The War of Words Between Zakaev and Umarov

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 4

During a recent press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that traveling to the Chechen Republic without protection is still not feasible (RIA Novosti, January 23, 2008). This statement stands in sharp contrast with the copious cheerful statements made by the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership. By saying what he said, Minister Lavrov has de facto admitted that eight years after the start of the second Chechen war and six years after the President Putin’s announcement that the Chechen war was over, the republic is still not safe enough for reporters and foreign nationals to move around freely [1].

All travelers to Chechnya must have prior permission from the Russian Foreign Ministry and be accompanied by military/security personnel from special units of the Federal Security Service (FSB) to prevent impromptu contacts with or questions from the public. Interviews are allowed only with officials in Ramzan Kadyrov’s government. The security detail also makes sure that the foreign visitors do not look around and that they see only what they are supposed to see, such as freshly painted and putatively restored buildings and multiple pictures of Putin and Kadyrov.

These rules are yet another confirmation of the views voiced by the many analysts who disagree with those who say that the absence of numerous reports of military actions in Chechnya is essentially proof that the resistance in Chechnya and North Caucasus has been crushed. The effects of the news blackout imposed on Chechnya and the ban on foreign visitors with less than complete loyalty to the Russian government are only skin-deep. The developments unfolding in the very core of the resistance movement demonstrate that things are about to get more intense—not just in Chechnya, but in the entire North Caucasus region.

Against this backdrop, over the last three months, the two sides of the Chechen resistance movement have been engaged in a war of words on the Web. The split between the democratic wing represented by Akhmed Zakaev and the radical faction led by Dokka Umarov has been traumatic, and the unwillingness of either party to compromise is pushing both into mutual accusations of betraying the interests of the Chechen people.

Dokka Umarov, who assumed leadership of Chechen resistance movement after the death of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev in the summer of 2006, has failed to live up to the standards set by his predecessor. In contrast to those who served before him, he did not enjoy much of a reputation with the neighboring jamaats and was always forced to make concessions to the representatives of ethnic jamaats of the North Caucasus. One of these concessions has led to transformation of their entire movement into an extremely radical and religiously inspired force, which the previous resistance leaders never allowed to happen.

This change has cost Dokka Umarov the allegiance of some resistance fighters, who interpreted this as a betrayal of those who died fighting for Ichkeria, not for the green banner of Islam. Using their Internet resources, the so-called democratic wing, nicknamed “Eurochechens” by the radicals, launched a massive propaganda campaign against all those who they believed were behind the idea of the Caucasus Emirate [2]. According to Akhmed Zakaev, this was the project of Movladi Udugov, his brother Issa, Islam Khalimov and Vice President Supian Abdulaev. To support his argument, Zakaev used the transcripts of Aslan Maskhadov’s past speeches containing criticisms of these individuals. In these addresses, the president described in the most unflattering terms those who moved abroad and began working against him by trying to push him toward a purely Islamic platform.

These quotes became a reliable weapon for those who oppose Islamization of the resistance movement. In an interview with Radio Liberty, Akhmed Zakaev accused his opponents of acting on the FSB’s orders and said he had evidence to prove it [3].

And with regard to his longtime acquaintance Dokka Umarov, who has failed to stand up to the influence of Udugov and Khalimov, Zakaev has embarked on a path of confrontation that leaves less and less room for mutual recognition and collaboration to form a united front against Russia—especially after Zakaev declared Dokka Umarov to be a traitor to the Chechen people’s interests (, October 30, 2007).

Akhmed Zakaev was joined by several resistance commanders, including Amirs Hairullah and Mansur. He was also supported by Chechen deputies Lyoma (Zhalautdin) Saralyapov and Dokka Amagov, who became spokespeople, of sorts, for the Ichkerian Parliament (most of whose members are based in Europe). Issa Munaev, a popular former commander of the Southeastern Front who used to fight under the command of Aslan Maskhadov and currently lives in Denmark, became another unexpected ally. Amid the growing rift, each side has formed its own governments, each of which is striving for legitimacy in the eyes of the Chechen people as well as the international community. The support of Uvais Akhmadov, the most protocol-minded Chechen jamaat leader, has become another important weapon in Zakaev’s arsenal; Akhmadov accused Umarov’s supporters of working for the FSB and negotiating with it, which he said he could prove with existing audio records.

In turn, the opposing side unleashed a vicious anti-Zakaev campaign based on the claim that the truth belongs to the fighters on the ground and not to those leading a safe and happy life in Europe. The most commonly heard accusation against Zakaev is that he had been hatching designs to organize a government in exile even before Dokka Umarov unveiled his own plans. Umarov’s actions became a sort of a catalyst for the former’s role as a democratic leader of Chechnya.

Unexpected support for Umarov came from Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, who for several years has been keeping a very low profile in Chechnya’s mass media. He called Umarov “a real man” and supported his choice of an Islamic development path for Chechnya (, January 9, 2008). In an attempt to one-up Akhmed Zakaev, Umarov issued decrees ordering the investigation of the deaths of former Chechnen presidents Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and intimated that the role and responsibility of Chechen representatives abroad has to be examined as well. The Emirate’s supporters also pointed a finger at Zakaev’s connection with Boris Berezovsky, who they believe was one of the organizers of the Chechen war.

In a way, what happened had to happen: two divergent ideas for the future of Chechnya could not remain together long—at some point they had to part ways because their visions of the future Chechen society are radically different and entirely incompatible.

Regardless, Dokka Umarov needs Akhmed Zakaev no matter what happens, given that no one will want to deal with someone who declared war against the entire world and primarily against Europe and the United States. In turn, Akhmed Zakaev needs Dokka Umarov, because without actual military commanders on the ground— not European refugees—he will be seen as nothing but a standalone politician; Zakaev needs Chechen commanders he can represent at the negotiating table. A sample model for the Chechen resistance today is the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which combined the political wing of Sinn Féin with an intransigent military section that staged assaults against the government. This model of mutually complementary factions can also be used in Chechnya.

Since the end of January, both sides have de-escalated their rhetoric somewhat; however, it can hardly be called a truce. In all likelihood, both sides are preparing for the next wave of accusations soon to be unleashed through websites controlled by the parties. In addition, the radicals and their spiritual leaders have not yet realized that their actions lead to a dead end that will lock the Chechen struggle into regional boundaries; a dead end that will cause the decline of the resistance movement, whose ranks include degreed intellectuals who cannot fail to understand that they cannot recreate a perfect model of an Islamic state today using the time of Prophet Muhammad’s life as model. Time and circumstances today dictate different problems that cannot be solved locally, particularly in Russia, where no more than 10-15 percent of the population follows Islam.


1. Putin announced the end of war and the beginning of troop withdrawals from Chechnya during his annual address to the Federal Assembly on April 18, 2002.

2. These websites are, and

3. A transcript of this interview can be found at