The Caucasian Emirate: A Not so New Idea

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 43

The split in the camp of the Chechen separatists caused by the recent statement of rebel leader Dokka Umarov continues to deepen. A group of Chechen separatists abroad headed by Akhmed Zakaev, the separatist government’s foreign minister, accused Umarov of betraying the Chechen state by declaring the establishment of the Caucasian Emirate. Zakaev initiated a public campaign against Umarov and Movladi Udugov, a key ideologist of Chechen separatism, calling Umarov “a traitor” and Udugov “a Russian spy” who had tempted Umarov to declare the Emirate. Zakaev persuaded Zhaoloudi Saralyapov, the chairman of separatist parliament who lives now in Europe, to issue a decree ordering all separatist forces to report to the parliament and not to the “traitor” Dokka Umarov. In addition, Akhmed Zakaev inspired two Chechen rebel field commanders who also live now abroad, Isa Munaev and Sultan Arsaev, to support him and to condemn Umarov’s statement.

The main idea of Akmed Zakaev’s anti-emirate campaign is that the attempt to create the Emirate is a plot by the Russian secret services to discredit the entire Chechen resistance in the eyes of the international community and to link it with al-Qaeda once and for all. Zakaev even claimed that the Russian authorities had allocated $500 million to organize the Emirate “provocation.”

Nevertheless, Akhmed Zakaev’s stand appears to be quite weak. Unlike many in the West, people in the Kremlin do not distinguish much between the pro-Western and pro-Islamic wings of the Chechen rebels. Moreover, Russian leaders regard the Islamists as much more dangerous enemies than the separatists like Akhmed Zakaev. The Kremlin’s main aim is to crush the Caucasian insurgency, and for this purpose to isolate the militants from foreign financial sources. Zelimkhan Yanderbiev, a Chechen rebel leader who was very popular figure in Arab countries and Pakistan, was killed by Russian secret agents in order to cut off the channels for cash flows going to the Caucasian insurgency. Movladi Udugov is also good at fund raising, so the Russian security officials have not ceased hunting for him in Turkey and the Gulf states. Giving Udugov $500 million would prepare the ground for numerous painful rebel attacks throughout the whole North Caucasus.

In reality, it is quite possible that the Kremlin is no less frightened than Akhmed Zakaev by the possible declaration of a Caucasian Emirate. It could help the rebels in the Caucasus to increase their financial support from the Middle East—not a happy prospect for the Kremlin. The creation of the Emirate could even help the Caucasian insurgency achieve greater unity, since non-Chechen rebels would know that they are fighting not simply for Chechen independence, but for the independence of the entire Caucasus. It is highly unlikely that the Russian authorities are interested in seeing the rebels in the Caucasus become better organized and more motivated in their struggle. Besides, a split among the separatists will not bring any benefits to the Russian government, since neither Zakaev, nor the chairman of the separatist government, nor commanders such as Isa Munaev, have sufficient authority, capabilities or money to organize a resistance in Chechnya that could operate independently of Dokka Umarov and the Majlis-ul-Shura (the Council of the Caucasian rebels).

In fact, the Caucasian Emirate is not the result of any intrigues of the Islamists or Russian authorities, but is rather the natural outcome of the ongoing Chechen conflict. To unite all Caucasian nations under the banner of the anti-Russian struggle has been the main goal of all rebel leaders in the North Caucasus. Whether it was Sheik Mansur, a Chechen, or Imam Shamil, an Avar—or Tapa Chermoev or Sheikh Uzun Haji—all the leaders ll tried to organize military resistance throughout the entire territory of the Caucasus. In contrast, the Russian government always tried to isolate the rebels in one of the Caucasian regions and prevent them from uniting with their supporters in other parts of the Caucasus.

The history of the Caucasus has demonstrated that only a Sharia Islamic state could function properly in the region and resist Russian forces for a long time. The Imamate of Imam Shamil existed and resisted the Russian empire for more than 30 years, while the secular independent Republic of the North Caucasus, declared in 1918 during the Civil War in Russia, collapsed immediately after an offensive by the White Army of General Denikin. At the same time, the Whites were kicked out of the Caucasus by the forces of the Caucasian Emirate that was proclaimed in the territory of Chechnya and Dagestan in 1919. In 1921, the Red Army managed to destroy the Emirate in the mountains of Dagestan but paid a high price in casualties. Small guerilla bands, remnants of the Emirate’s forces, continued to resist the Bolsheviks in the mountains of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Kabardino-Balkaria until 1925.

After the first Chechen War (1994-1996), Chechnya faced great chaos and economic disaster. The situation was worsened by political instability and a power struggle between various field commanders. None of the secular bodies of the Chechen state functioned sufficiently to restore order in the country and the idea of instituting Sharia law in Chechnya became more and more popular among the Chechen population. In 1997, during the celebration of the 200th birthday of Imam Shamil in the Chechen village of Shatoi, there were attempts to proclaim Ruslan Gelaev, a popular Chechen field commander, the new imam, the leader of the Islamic Sharia state. In 1998, the Congress of Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan was founded with the aim of organizing a unified Islamic state in Chechnya and Dagestan similar to the Emirate of 1919-1921. It should be noted that at the beginning, Akhmed Zakaev was among the initiators of the Congress, together with Movladi Udugov and Shamil Basaev.

As one can see, the idea of the Caucasian Emirate is not new and has a quite long history. The rebel leaders in the North Caucasus understand that they can win only if they unite the whole Caucasus, but history shows that it is possible only on a religious basis.