President of the pro-Russian Chechen government, Alu Alkhanov, visited Syria and Jordan in mid-September in his first trip to the Middle East. This trip recalled the objectives that former president Ahmad Kadyrov sought to achieve in Saudi Arabia in his inaugural visit to the region in January 2004. At that time, Kadyrov hoped to: gain acknowledgement as Chechnya’s “legitimate” president; obtain financial aid to help his cause in “rebuilding Chechnya” and promote his rule; coordinate with the Saudis in what he called the “fight against terrorism;” and to implement a Russian policy aimed at establishing an “official Islam” in Russia that supports Russia’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the Islamic world, which is part of Russia’s attempt to regain its status as a superpower. The delegation that accompanied Kadyrov at the time included the Muftis of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Alkhanov’s visit did not digress from spirit of Kadyrov’s trip, although his goals were narrower and oriented in a different direction. In his visit to Damascus and Amman, Alkhanov was only accompanied by some officials of his pro-Russian administration: the Mufti of Chechnya; the republic’s minister of culture; Umar Dzhabrailov, a State Duma member of Chechen origin; and Ziad Sabsabi, a Chechen deputy prime minister of Syrian origin who seems to have been the main player in coordinating Alkhanov’s visit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently commissioned Alkhanov’s visit to Damascus, which was seen as an opportunity to achieve larger, national goals. Alkhanov’s visit to Amman, however, was aimed squarely at achieving objectives related to internal policies in Chechnya.
Syria and Russia’s Foreign Policy
Alkhanov’s meeting with President Bashar Assad was covered on the front pages of major Syrian newspapers, while the Jordanian press mentioned Alkhanov’s meeting with the Jordanian King’s deputy, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, in a small news article. Alkhanov presented the Syrian President with a letter from Vladimir Putin that reiterated Russia’s support for Syria. This is part of Russia’s policy of seeking alliances that can restore its status as a major pole on the international arena. Alkhanov declared: “Russia’s position towards Syria has followed a steady path and will not change. It always backs just causes in order to resolve all the issues in the region through dialogue and peace, not violence” (www.elaph.com, September 19, 2005). This letter gains significance in light of the West’s pressure on Syria with regard to issues such as fighters crossing the border into Iraq from Syria, human rights, and Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
The second reason for Alkhanov’s visit was to attract Syrian investment and activate the “Russo-Syrian Business Board.” Al-Thaura Syrian Daily on September 19 reported that these negotiations were led by Ziad Sabsabi.
The third reason was to emphasize and apply the Syrian model of “official Islam” in Chechnya. In Syria religious institutions answer to secular authorities. With rising religious affiliation among the Chechen opposition, it seems that Alkhanov is attempting to restore old Soviet practices and therefore regarded the Syrian visit as a way to establish his legitimacy of rule while distancing it from Islamic resistance groups. Thus Alkhanov said: “We found it appropriate to send students to study in Syria the real fundamental Islamic religious institutions, because Syria calls for true Islam, and you know that Islam is a religion that calls for religious tolerance and peace. Syrian clerics can convey the true image and concepts of Islam to Chechnya because Islam has never called for terrorism” (Al-Thaura Syrian Daily, September 19, 2005). Alkhanov repeated this request while in Jordan.
Alkhanov in Jordan and the Chechen Diaspora
Alkhanov’s visit to Jordan was apparently aimed at shoring up the legitimacy of his rule, especially given that Jordanians of Chechen origin still maintain active relationships with the Republic of Chechnya. Despite these kinship ties, the pro-Russian Chechen government is not popular among Jordanians of Chechen origin. Thus Alkhanov met only with a pre-selected group of Jordanian Chechens. Alkhanov’s comments during this meeting were purely political and aimed to bolster his legitimacy: he stated, among other things, that Ramzan Kadyrov’s power, with Russia’s support, is undermining his rule; that the number of fighters in Chechnya is somewhere between 500 and 1,000; that more that 7,000 fighters have surrendered their weapons; and that around half-a-million Chechens now live outside Chechnya. Yet while he insisted that Chechnya is safer now, he did not call upon them to return to Chechnya, given the high unemployment rate and the lack of job opportunities.
Alkhanov said that his government has built 360 schools and is in the process of building a large hospital in Grozny. He asked that no additional funds be sent to the Chechen resistance and, as previously mentioned, that clerics be sent to Chechnya. It is clear that since assuming the Chechen presidency, Alkhanov has been suffering from the increasing power of Ramzan Kadyrov, who, thanks to his well-armed militias and the position of deputy premier offered him by Moscow, is the most powerful de facto man in the republic. Reports indicate that Alkahnov is the republic’s head only in a formal sense. Although Kadyrov and Alkhanov are from the same teip and advocate pro-Russian policies, differences between the two are increasing, as is evident in Alkhanov’s recent criticism of Ramzan and his armed followers.
Alkhanov’s visit to Syria and Jordan was aimed at strengthening both Russia’s foreign policy goals and his own internal policy in Chechnya. Alkhanov is looking for a legitimacy that comes from abroad through two modes: a religious one, by reviving “official Islam;” and a national one, by having Chechens in Jordan play a part in his attempt to reassert his authority in the face of Kadyrov’s growing influence.
During his visit to the Middle East, Alkhanov was not asked about the widely-reported violations of human rights in Chechnya. In addition, in saying that the Chechen resistance is limited to a mere 500–1,000 fighters, Alkhanov misrepresents the Chechen situation and contradicts media reports that indicate growing resistance in Chechnya. On top of all that, seeking legitimacy outside Chechnya is proof that he does not enjoy it inside. If the Chechen situation continues to be handled through publicity stunts without any attempt to understand local developments in the republic, the violence there will not ease and real peace will not be secured.