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Puppet State or Failed State?

Now as in much of the recent past, the Chechen conflict is not about who will govern Chechnya. It is about whether Chechnya will be governed at all. by Nabi Abdullaev 21 February 2011

This weekend gunmen shot and killed three tourists in Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic of Russia’s North Caucasus region. The same day, an explosion damaged a ski lift at Mount Elbrus, also in Kabardino-Balkaria. In the past few months, local officials, police officers, the republic’s mufti, and an anthropologist have been murdered. This weekend’s violence – whether or not carried out the by the Islamist fighters whom the Russian government tends to blame for all unrest in the region – looks like an attempt to sabotage a program of regional economic development championed by Russian President Dimitry Medvedev that rests largely on tourism development. The Kremlin’s anti-terror strategy for the region is centered in nearby Chechnya and consists of a tradeoff: in return for total loyalty to Moscow, and to the person of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in particular, the Grozny regime is granted a free hand to pursue domestic enemies by any means it chooses. The rise in violence in several North Caucasus republics in the past few months may be a sign that the strategy is no longer effective.


Originally published on 13 August 2004, this article asked what the future might hold for an “independent” Chechnya.



WASHINGTON | The Chechen conflict is not about who will govern Chechnya. It is about whether Chechnya will be governed at all. 

The latest impressive demonstration of force by Chechen rebels in Ingushetia in June, the ensuing upsurge of their activities in Chechnya, and the looming presidential elections there in August have given Russia new impetus to find a “political solution” to the Chechen conflict. The growing chorus against Moscow for continuing to build a puppet, pro-Moscow administration in the republic is also spurring the Russian government to look for a way out.

But it is paradigms, not governing forces – a Kremlin puppet state vs. an “independent Chechnya” controlled by separatists – that are actually colliding in Chechnya. The legalist paradigm grants the Chechen people the right to political self-determination, but the realist one admits that the Chechens have no capacity now or even in the foreseeable future to create a viable state, much less a democratic one based on rule of law. Another paradigm, idealism, denies the realities that shape harsh Russian policies in Chechnya.

Envoys of the rebel political leader Aslan Maskhadov to Western democracies have exploited the idea of the right to self-determination, along with the plight of Chechen civilians under the Russian military. Their active efforts in convincing Western societies that Chechens are being deprived of the chance to create their own state have helped the rebel cause to be viewed largely outside the realm of clear-cut terrorism.

Back in Russia, Chechen separatists use a different argument. The Kremlin has its own ideas about Chechen self-determination based on the reality of having a de facto independent Chechnya next to Russia’s soft underbelly for most of the 1990s. After the June Ingushetia raid – in which several hundred rebels executed dozens of Ingush and Russian policemen – Maskhadov in a statement on his website cited the longevity and fervor of the Chechen resistance as a reason for Moscow to start looking for peace.

The plan for a political solution proposed by an ideologue of the Islamist wing of the Chechen resistance, Movladi Udugov, is even more blunt – it openly calls on the Kremlin to trade the safety of Russian interests for independence in Chechnya.

Moreover, in what is fast proving suicidal to its reputation in Russia, the country’s human rights movement has acted as the strongest supporter of the demands of the Chechen rebels in Russia. Following the violence in Ingushetia, Russia’s most prominent human rights organization, Memorial, issued an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin calling on him to create conditions in Chechnya that would allow separatists to take part in the political process in the republic and participate in future elections.

Whatever the prospects for such engagement may be, the major argument of the champions of human rights is confusing: Russia could not break the Chechen resistance in 10 years of military assault; therefore, Moscow must acknowledge the rebels as a legitimate political entity. Force, not vision or a record of state-building achievements, is the factor Memorial and other such groups are putting forth to legitimize the separatist demands. In effect, it is exactly the approach pursued by the terrorists, and that in turn is the dominant reason behind the collapse of the attempt for an independent Chechen polity in the 1990s. 


Theories abound as to why Moscow moved into Chechnya for the second time in 1999, starting with the stated reason of wanting to bring order to the crime-ridden region. Some opponents of the war often level poorly grounded explanations, such as revanchist aspirations on the part of the Russian military, or claim Moscow simply coveted Chechen oil.

Assuring Putin’s rise to power on a wave of anti-Chechen sentiments has risen to the top of the “plausible” plots offered by supporters of Chechen independence. Demonizing Putin, rebels and their supporters have repeatedly expressed hopes that the Chechen conflict could be solved by a less hardhearted successor. In reality, though, chances of a quick post-Putin pullout are extremely low: any ruler of a country as big as Russia, no matter how liberal, is destined to think and act within terms of realpolitik, and that means that Russia’s security will remain the top priority.

Whether a state staffed with thugs and convicted criminals – as the governments of the independent Chechnya were – would be any better for common Chechen citizens than another puppet regime could be argued endlessly. The real difference is that Moscow has resolve and resources to put into the effort. And actually, despite all the setbacks, it has already advanced its cause reasonably far.

The question could be rightfully answered if ascertaining the true will of the Chechen people were remotely possible. Under occupation, it’s certainly not, but remove Russia and it’s no easier. If Russia were to pull out, tens of thousands of pro-Russian Chechens would flee from the region and would not vote. Moreover, unrivaled, the organized and armed rebels would have the motivation and capacity to intimidate voters to their will.

In this situation, the only remaining approach is to turn to realpolitik to look for the lesser evil and weigh actions in comparison with what others would do in similar situations. In 2000, a group of leading U.S. political scientists formed the Commission on America’s National Interests, producing a ranking of the interests that demand government attention and action. Prevention of the emergence of failed states on the U.S. border ranked among the most vital ones.

That foreign Islamist fighters established terrorist training camps within a matter of months of Russia’s withdrawal from the volatile region in 1996 therefore lends a compelling justification to Moscow’s current policies in Chechnya.


Rebel leaders do not want to engage in the political process in Russian Chechnya, as Memorial has proposed. They have clearly stated that they want the Russians out of the republic. The weak point in their rhetoric remains how they plan to build an independent Chechen state and who among them is capable of running it.

There are several plans worked out by different figures in the Chechen resistance of how Moscow should transfer power to the people of Chechnya. They all start with the troops going away and Chechnya holding free democratic elections, but after that the details stop. What comes next is primarily vague speculation about how Russia needs to help the devastated republic to recover or perhaps hopeful statements about the potential for foreign humanitarian aid and investment.

The one thing on which these plans agree, at least according to Maskhadov and the rest of the Islamists, is that independent Chechnya’s legal system will be based on hard-line Islamic Shariah law. (What is not said is how the appeal to Shariah will help to assemble a governable entity of the divided Chechen society.)

Shariah law was declared in Chechnya in 1996 by then-president Zelimkhan Yanderbiev. His successor, Maskhadov – in what was billed as an attempt to curb crime and to capture the popular ideology from the competing, self-willed Chechen warlords – went further and disbanded parliament, signed a constitution that was for all intents and purposes a copy of that in use in Sudan, and established Shariah courts in Chechnya during the period 1997 to 1999.

These courts sentenced people to death, to the severance of limbs, and to flogging, and made deeds such as adultery and homosexuality capital crimes. Even children as young as 10 and pregnant women were not exempt from the brutal punishments of the Chechen Shariah code.

Many of the Chechen separatists’ defenders in the West do not know this or omit these facts from their discussion of the prospects of the Chechnya’s sovereignty. In truth, some sincere supporters of the idea of Chechen independence may actually have little knowledge of the facts, primarily because outside monitors who would have revealed all the misdeeds of independent Chechnya’s management were unable to venture inside.

Even the bravest commentators – such as human rights researcher Michael Ignatieff and terrorism expert Jessica Stern, who have previously dared to explore war-torn regions in Bosnia, Sudan, and Kashmir – have admitted to this author that they were afraid to go to Maskhadov’s Chechnya. However, anyone may obtain in detail the record of the massive abuses of the Russian military in Chechnya. The human rights situation did not improve when Moscow pulled out of the volatile republic in 1996; what changed was its transparency.

Journalists and human rights monitors, including foreigners, have had some access to “Russian” Chechnya. The return of the power structures that the Moscow military assault installed has allowed that. To be sure, these structures are loose, corrupt, and brutal, but at least there is a bearing point for making them accountable. In Maskhadov’s Chechnya – in which prominent warlords refused to give up their authority to the elected president, prompting smaller squads to degenerate into outright criminal gangs – the sources of power were atomized beyond the point of return. No state-building was possible.


The only way skeptics could be convinced of the rebels’ capacity to build a state, which is in itself the only instrument that can effectively guarantee human rights to all citizens, would be for the separatists to produce a record of achievements. That has not happened so far and almost certainly will not in the future. Independent Chechnya was one of the most flagrant examples of a failed state.

The most outspoken of Maskhadov’s envoys, Akhmed Zakayev in Europe and Ilyas Akhmadov in the United States, were ministers of the very same Chechen government that allowed, by official Russian estimates, more than 1,000 hostages to be held between 1997 and 1999. The real figure is no doubt much larger, since victims’ relatives were afraid to report abductions to authorities for fear of retribution by kidnappers. A slave market openly functioned in the Chechen village of Urus-Martan, under the protection of the thuggish Barayev brothers, who gained worldwide notoriety after decapitating British and New Zealand telecommunications engineers in their custody.

Whether by lack of will or capacity, Maskhadov’s government did little to stop those and other flagrant crimes and violations of human rights in Chechnya. Perhaps that was why more people fled Chechnya during the period of Grozny’s truce with Moscow between 1996 and 1999 than were killed or ran away from Chechnya in the first war of 1994 to 1996, even by estimates of Russian human rights groups that were traditionally disposed in favor of Chechen independence. 

Russia simply cannot get away with being unaccountable as easily as Chechnya’s separatist governments can. Even if reluctantly, the Kremlin has had to create conditions in Chechnya to allow journalists, human rights monitors and inspectors, and humanitarian workers to operate with some safety in the republic. That was not possible in independent Chechnya, where journalists and humanitarian workers who could command the highest ransoms were the most coveted prizes for the freely operating kidnappers.

Given the steady flow of information from Chechnya now, improving Moscow’s human rights practices in Chechnya has become an instrumental task. When Chechnya was a failed independent state, even the scope of the abysmal human rights catastrophe could not be assessed, let alone any human rights policies implemented.

The highly publicized criminal process involving the Russian military Colonel Yuri Budanov, who was tried for three years for the abduction and murder of a young Chechen woman and was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year, is one example of how the system can be forced to work by colossal public pressure. 

The contrast is chilling when you consider the 1999 remarks of Independent Chechnya’s vice president, Vakha Arsanov, when the Russian Duma condemned the Chechen government for its public executions. Arsanov simply told journalists that he did not care what anyone said about the executions, they would continue regardless.

The brutal and petty methods of the war and the lack of accountability for Russian military personnel who kill and torture Chechen civilians prove that the Kremlin’s rhetoric about doing good for Chechen people merely masked its real intentions, if anyone was convinced by that argument in the first place. But in the bigger picture, Russia is now fighting for its own safety in Chechnya. Moscow not only cannot brook a failed state on its borders, but it needs a viable state in Chechnya, and the stronger the authoritarian forces there, the better. This represents to the Kremlin the only way to subdue the dangerous non-state actors that threaten Russian security.

Nabi Abdullaev, a former contributor to TOL, is a journalist with the Moscow Times.

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