Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov is to meet rulers of Arab countries in Arabia while there to perform Hajj. He is expected to discuss economic assistance for the rebuilding of Ichkeria’s war-shattered infrastructure and economy (estimated damage US$150 billion), Chechen government officials said earlier this month.
Maskhadov was due to fly to Riyadh directly from Dzhokar-Ghala (formerly Grozny), the capital of Ichkeria, on April 11, but postponed his departure by three days because of urgent business. He will be one of 1,000 Chechen pilgrims performing the greater pilgrimage as guests of the Saudi government.
Coming just months after his mujahideen won a stunning victory against the might of the Red Army, Maskhadov’s decision to approach the oil-rich Arab States for assistance has been greeted with dismay by some parts of the Islamic movement, who consider the Arab regimes the greatest enemies of Islam.
This dismay has been only partly allayed by the news that Shamil Basayev, a mujahideen field commander who enjoys hero status throughout the Muslim world and is regarded as the most dangerous Chechen of all by the Russians, would take charge in Dzhokar-Ghala during Maskhadov’s absence.
Shamil Basayev came second to Maskhadov in January’s presidential poll, with 22.7 percent of the vote, and was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister at the beginning of April, despite (or perhaps because of) Russian objections. His responsibilities include overseeing the industrial sector, which is dominated by oil.
This is Ichkeria’s most important economic asset, and one in which Russia has a huge interest. A large part of its oil is imported from Azerbaijan through the Caspian pipeline from Baku to Novorossiisk via Dzhokar-Ghala. Maskhadov is thus forcing the Russians to deal on this vital issue with the man they hate most.
Basayev’s appointment emphasizes the continuing hard line that Maskhadov is taking, despite the economic and other problems. On April 1, Maskhadov stated publicly that the peace talks between his government and Russia, represented by Ivan Rybkin, Boris Yeltsin’s national security adviser, were deadlocked. Moscow insisted on trying to link its payment of reparations to political concessions from the Chechens which they are not prepared to discuss.
Going beyond that, Maskhadov also accused the Russians on April 5 of continuing the war through an economic blockade, and said that lasting peace would not be guaranteed unless Moscow accepted that Chechenya’s independence is an accomplished and unalterable fact. He also reversed a decree disbanding Chechen militia formations and replacing them with a standing, professional army. The armed local groups which had won the war would remain in place, he said, at least until a formal ‘peace agreement’ is signed.
The two months since Maskhadov’s election have seen much of the euphoria replaced by gritty realism. The rebuilding of Ichkeria’s shattered infrastructure requires an immediate investment of some US$15 billion. Much of this will have to come from the Russians in some form or another. Russia is willing to co-operate as long as it believes that it can manipulate Ichkeria into watering down its political demands. Maskhadov’s recent statements indicate that he is unwilling even to string the Russians along.
It is for this reason that he is now looking towards the Arab States for assistance. Throughout the war, the Chechens looked to Muslim countries for support and found none forthcoming. Maskhadov is realistic enough to know that little is likely to have changed. But he also knows that establishing and consolidating links outside the former Soviet Union is crucial to Ichkeria’s future, and that he cannot by-pass the Arab governments to appeal directly to their people. The Islamic movement is also ill-equipped as yet to provide the sort of concrete assistance that States, even Arab States, can.
Maskhadov will undoubtedly come home from Hajj with promises of economic and other assistance from the Arab regimes. How substantial and meaningful this assistance will be remains to be seen. One unofficial estimate is that it will rank somewhere between the assistance provided by the Saudis to the London Zoo and the amount they spend each month in European casinos.
More significant than the amount, however, will be the strings attached, open or hidden. No part of the Islamic movement has ever operated without the west attempting to undermine or suborn it, and Arab petro-dollars are among their favourite weapons. Throughout the war, the US openly supported the Russians, justifying their genocidal policies and providing arms and other support, including the hi-tech weaponry with which Dzhokar Dudayev was martyred in April last year.
Having witnessed the Chechens’ indomitable determination to achieve freedom, and unable to directly approach them for diplomatic reasons, the US is probably trying now to suborn them through its puppets in the Arab world. Their interest, of course, will also be to prevent the Chechens from formalising their independence from Russia. Whether Maskhadov is canny enough to accept the goodies while avoiding the trap remains to be seen.
The certainty is that the support he would most like to get from the Arab States will not be forthcoming: Ichkeria’s recognition as an independent State. This the Arab regimes cannot grant because their western masters will not permit it.
Maskhadov’s position is delicate indeed. The parallel between Ichkeria and Afghanistan has often been drawn. Like the Afghans, the Chechens have defeated the Russians in the battlefield. The question now is whether, unlike the Afghans, they can out-wit the west in peace. The Arab States, the west’s main weapons for the suborning of the Afghan mujahideen, will now be brought to bear on the Chechens.
The real battle begins here. The Chechens’ great advantage is that they won the war without help from any outside quarters. They should not now lose the peace through the treachery of those who may want to pose as their friends.
Muslimedia - April 16-30, 1997