The Chechen Reaction to the Georgian Crisis

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 34

The August 2008 events in Georgia have been interpreted in various ways both in the world generally and in the republics of Russia’s North Caucasus that neighbor Georgia. Leaving aside the official propaganda campaign, on the societal level there were major disagreements with regard to how to react and who to blame as the aggressor. It is possible to conditionally identify three opinion groups on this subject. The first group consists of Vainakh peoples (Chechens and Ingush), who sympathized with Georgia. The second group is represented by those who supported the Russian variant for resolving the problem (this group is comprised of the Adyg-Cherkess peoples, who are related to the Abkhaz, and Ossetians from North Ossetia, who have natural kinship and family ties with their brethren in South Ossetia). The third group is represented by the peoples populating Dagestan, for whom the problems of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are less important at present. The Karachais and Balkars, who have always been close to the Svans, an ethnic group from the Georgian highlands, deserve a separate mention because lately they have been searching for common roots with the Ossetians dating back to antiquity. The Ossetians, Karachais and Balkars belong to different ethnic groups. Ossetians belong to the Iranian-speaking linguistic group, whereas the Karachais and Balkars are members of the Turkic-speaking linguistic group. This circumstance invariably makes the argument about their alleged common ancient ancestry highly debatable.

Be that as it may, each North Caucasian ethnos apparently relied on its historical past in calibrating the response to the conflict in Georgia. Throughout the centuries Georgia was a natural center of gravity for highlanders populating the Caucasus. After the Caucasus peoples were incorporated into Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tiflis became the center of the Caucasus Gubernia. In the Soviet period Tbilisi remained the center of scientific and cultural life for the peoples of Caucasus. However, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia recklessly severed its ties with its neighbors. Thus, the center for the highlanders of the North Caucasus shifted to the city of Rostov-on-Don, which is far from an example of a typical Caucasian urban area.

The actions by Chechens were determined by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s shortsighted policy towards the Chechens. After his first visit to Moscow, Saakashvili agreed with Russia on a common course of actions against Chechens (Day.az, August 25). The Chechens were unaware of this tacit agreement, but they saw that with Saakashvili’s assumption of power, the authorities in Tbilisi began police operations in the Pankisi Gorge. Moreover, the Georgians allowed officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) into the Pankisi Gorge (see Vyacheslav Izmailov’s interview with an officer from Georgia’s Ministry of State Security, Novaya Gazeta, December 23, 2004). Soon thereafter the Chechen refugees in Georgia began to disappear, which naturally alerted the Chechen Diaspora as well as refugees from Chechnya, which by then was already a sizeable group (Giorgi Sepashvili, “Chechens living in Georgia ‘are afraid of secret extradition’,” Civil.ge, March 1, 2004).

All of this caused disbelief and anxiety among Chechens. However, during the August events in South Ossetia, Chechens interviewed by Kavkazky Uzel journalist Muslim Ibragimov expressed an almost unanimous support for Georgia’s actions and were convinced that Georgia’s actions were provoked by Russia (Kavkazky Uzel, August 7). Moreover, the Georgians noticed that Chechens from the Vostok battalion were the ones who saved many Georgian civilians from revenge attacks by Ossetians and Russians (http://abkhaziya.net/2008/09/03/war-2/). A French-German television channel even aired footage in which the residents of Georgian villages thanked Chechens for protecting them from others.

Even pro-Moscow officials in Grozny, did not know how to react to the events in Georgia and initially there were statements of good will from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who suggested that everything be resolved at the negotiating table (Itar-Tass, August 8). At the time the Russian leadership’s position on South Ossetia was probably not clear to Kadyrov. When he understood what Russia’s interest was he made a new statement offering to send 10,000 Chechen fighters (Vesti.ru, August 12). Furthermore, by then he knew that his implacable foe, Sulim Yamadaev, the Vostok battalion’s commander, was among the Russian troops in South Ossetia. It is worth noting here that Yamadaev’s participation was later rewarded when all charges against him produced under pressure from Ramzan Kadyrov were dropped and he was discharged with the title of lieutenant colonel of the Russian Federation’s armed forces.

Prior to his discharge from military service, Sulim Yamadaev managed to upset the plans of his enemies in Chechnya: he declared in an interview that, according to his information, 20 young Chechen girls had joined the ranks of militants hiding in the mountains and said there were many other instances of departures by young people eager to participate in the resistance movement (Utro.ru, August 22). Ramzan Kadyrov publicly acknowledged this fact on Chechen television without identifying the exact number. He admitted that girls had joined the ranks of those who are fighting against Russia. In response, Kadyrov’s supporters began implementing measures aimed against the parents of young men and women who had joined the ranks of resistance fighters in the mountains. At a meeting with such parents, the mayor of Argun gave them a two-week ultimatum, telling them that if their children were not back within two weeks, their families would be forced out of their houses and banished from the town. Similar actions took place on August 28 in the town of Shali, where two families were thrown out onto the street at dawn. They were not allowed to take any of their possessions, they were told to leave the town immediately and their houses were burnt down.

It was evident that in Chechen resistance circles, nobody was ready for such turn of events in the region. The democratic wing of the Chechen resistance limited itself to ambiguous statements of support for Georgia based not on the principle of territorial integrity but on criticism of Russia for its hypocritical position regarding those who had been struggling for independence for close to two decades (Chechenews.com, August 27). The radical wing of the Chechen resistance movement, as represented by its leader Dokka Umarov, criticized Russia and appealed to the Caucasian peoples not to succumb to Russia’s intrigues (Kavkaz.tv, August 16). It is peculiar that, in general, both democrats and radicals assumed a wait-and-see position. This strongly resembles the position of Imam Shamil during the Russian-Turkish war of 1853-1856, when instead of redoubling his efforts in the region, Imam Shamil allowed the Russian army to transfer additional troops to the military theater of operations against Turkey, which in the end allowed the Russian Army to defeat Turkey and its allies and to crush Shamil’s army later.

This time around no additional troops were transferred from Chechnya to the Georgian theater of operations. On the contrary, two suicide bombings occurred in the vicinity of the Russian structures in Chechnya recently (on August 15 and August 29). This was quite unexpected because suicide bombings have not occurred since Basaev’s departure from the political arena. If these are not uncoordinated actions by aggrieved individuals who decided to take revenge for the death or humiliation of family members, then we ought to anticipate the corresponding changes in the tactics of the Chechen resistance movement, although increased use of suicide bombings would undoubtedly be perceived negatively by the Chechen mentality.

On August 18, resistance fighters attacked the commandant’s office in the village of Dai in Chechnya’s mountains (Kavkaz-Center, August 19). In another daring demonstration of their capabilities, the militants entered the village of Goi-chu, where police officers were targets of the attack (www.nohchi.vu/news/detail.php?ID=44875). Bombings and individual acts of terror against contract police officers have become daily occurrences that no longer surprise anyone.