This month marks exactly 15 years since the beginning of the war in Chechnya. During this time, the concept of Chechen identity and of Chechnya itself became embodied in war and conflict. How and why the current situation evolved and whether there is a potential exit strategy must be studied and analyzed. Reflections on past events and ideas that triggered those events must, therefore, take place.
In 1990, when the collapse of the USSR was imminent and manifested in various shady political deals and broken taboos it was an opportune time to reshape the political landscape of the entire region. One personality that broke with the taboo by challenging Moscow’s authority was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a General in the Soviet Army. He led a popular movement to overthrow the Moscow appointed leadership and took control of Chechnya. Moscow appointed leaders were being overthrown all over the Soviet Union so at first glance General Dudayev was not doing anything different from people in other places such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Latvia, Georgia and so on. However, there is one technical point that must be borne in mind: while others were part of the USSR and theoretically had the legal right under the Soviet Constitution to secede from the USSR because the latter was a confederation, Chechnya was not a part of this arrangement. It was part of the Russian Federation. While others were challenging the soon-to-die “superpower”, Dudayev was challenging the newly re-born Russian Federation of pre-communist borders.
From 1991 until December 1994, Chechnya enjoyed de-facto independence and was trying to make it de-jure. The newly established Russian Federation knew that since it is a vast federal state with hundreds of ethnic groups, if General Dudayev legalized his independence project, Russia would follow the footsteps of its artificial predecessor which had just collapsed. So the Moscow authorities decided that the only way to preserve Russian sovereignty was to set an example for other ethnic republics of the Federation and remind the newly independent former USSR states that Russia is still powerful to launch a harsh military blitzkrieg and neutralize Chechen aspirations for independence. The Soviet mentality that force solves everything pushed Russia into a vicious cycle of conflicts from which it will not be able to break loose for a very long time.
Chechnya’s principal aim in the struggle was independence from Russia. However, in the midst of this grand objective there were scores of groups, tribes, mafias and gang interests involved. Internally Chechens were generally united under the leadership of Dudayev, perhaps more united than they will ever be. However, that unification often was unity of interests rather than principles. To understand these interests one must understand the mentality of Chechens and the peoples of the Caucasus in general. Throughout history, Chechens have shown great pride and independence. Anyone who dared to challenge this lifestyle was confronted. When Dudayev took power, many Chechens who had gained fame as powerful mafia bosses or businessmen, felt offended; they were replaced from the top slot by someone they viewed as a military “bureaucrat”. Chechens do not have number two in their mentality; this has often led to internal conflicts.
When Russian forces entered Grozny they were shocked at how quickly Chechen armed forces organized by Dudayev during the three-years, annihilated entire brigades in a matter of days. Many Chechen leaders were former military officers in the Soviet army and the population was driven by a sense of revenge against injustices suffered during Stalin’s deportation as well as the dark Soviet era. The skillful balance of political and military resistance put up by Chechens further frightened Russian leadership to a potential collapse of Russia. This extreme fear and exaggeration of the conflict in Chechnya was the principal reason why the Russian leadership could not contemplate anything but a military solution. During the first year of war, Chechen political scene was mainly dominated by General Dudayev and his colleagues from the military. Dudayev skillfully revived the Islamic roots of the Chechen people in order to enhance the spirit of resistance which was present during Russian colonization of the Caucasus in the 1800s when Islam played a crucial role. Many Muslims of the USSR, totally alienated from Islam during the Communist era, heard for the first time Allahu-Akbar from Chechen fighters on TV. As Chechens pulled off numerous daring military operations against the Russian army, they came to be identified with what a good Muslim should be like. This idea of a good Muslim vis-a-vis a Chechen manifested itself in many fields starting from daily prayers, specific Sufi dhikr orders particular to Chechens, beards and even to a specific style of dress imitating Chechen fighters.
Successful Chechen resistance and not a distant memory of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, in which Dudayev also participated, attracted attention of the wider Muslim world to Chechnya. In the course of the conflict, several semi-independent military/warlord commanders emerged on the Chechen political landscape. Simultaneously the race to use Chechnya as a platform to boost the image of US-backed dictators in the Arab world and Wahhabi ideology took off. Government-paid scholars in Arab countries that never hesitated to eliminate any manifestation of domestic Islamic revival suddenly became key sponsors and outspoken supporters of the struggle in Chechnya. When the first war ended and Chechnya gained de-facto independence for the second time, Dudayev was no longer alive and a new culture of politics developed. That culture rested on the use of gun to settle every disagreement. In such atmosphere every conflict by all sides was immediately labeled as “jihad.”
When the Afghan mujahideen drove the Red Army out of Afghanistan most Muslims expected a genuine Islamic state to emerge there. These hopes, however, were dashed as Afghan political factions began fighting each other. A similar situation emerged in Chechnya. Unlike Hamas and Hizbullah that managed to develop strong social and political services and institutions that aided people to meet their daily needs, the Chechen Islamic establishment failed to realize this important feature. Instead they got bogged down in the military side of the struggle, which they did not see as a means, but rather as the goal of Islamic state system. In such circumstances it became very difficult for Aslan Maskhadov, the newly elected President of Chechnya, a former military officer, to implement a state strategy. Every militia commander viewed himself as the final authority on Islam. Many newly emerged Islamic militia leaders failed to realize that the Prophet (s) in addition to the battles of Badr, Uhud, Ahzab and so on, also entered into treaties like the Covenant of Madinah and Hudaybiyah when it was in the interest of the Islamic community’s development.
The emergence of Islamic groups in adjacent regions of North Caucasus based on the Chechen model and their support from Chechnya to break from Russia led to the indirect involvement of the US and its allies. The latter’s involvement was covert but US was directly involved. In 1998 the US was exerting pressure on Geidar Aliyev who usurped power in Azerbaijan to accept the US proposed oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, bypassing Russia. At the time Aliyev was still dependent on Moscow and was reluctant to give in to US demands. There is evidence to suggest that Aliyev, backed by the US, actively aided Chechen militias to battle Russian forces in Dagestan. The motive was to eliminate the existing oil route through Russia which was severely damaged in the 1999 military activities in Dagestan. The American project succeeded; today the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline pumps oil out of the Caspian bypassing Russia, but economically drains the Azerbaijan Republic.
As Chechen militias expanded their operations in Dagestan, Moscow’s fears that if Chechnya went, Russia would disintegrate, were reinforced. Thus, the Russian military launched indiscriminate attacks on the entire Chechen population. The heavy-handedness of Russian military and inability of Chechen leadership to provide basic social services to people made militia leaders rethink their loyalty. Many in the Chechen leadership initially uncomfortable with the imposition of Saudi based thought in their society switched sides. This gave Russia a much stronger political leverage than it previously had. The resort to Khawarij methods of war by some Chechen militias which manifested itself in subway bombings, civilian airline bombings, theater hostage taking and most infamously the savage attack on school children in Beslan further alienated the forces previously known as the Chechen resistance. Reference to the Qur’an and Sunnah to legitimize these crimes further undermined the credibility of Chechens fighting the Russian army. Therefore, unlike the first Chechen war where the strategy of war was clear, the methods implemented in the second war undermined the entire cause.
In the ongoing war in Chechnya, there are many Chechens enrolled in the Russian army, therefore, the war in Chechnya has become a civil war among Chechens themselves. What complicates the matter further is that no side is willing to make compromises and exclude each other from a potential solution. However, it must be said that even though human rights crimes often take place in Chechnya, the current administrative authority of Chechnya managed to acquire quasi-independence for the Chechen society. In contrast to Muslim countries of the former USSR, Chechnya today is more “Islamic” under Russian rule than all the former Muslim USSR states put together. Many non-Islamic practices such as casinos and alcohol are discouraged and sometimes banned by the Russian appointed administration. Women working in government-run TV stations are encouraged to preserve some hijabi modesty.
Nevertheless, the ongoing killings, abductions and torture still continue on a regular basis and there is no exit strategy in sight. Each side relies on force as the primary tool for a solution. One of the ways to resolve the conflict would be to allow those who do not have blood of innocents on their hands but who have a totally different vision for Chechnya to present their program in practice. If political space is not created for opposing forces to operate, Russia will lose in the long run. As time goes by, the population will get brutalized by both sides and at one point new leadership with a wider representational base will emerge. The moment the process of fighting Russia becomes Islamized and a new leadership makes its political agenda more appealing to the wider public, Russian forces will be driven out of the North Caucasus because the war will no longer be only about Chechnya.