The Chechen Diaspora in Russia

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 12

The Chechen Diaspora in Russia is the most numerous of all Chechen communities spread around the world outside of Chechnya. According to the official results of Russia’s 2002 census, 1.1 million out of 1,360,253 Chechens resided in Chechnya, while 260,000 were living in other regions of the Russian Federation, including 14,500 in Moscow—the actual number is assumed to be much higher than what the Moscow authorities admit officially, and the informal count may reach as high as 100,000 Chechens in Moscow and Moscow Oblast (http://www.perepis2002.ru/index.html?id=17).

Notably, the settlement patterns of the Diaspora throughout Russia show extreme variation. For instance, the largest communities can be found in Moscow and its environs; other sizable clusters dating back to the Soviet period have emerged in oil-producing regions of Russia, including Tyumen Oblast, Bashkiria and Tatarstan, as well as Ryazan, Voronezh, Novgorod, Saratov, Astrakhan, Volgograd and even such remote parts of Russia as Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, not to mention regions close to Chechnya like Stavropol Krai, Rostov Oblast, Krasnodar Krai and Kalmykia.

The intellectual core of the Diaspora is mostly concentrated in the two Russian capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg—which are the homes to the academicians Ruslan Khasbulatov, Salambek Khajjiev, Y. Akhmadov, other professors and hundreds of Ph.D.’s in various fields; various artists; writers S-Kh. Nunuyev and Z. Bersanova; and many others. It is distinguished by a high degree of autonomy that is not directly influenced by the events in the homeland. In truth, the Chechen community was always very diverse and tried to find its own way in developments concerning Chechnya.

As far back as during the first Chechen military campaign (1994–1996), Kremlin officials used the Chechen Diaspora as a mechanism to apply pressure and leveraged the reputation of the Diaspora members (e.g. S. Khajjiev and D. Zavgayev) as a counterweight to the separatist movement

All previous attempts by those who claimed to act as official spokesmen of the Chechen community (Malik Saidullayev, Beslan Gantamirov, etc.) were always strongly disliked by the majority of its members. Official Diaspora figures (R. Apayev) would have preferred to position the community as a homogenous group capable of acting in a unified manner, and thus impress official Moscow as a force capable of commanding a hundred-thousand-strong base. However, Chechens themselves always opposed this strategy because they did not want to be used by only a handful of people who had managed to find a common language with the governmental institutions.

Moscow-based leaders of the so-called organizations (various foundations) of the Chechen Diaspora do not enjoy a strong reputation in the community. These leaders are mostly individuals driven by selfish ambitions and without a following among the Chechens—and no one can identify an actual leader of the Diaspora with any certainty.

A contrasting picture emerges in smaller cities, where community leaders (such as Nur-Ali Khasiev in Yaroslavl, which is home to two thousand Chechens) have real authority and are capable of addressing virtually all the issues affecting their communities as well as interacting with the government to settle all disputes. These leaders have the backing of their community members, who prefer to support prominent individuals who can be useful in times of trouble.

As of today, all regional leaders of Chechen communities try to demonstrate their commitment to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen Republic’s pro-Moscow president, and not without reason. For the first time in several decades, Chechen communities finally have the opportunity not just to survive, but also to ask the authorities to take care of their issues locally, which would not have been possible in the past. During the Soviet period, the Chechen Diaspora was mainly concerned with survival, while under Russian “democracy,” its underground existence ended with the support President Vladimir Putin personally extended to Ramzan Kadyrov. Today, every local community is trying to get even for past grievances by riding the coattails of Ramzan Kadyrov’s name and reputation. Even in Moscow, policemen who had been hunting down Chechens over the previous twenty or thirty years must today treat them gently and, by their own admission, were instructed by their commanders to refer to Chechens as “brothers.” This makes life and job-hunting for Chechens in Russia tolerable. To make the loyalties of regional Diaspora leaders toward Kadyrov more permanent, they are most often given appointments as representatives of the Chechen President in various Russian jurisdictions, making them de facto officials of the Chechen administration.

The events of the last two wars in Chechnya drew a strong dividing line in the Chechen Diaspora between the supporters and the opponents of separatism. Today no one is able to determine even approximately which faction is the largest because some of those who oppose secession have a different vision of Chechnya’s future that is not always linked to Russia (i.e., this group opposes the separatist leaders but not the concept of Chechnya’s independence from Russia).

In addition, a majority of prominent Chechen businessmen, although they are seen by Moscow as a reliable and supportive group, would be happy to see Chechnya separate from Russia to secure a safe retreat for themselves in the event that relations between Russia and Chechnya are severed. Many of the Chechens living outside the republic send money back to their families in Chechnya and continue to work in Russia in order to build an economic foundation for their future return to Chechnya. Therefore, they see Russia as a place of temporary residence in order to buy some time and gain enough energy for subsequent repatriation and re-engagement with the affairs of their small but permanently troubled homeland.

Moscow-based Chechens try to avoid contact with those who do not share their opinions, even during the Jumu’ah Friday prayer. In addition, young Chechens are becoming more attracted to the idea of independence and very critical of the mood for reconciliation among their elders. The young are much more radical and their version of Islam has more Salafi leanings due to their dedication to the late Sheikh Fathi, a Chechen Salafi leader who died in 1997. His sermons and life story have been published online and are quite popular; he attracts interest and admiration. He is viewed as a true mujahid, and young Chechens support his goal of creating a Chechen state and propagating Salafi ideas among all Chechens. The youth is more organized than the older-generation Chechens: they are involved in the same clubs and are always communicating online to share their thoughts on various developments in Chechnya. They are uniformly negative toward the current pro-Moscow Chechen leadership and critical of anyone opposing the resistance movement. At the same time, they may not be enthusiastic about the actions of certain opinion leaders of the resistance, but they consider these details to be immaterial and not worth their attention.

Yet another faction of the Chechen Diaspora is in full agreement with the ideas of the resistance movement and operates as a kind of a secret organization; although they continue to see themselves as jamaats, they are better described as a certain support base for the resistance movement. This is the group that tends to lend its support to those who for various reasons were forced to leave Chechnya. Jamaats of that kind have experienced repression at the hands of the Russian government in Tatarstan and other parts of Russia. However, they have undoubtedly survived in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol Krai, Mordovia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, North Ossetia, Moscow, Astrakhan, Volgograd, Ulianovsk, Ekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Tyumen and Petrozavodsk

The resistance movement consists not only of its active participants. It also includes a powerful base of popular support that is critical for its continued existence. In order to fully understand the roots and nature of the resistance movement today, one should understand that the idea of seceding from Russia has reached its peak in terms of its understanding and public support. The entire future of the resistance movement today depends on the outcome of the dilemma of whether this understanding will continue to grow or whether the public will become disappointed in the ideas put forth by the resistance movement. Shifting the emphasis away from independence and toward the proposal to build a common Islamic State in the Caucasus may scare away many supporters of independence. There is also the factor of the recent declaration of independence by Kosovo, which became an argument in support of those who continue to believe that secession from Russia may become a reality and canceled out all the missteps of the resistance leaders over the last six months. Time will tell how long that effect will last and how resistance leaders will act, although nothing so far indicates any upcoming changes in tactics or strategy.