Russia Admits Rebel Fighter Activity in Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 44

Faced with recurring reports of assaults and assassinations in Grozny and the rest of Chechnya, Russian government officials are being forced to admit that rebel fighter operations have become a reality. As always, the leadership of Russia’s Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense attempts to explain it by pointing fingers at funding received from overseas sources and generated, among other things, by the kidnapping business, although the officials conveniently omit to mention that no high-profile kidnappings have been reported for quite some time.

It is also unclear exactly how these funds are remitted to Chechnya because in contrast with 2002 – 2003, when rebel fighters were active in the Pankissi Gorge (the ravine straddling the Georgia-Chechnya border in the mountainous part of the Major Caucasus ridge that is populated mostly by ethnic Chechens), no illegal border crossings have been attempted during the last few years.

According to Deputy Minister of Interior of Russia Arkady Edelev, all rebel fighter activity boils down to a small group of no more than twenty foreign mercenaries working to draw the youth into anti-Russian operations (www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/chechnya/1001679.html), although Eledev did admit that the situation in the North Caucasus in general may be described as “stable with some tension.” He also noted that rebel fighters are making special efforts to destabilize Karachaevo-Cherkessia, thus proving the importance of this region for their purposes, and said this was the reason for the recent dispatch of troops to the area.

The losses among rebel fighters continue to be an important indicator for propaganda purposes, yet after nine years of war neither Russian nor Chechen officials could explain how exactly they arrive at these casualty numbers. For instance, according to the official Grozny government reports, “this year, police investigations and special operations led to the killing of 23 rebels, including 2 commanders, arrest of 144 members of illegal armed groups, and surrender to the police of 25 former rebel fighters”, that is, a total of 192. The Russian military cites another set of numbers—according to them, 32 rebel fighters have been killed and none were arrested or surrendered (www.rosbalt.ru/2008/05/20/485458). If these reports are true, it is puzzling why Ramzan Kadyrov claimed in his statement on January 30th, 2008, that “the war may already be described in the past tense” (news.bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/russia/newsid_7218000/7218692).

It is equally mystifying how these past-tense rebel fighters could manage to mount a number of high-profile attacks against government facilities in the villages of Alkhazurovo (village administration building), Bamut (administration building burned down), Roshni-Chu (shootout against the intelligence gathering group), Dai (Department of Interior/police building), Shali (shooting at military commander’s office), Grozny (explosives set against the military column) and other units of the pro-Moscow government (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1214147.html). This list doesn’t include dozens of minor isolated explosions and assaults against the police forces across the republic.  Even those who would have preferred to keep information of this sort under wraps for fear of damaging the image of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of pro-Moscow government, couldn’t keep quiet about these developments.  If rebel fighters are capable of mounting so many attacks across the entire republic after almost two hundred of them were allegedly eliminated, then their true numbers could only be guessed, and that doesn’t even include areas outside of Chechnya.

Young Chechen men who keep leaving for the mountains to join the rebel forces are a constant thorn in the government’s side. For example, according to the villagers of the town of Vedeno (www.vedeno.net/forum), five young men, including one high school and four college students, have left to join the rebels during the month of May alone. To contain this trend and keep it from spreading, the Grozny government is putting pressure on friends and family members of the young men who have left to join the rebels. Frequent interrogations of parents and family members by the assorted government agencies (including FSB, Ministry of Interior, Yug Special Forces unit and other pro-Moscow government groups) force people to yield to the government’s demands. For instance, the evening news of the local TV channel “Grozny” on May 22nd, 2008, featured footage of a group of mothers who were placed in front of the cameras and forced to appeal to their children to return home or be cursed for the rest of their lives. It was a miserable sight to see—people couldn’t help but understand that what pushes children to leave home are the actions of the government, not the blessings of their parents. The families can’t stop them from leaving and the use of their parents as a pressure tool causes nothing but public resentment against the government.

The second development worth noting is the government’s admission of public support for the rebel fighters.  As noted by the commander of the United group of armed forces in the North Caucasus Nikolai Sivak, “the local populace either supports the bandit groups or stays neutral, but does nothing to resist them and does not give them up to the federal forces” (BBC radio on May 20th, 2008, bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/russia/newsid_7410000). This secret is well-known yet neither Russia nor Chechnya prefers to bring it up. In a place where unemployment is sky-high (according to the official reports, 76.9 percent of the able-bodied population or half a million people are unemployed, www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1215658.html) and where the law is used primarily for putting pressure on the public instead of protecting it from the government, it is easy to find thousands of people who not only support the resistance movement, but are ready to become its active members. Without this support or, at a minimum, widespread public sympathy, the rebel fighters would be nothing but kamikadzes ready to perish at any moment. It is the public support that allows the rebels to not only survive, but reform through structural and qualitative changes in their ranks.

An independent expert of Kavkaz Uzel Grigori Shvedov confirms that rebel fighters in Chechnya usually do not terrorize the public. According to Shvedov, the acts of violence targeting civilians are usually staged by someone other than the rebels, and this is an important consideration that the Chechens seem to have included into their tactical arsenal. Assassination of rank-and-file policemen is always condemned by the public because many of them have joined the force as the only available way to earn a living. It should not be forgotten that the educational establishment that would have given many a chance to learn marketable skills has been missing from Chechnya for the last 18 years. Today, the only opportunities available in Chechnya are either in the construction business or in the police; none are available for others. Akhmed Zakayev tried to take advantage of the situation when he shocked all Chechens by admitting the achievements of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule and suggesting that the rebels should revise their stance toward the Chechen policemen (http://chechenpress.org/events/2008/05/20/1f.shtml). The rebel leader Dokka Umarov didn’t stay quiet either—he continues to argue for the recently announced Caucasus Emirate by making frequent references to his predecessors Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev and Shamil Basayev. According to Umarov the only reason that Sadullayev and Basayev did not announce the Emirate earlier was because they didn’t have enough time. Umarov claims that the rebel forces today are capable of mounting strikes across the entire Emirate territory (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5991894707404590867&hl=fr).

Regardless, the massive stream of news reports from all the parties involved in the conflict make it clear that the Chechen rebel forces are ramping up their activities. This escalation will be certain to affect the entire North Caucasus resistance movement and the political environment of the region in general.