RADICALIZATION OF THE CHECHEN RESISTANCE OR THE TACTICAL CHOICE OF THE LEADERSHIP?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 3

How relevant is it today to speak of the “overall radicalization” of the Chechen resistance movement? What prompts so many analysts and observers to consider the actions of only two detachments of the Chechen resistance as characteristic of all armed formations subordinated to Aslan Maskhadov?

The number of those who are associated with Islamic radicals (i.e., the “Jamaat” armed detachments and formations directly subordinated to Shamil Basaev, which include a handful of foreigners from countries in Asia and Europe, who decided to stay after the assassination of Emir Khattab) represent an absolute minority within the resistance. Most likely they constitute less than 10 percent of the armed Chechen forces.

The majority of Chechens active in the resistance are adherents of a movement in Islam that is characterized by its mysticism and pacifism, and is specifically manifested in the form of two Sufi tariqats (brotherhoods) – Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya. The tariqats, in the context of Chechen society, underwent a significant transformation and became fused with local traditions and customs, which made them almost incomprehensible to Russians. [1] Russians could not exert influence on the Sufi brotherhoods and therefore always suspected in their mystic rituals an anti-Russian sentiment. This explains why throughout history the Russians led a relentless and uncompromising fight against the murids (members of the Sufi brotherhoods).

It must also be noted that, unlike in the Chechen first war (1994-1996), a large segment of resistance fighters today believe in a combination of patriotism and revenge as the foundation for the struggle against the Russian presence in Chechnya. For them, the question of religion is not simply one of secondary importance but entirely irrelevant.

However, today very few will doubt the fact that the process of radicalization is well under way. This process is a direct consequence of the total persecution of the residents of Chechnya, who are increasingly trying to seek salvation in religion. [2] Russia’s policy in Chechnya has become the main determining factor in the revival of Islam – in a manner similar to what had occurred in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, when not only Chechnya, but also the entire post-Soviet space was engulfed by the kind of Islamic renaissance.

At the same time, it is important to take into account the unquestionable evolution of the Muslim factor in Chechen society, and its invariable impact on the leadership of the Chechen resistance movement. For instance, during the first war (1994-1996), President Maskhadov was learning how to pray properly, whereas now, according to his close aides, he is already studying and memorizing the Qur’an. (Though, it must be noted that Maskhadov began his Islamic self-education well before the outbreak of the second war, during the interim period between two wars.) In the context of the tense political standoffs of that time, some of Maskhadov’s political opponents attempted to limit his authority by using the rhetorical dogmas of Islam and calling for the establishment an Islamic state. [3]

However, should we interpret Maskhadov’s current behavior as a reassessment of values and a conscious adoption of the direction which he had openly defied in the early 1990s? Values for which he was actually ready to fight? (Suffice it to mention the famous Gudermes events of summer 1998, when the government armed forces engaged in a fire fight with Islamic radicals, which led to the complete purge of the adherents of Salafism from all government structures and to the removal of all people suspected of being sympathetic towards this movement in Islam from the judiciary and courts.) [4]

Maskhadov, who has stated that he has not received sufficient support from the West, and who has grown cold towards Western ideals, still has not been able to completely reject his secular nature and to accept the radicals’ proposals about the necessity of introducing the Islamic form of governance in the process of establishing a state entity. This explains the creation of the semi-secular and semi-religious entity of the State Defense Committee-Majlis Shura. [5] This hybrid clearly represents a concession to Islamists, but at the same time an insistence by Maskhadov on the immutability of the Constitution of the CRI, which clearly declares adherence to values essential to any Western democracy. [6]

Maskhadov’s careful balancing act between the West and the East is also reflected in the decision regarding his representatives abroad. Thus, in Western countries Maskhadov is represented by Ilyas Akhmadov, Omar Khanbiev and Akhmed Zakaev, whereas in the Muslim countries he is represented by Islam Khalimov and other appointees, who act on behalf of Shamil Basaev and Uvays Akhmadov. In practice, the aforementioned representatives compete for influence on the President. The strategy that the leadership of the Chechen resistance movement will adopt as an ideologically justified foundation for the continuation of war largely depends on who will succeed in exerting the most influence. [7]

Today, Maskhadov, thanks to his representatives in the West, is viewed as a leader who is opposed to terrorism (and in all likelihood that is probably the case) and whose public pronouncements resolutely condemn all acts of violence for which Shamil Basaev claims responsibility. [8] It must be noted that Maskhadov is an officer of the Soviet Army and for him any military action against the civilian population, including the civilian population of Russia, is simply unacceptable. Basaev’s actions are incompatible with Maskhadov’s views on and understanding of the war for independence. Maskhadov develops tactics and strategy based on his military experience in the Soviet Army. From sources close to him, it is known that in preparation for any military operation the most important factor that he considers is whether such an operation would result in a harsh retaliatory action against the civilian population by Russian troops in any given locale in Chechnya.

At the same time, Movladi Udugov’s website (Kavkazcenter) puts a great deal of effort into featuring video footage and photos depicting Maskhadov and Basaev together in order to create the illusion of unity and mutual understanding on controversial issues between the two figures. [9] This is intended for Basaev supporters and those who sympathize with the Jamaat detachments, so that they will not become disillusioned with Maskhadov. It should be also emphasized that quite often, news reports presented by this web-based ideological center of Basaev raise questions about the possible falsification of certain information. [10]

Maskhadov realizes that Basaev’s support does not add to his popularity among Western politicians, but a real condemnation of Basaev’s actions would have definitely led to the complete alienation of Maskhadov in the Muslim part of the population. In addition to this, it must be noted that Basaev is more popular in the Middle East than Maskhadov. Thus, Maskhadov has become a hostage of geo-power politics, wherein the West recognizes that he had once been elected democratically in fair elections, but at the same time it does not encourage his flirting with the radicals and the Middle East, because of this region’s association with the struggle against international terrorism. [11] Furthermore, the West cannot and is not willing to render substantial assistance to Maskhadov in his internal struggle with the radicals. On the other hand, while on the official level the East does not maintain ties with Maskhadov, on an unofficial level it sends him signals, which he might interpret as propositions to start a dialogue. Nonetheless, even the East today will not dare to openly support Maskhadov because the wrathful reaction of Russia would follow any such action almost immediately. [12]

Maskhadov is surrounded by people who can hardly be suspected of radicalism, including V. Murdashev (rational and prudent President’s aid), A. Avdorkhanov (participated in the armed clash with the Salafis in Gudermes in 1998; his areas of influence include Kurchaloy and Nozhayurt districts), Isa Munaev (a military commandant in Maskhadov’s government; his areas of influence are the city of Grozny and Urus-Martan district), D. Umarov (he practically replaced R. Gelaev; he is responsible for the mountainous parts of Chechnya and the Achkhoy-Martan district) and V. Arsanov (and field commanders subordinated to him; responsible for Cheberloy and Northern districts of the city of Grozny). Only one person close to Maskhadov can raise some suspicions: the former leader of the Jamaat in Argun (which, unlike other Jamaats, was non-militarized) and the present advisor to the President on Islamic affairs, Abdul-Khalim (currently he occupies the position of the Chairman of Sharia Court of Chechnya). [13]

Therefore all discussions regarding alleged radicalization of the entire Chechen leadership are premature. There are several key figures, who, even before the war, decided to play the role of radical (Basaev and the leaders of Jamaats in Urus-Martan, Alkhan-Kala, etc.). This group tried hard to pretend that they represented the majority, or at least, spoke on behalf of the majority of the population. From thousands of well-armed people, who were members of these formations before the war, today we can only estimate hundreds in the best-case scenario.

For all practical purposes, we are witnessing a very familiar situation in which there are “good” and “bad” guys and the role of “bad guys” is played by Basaev, whereas “good guys” are personified by Maskhadov. According to Basaev’s line of thought, his actions should prompt Russia to negotiate, as was the case during the diversionary raid on the town of Budennovsk in 1995. It is not a coincidence that after each operation Basaev issues statements that contain a noticeable justification – “to stop the war in Chechnya…” [14] In fact, this circumstance has some relation to Maskhadov as well, for while condemning Basaev’s actions, he always recalls that in Chechnya the situation is continuing to deteriorate and that it is time for the international community to pay closer attention to the assassinations, abductions and violence that are perpetrated against the peaceful population. [15]

Maskhadov’s representatives in the West try to minimize and negate his complex and controversial relations with Basaev, while those who represent him in the East strive to diminish the statements of I. Akhmadov, A. Zakaev and O. Khanbiev, condemning the terrorist actions carried out by Basaev and his subordinates. In such a context, both groups of Presidential representatives invariably create the impression that the actions of the Chechen leadership are poorly coordinated. Maskhadov could simplify the task for his representatives if he were to finally position himself firmly and unequivocally in regards to what he wants and how he sees Chechnya.

In the Middle East, Maskhadov never had a support base and all of his representatives to the Middle Eastern countries were consequently recalled because of their inaction. For instance, Maskhadov’s son – Anzor Maskhadov, who is a student of a technical university – was urgently recalled from Malaysia in 2002, where he had failed to change the perception in a favorable direction and he, as well as others, had to stop traveling in the countries of the Muslim East.

Thus, Maskhadov is largely isolated from the East, but the West, nonetheless, ignores his role and his responsibility for what is taking place in Chechnya, and tries to diminish his participation in the Chechen resistance movement. Against this background, one often hears that Maskhadov is no longer the person with whom Russia should begin negotiations. (Although two years ago the United States, for instance, was of a completely different point of view in regards to the aforementioned persona, and, according to U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, Maskhadov was precisely the figure that should be taken into account in resolving the Chechen problem.) [16]

It may also be the case that Maskhadov will lose in both directions: if the West views him as insufficiently secular and someone who has lost influence (which does not correspond with reality) and is therefore unable to build a secular state; and if the East considers him insufficiently radical to be able to build an Islamic state.

For the Chechen resistance movement, Maskhadov remains a symbol of the legitimate authority and it is noteworthy that practically since 2000 there has not been a single accusation against him even from his former political opponents, who seemed so irreconcilable and resolute in the past and now are his subordinates. Neither Basaev nor Gelaev (before his untimely death), or Umarov and the leaders of the Jamaats, have ever condemned Maskhadov’s actions.

Unlike the first Russian-Chechen war of 1994-1996, today we are witnessing a strict, vertically organized discipline, an absence of (visible) contradictions and the consensual formulation of positions pertaining to the establishment of the state in both prewar and postwar Chechnya. This factor allows Maskhadov to speak on behalf of everyone, as a figurehead that unites a diverse array of groups that are conducting military operations against Russians on the territory of Chechnya.

Today, by attempting to exclude Maskhadov as the main figure in a possible negotiation process with Russia, the Western community is in effect withdrawing support from those Chechens who represent the pro-Western force, because among them there is not a single person who could replace Maskhadov. By weakening Maskhadov’s position, whether deliberately or not, the West is contributing to the strengthening of those forces in the Chechen resistance movement that see success and the herald of victory only in the radicalization of the entire Chechen society.

Mayrbek Vachagaev is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Paris. He is the author of the book, “Chechnya in the 19th Century Caucasian Wars.”

Notes:

1. Mayrbek Vachagaev. “Chechen society today: Myths and reality” CA-C. No. 2 (20), 2003.

2. A. Zakaev, “Terror is deadly for the Chechen cause”, Die Welt, February 9, 2004.

3. T. Muzaev, Conflict in Dagestan and the beginning of war in Chechnya. International Institute of Humanities and Political Studies. Political Monitoring, September 1999.

4. The clashes between the government armed forces and the detachments of Islamic radicals in Gudermes took place on July 14-15, 1998.

5. Meeting of the State Defense Committee-Majlis Shura of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, June 27, 2004-July 4, 2004 and the Edict of the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria of August 4, 2004.

6. Constitution of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Grozny, 1992.

7. This struggle can also be defined as the tug and pull between the westerners (those who favor the secular state based on the 1992 Constitution of the CRI) with the Islamists (who demand and view Chechnya as an Islamic state, which, according to their beliefs, should serve as an example for the entire Muslim East).

8. “After the Nord Ost, Basaev acts independently.” Interview of the President of CRI A. Maskhadov with Novaya gazeta (in Russian).

9. See for example: http://kavkaz.tv/russ/photo/sham_mas_ramadan/page1.shtml.

10. The self-description of M.Udugov’s website posted on-line states the following: “Kavkaz-center is the Chechen, independent, international, Islamic, Internet news agency.” See: .

11. The Russian newspaper Kommersant of September 16, 1999 published on the front page the excerpt from the exclusive interview that the President of CRI Aslan Maskhadov had given to the journal Kommersant-Vlast, in which A. Maskhadov noted the following: “We should not tie the sovereignty of Chechnya with the terrorist acts. The Chechens never considered terrorist acts as means of achieving independence.” Maskhadov added, “I am categorically opposed to the terrorist methods and they are alien to me in principle. The provocations and violence, which Russia is experiencing now, are actually fruits of Russia’s hapless policy in the North Caucasus. They will end only when the Kremlin leaders will finally understand that the relationships with the Caucasus peoples should be built differently.”

12. See the official statement of the Ambassador of Russian Federation in Turkey, A.A.Lebedev in relation to the terrorist act in Moscow on October 29, 2002.

13. The Joint Decree of the Supreme Authorities of the CRI, March 22, 2003, http://kavkaz.tv/russ/article.php?id=5096.

14. Interview with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, March 11, 2004.

15. The Statement of the President of CRI of September 23, 2004, .

16. The U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow expressed this opinion during the roundtable discussion “The World after September 11, 2001: Year in New Reality,” September 9, 2002.