis on domestic legitimacy is directly related to Sadulaev’s accession to power. He was appointed vice-President by former President Maskhadov and obtained the presidency upon Maskhadov’s recommendation, beating out other contenders that included Akhmed Zakaev or Ilyas Akhmadov—both of whom were based outside of Chechnya.
Sadulaev’s claim to the presidency is thus based on a tight adherence to Islam and domestic considerations. He built this political position without influence apart from Shamil Basaev, immersing himself in the debates of political Islam in the 1990s and asserting a similar domestic territorial claim to legitimacy to that of his predecessor Mashkadov. These trends in the Chechen resistance movement, initiated by Sadulaev and strengthened by Basaev, may provoke an increasing tension between internal and external resistance forces. New emerging actors will be marginalized if they cannot lay claim to political Islam or a certain domestic legitimacy. Moderate Chechen initiatives from Moscow and the European diaspora are possible—like compromises that fall short of independence—but for such proposals to gain support under Sadulaev’s rule, those working abroad must build durable relationships with those working within the current Chechen leadership.
1. Quotation from an interview with a Chechen refugee in Paris, who has just arrived from Chechnya –September 22, 2005.