Zakaev Takes on the Emirate

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 43

Akhmed Zakaev

The recent statements made by the foreign minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) came as a shock to the Chechen community (Chechenpress, October 23). Akhmed Zakaev’s sharp attacks on, his own protégé, Dokka Umarov were seen as Zakaev’s attempts to get back into the limelight and establish himself as an independent political figure within the Chechen resistance movement. In a far-ranging declaration made on radio “Svoboda,” Akhmed Zakaev seemed to be trying to save Chechen statehood, even though he did it in a less than convincing fashion (Svoboda, October 22). By now its fairly clear that Zakaev’s personal friend, Dokka Umarov, has come under the full control of Salafi adherents. This is not, in itself, such a terrible thing, since every individual has a right to decide just what his vision is for a proper solution to the world’s problems. The issue, however, is that the Salafi worldview has already once played out on the stage of Chechen politics, and led only to disunion within the resistance, while giving the Russian government an excuse for once more invading Chechnya, ostensibly as a way of protecting Dagestan against the Chechens. Both Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev never appealed to the Salafis for help and no good can come now from allowing them to reanimate the views and actions that were once officially condemned by Maskhadov’s presidential decree of August 1998.

On October 31, Akhmed Zakaev once again made an official statement, this time referring to the changes made by Dokka Umarov as a betrayal of his duties as president and calling for mass disobedience to a man committing crimes against the statehood of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (Chechenpress, October 31). Umarov responded with a statement on radio “Svoboda” and explained why he is introducing a new governmental structure and how he sees the future of the new emirate of the North Caucasus (Chechentimes, October 31). In his statements, Umarov said nothing original and only used a few well-worn expressions about being responsible before the Muslims of the whole world. In an apparent attempt to be perceived as having solved the problems facing Muslims in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Dokka Umarov will now solve the problems of Muslims across the world.

It needs to be underscored that nothing significant has yet happened, since no official decrees nor manifestos declaring the formation of an emirate have been issued. There has been nothing except Umarov’s interview on “Svoboda.” “Daymokh,” a news source controlled by Umarov, as well as the media outlets controlled by Movladi Udugov (“Kavkaz-Center,” “Jamaat Shariat”) and those that sympathize with their views (“Chechentimes,” “Chechenlife,” “Checheninfo”) have yet to make any serious comments about the issue. Since nothing has officially occurred, there is still no real issue to be discussed. Zakaev, however, has tried to open a discussion and has put all of his chips on the table by doing so, since such a confrontation will probably bring about his dismissal from the post of ChRI Foreign Minister, or even lead to him being declared an enemy of the resistance movement.

Zakaev took the time to prepare a foundation of support for his position (his unexpected trips to Norway and Strasbourg) among those men that would be hard to accuse of treason (Isa Munaev, Akhyad Idigov). The interview given by Umarov to “Svoboda” is clearly not a fake. What, then, is the crux of the conflict between the two men? In September 2007 we already discussed the increasing influence that the Salafis have over Umarov, a state of affairs deeply disturbing to Akhmed Zakaev, since he had put a great deal of effort into ensuring that his friend, Dokka Umarov, became what he is today (Chechnya Weekly, September 20). Zakaev and his closest allies would not have even dreamed that the man they supported would appoint Supian Abdulaev as vice president. Abdulaev was a man that stood at the roots of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Chechnya in the 1980’s (along with Movladi Udugov, Islam Khalimov, and Isa Umarov) under the guidance of Muhammad Kebedov, the leader of the North Caucasus Salafis. Kebedov was responsible for the eventual calling of troops into Dagestan in 1999 and later successfully fled to the Middle East.

With Abdulaev’s appointment, it has become clear that influence over Dokka Umarov now rests with the Salafi camp. A tape captured by Russian personnel in Chechnya indicates that the Salafis have made certain appointments without Umarov’s knowledge and now hope for his understanding and acceptance of these as being “beneficial to the common good.” If the “common good” is the fulfillment of Salafi goals, it is rather unclear what part Umarov has to play in it, since he had previously shown little sympathy for their cause. Having fully lost control over his old friend, Akhmed Zakaev, apparently with the help of Boris Berezovsky and his allies, is now taking truly sensational steps.

There are clear positives and negatives in the current situation. On the positive side, it needs to be remembered that members of the resistance were always of two different minds as to how they saw the future of Chechnya. After Zakaev’s declaration, it will be possible to fully flesh out a separate political wing oriented towards the values found in the 1992 constitution of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The traditions and customs of the Chechen people have made it difficult for those who have opposed reevaluating resistance goals in order to accommodate Middle Eastern allies to find their own voice. This silence has been exploited by those who are oriented towards the Middle East (who themselves used those same traditions that they sought to undermine and condemn). Albeit crudely, Zakaev has managed to do what no one else has dared to do. The fact that Isa Munaev, one of the few leaders still respected and trusted in the broader community, has sided with Zakaev makes the whole situation far easier for the foreign minister (Chechenpress, November 1). Those willing to criticize Akhmed Zakaev are unlikely to criticize Isa Munaev, regardless of Munaev’s views. Zakaev’s statements have also been met with a positive response by some Chechen parliamentarians, as well as mid and high-ranking commanders.

The clearly negative aspect of the situation lies in the continued tarnishing of the resistance movement’s image. The Beslan tragedy was one huge blow, the death of popularly elected President Aslan Maskhadov was another, and now the third one will be this proclamation of an “emirate,” in the wake of which nothing will remain for Chechens to do than simply give up the political struggle, since few of them aimed to build an Islamic state. Even Shamil Basaev noted in one of his final interviews that the point of the struggle was to achieve independence to give the people an opportunity to decide for themselves how they wanted to live (Novaya Gazeta, August 4, 2005).

The silence coming from the camps of Dokka Umarov and Movladi Udugov has grown suspiciously long, making it possible to assume that Umarov will withdraw his sensational declaration. It is still unclear who passed on Umarov’s speech to radio “Svoboda.” On one hand, it could be Zakaev trying to seize the initiative from his opponents. On the other hand, it could be Udugov testing the reaction to such a drastic change in strategy. One thing is for sure, the coming weeks will be crucial for clearing up this question and showing just what the resistance will be like in the near future.