The Rebels’ New Tactics: From Independent Chechnya to Independent North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 5

On January 31, President Vladimir Putin held a large press conference in the Kremlin during which he answered questions from Russian and foreign journalists. He touched on almost all issues of current concern to the country, and, of course, could not help talking about Chechnya. It was no surprise to hear from the president the old lies that everyone is used to hearing: that the situation in the republic is stabilizing. On the same day that Putin’s conference was held, Agence France-Presse quoted a source in the pro-Russian Chechen administration as reporting that five Russian soldiers had been killed and 10 wounded in the region during the previous 24 hours.

The most important aspect that the Kremlin boss was forced to recognize was the increasing instability in other North Caucasian republics. Putin said in the press conference that “we are concerned about the situation in some other parts of the North Caucasus even more than in Chechnya” (ORT, January 31). No wonder, since there are growing signs that the Russian government’s Chechenization policy has failed (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 26) while the effectiveness of the rebels’ tactic of extending the Chechen war to the whole Russian South is becoming more evident. Last year Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the leader of the Chechen insurgency, issued a decree establishing a Caucasian front. The strategy of expanding the war beyond Chechnya was thereby officially declared. Bombings in Dagestan and Ingushetia and the massive raid on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, followed the decree. This year, Russian generals expect rebel attacks across the North Caucasus, from Adygea in the west to Dagestan in the east (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 12). The military leader of the rebels, Shamil Basaev, is traveling all over the Caucasus trying to make the insurgency better organized (see Chechnya Weekly, January 12).

Yet the rebels are undertaking not only military but also political measures to strengthen their strategy. Late last year, people who represent the radical wing of the Chechen separatists started talking about making Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev not only the president of the separatist Chechen government but also as the political leader of all Caucasian rebels and separatists (see Chechnya Weekly, November 17, 2005). Separatist leaders like Movladi Udugov explained this step by saying that Sadulaev had already become “the ruler” of the Caucasus since “mujahideen of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia” had pledged an oath to him. Nevertheless, the separatists understand that some additional steps need to be taken to confirm Sadulaev’s status as a legitimate political leader in the eyes of non-Chechen insurgents.

In his most recent interview, posted on the Kavkazcenter website on January 9, Shamil Basaev placed his cards on the table, declaring that this spring the rebels will organize a Great Majlis (Great Council) to unite “all Muslims of the North Caucasus” and proclaim an Imam of the North Caucasus—their supreme leader. “More and more Muslims raise the question that the Imam of the whole Caucasus should be proclaimed,” Basaev said. “In the spring of 2006 we plan to hold the Great Unification Majlis on this issue and on the issue of setting up the Shura (Council) of Caucasian Ulema (Islamic scholars).” Basaev did not conceal the fact that most likely Sadulaev will be declared Imam. “Although, even now Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev is practically Imam of the North Caucasus, since all Caucasian mujahideen have given him an oath.” Thus Sadulaev may become the third Chechen leader of the entire North Caucasus after Sheikh Mansur in the 18th century and Chermoev, the leader of the Confederation of the Caucasian Nations (a Caucasian independent state that existed for only two years (1918-1919) during the civil war that erupted in Russia following the Bolshevik revolution.

The Council of Ulema will control Sadulaev by confirming that his decisions do not contradict Sharia. Such a political structure existed in the Caucasus during the war against Russia of the tsars, and it also functioned during the first Arabic (Muslim) empire of the 9th century and the Turkish Ottoman Empire of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the question of who these Sharia specialists will be remains open, given that most of the official local muftis in the Caucasus are loyal to the Russian government. One can assume that they will be either young unofficial underground Islamic scholars who may have received religious education in the Middle East, or the real decision-makers—the rebel field commanders.

On January 20, Sadulaev issued three decrees that can be described as the first real step toward the future Majlis. Sadulaev ordered that the Council of Ulema be set up and that the commanders of rebel groups in the Caucasian republics be made members of the Military Council (Majlis-ul-Shura) of the Chechen field commanders. The members of the Council of Ulema and of the Military Council are likely to become deputies in the Great Majlis this spring.

The speed at which the Chechen insurgency is turning into an all-Caucasian movement with a strong Islamic flavor frightens some of the “old-fashioned” Chechen separatists like Akhmed Zakaev. “No doubt we see today integration processes in the North Caucasus, above all military ones, but it is not us [Chechen separatists] but the Kremlin which is pursuing a severely repressive policy in the region and which has deprived the Caucasian autonomies of the last illusions of independence,” Zakaev wrote in an article published by Chechenpress on January 19. “There is a vast distance, however, between a military alliance against a common enemy and a unified state, including organizational and legal distance. Without having run this distance but just stepping on the starting line, we would have acted not only imprudently but criminally towards our nation if we dismantled the Chechen state and got nothing in return except general words about Islamic solidarity and the Caucasian Caliphate.” Zakaev believes that the political unification of the Caucasus should be discussed only after “liberating the region from the Russian colonial rule.”

Sadulaev also seems to understand that while building a political structure for the whole Caucasian insurgency one should not forget about Chechen independence, about Ichkeria. The third decree that Adbul-Khalim issued on January 20 made Zhalaudin Saralyapov, the Chairman of the Chechen separatist parliament, a member of the Military Council.

Yet the war has its own logic, and since the rebels believe that they cannot defeat Russia fighting only in Chechnya, the question of Chechen independence increasingly becomes an abstraction. At the same time, Caucasian independence looks increasingly like the only option to gain freedom and end Russian domination of the region.