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Mission Not Accomplished

Eleven years after the second war with Russia, a series of violent attacks by the Chechen rebels reminds us that war is raging in the northern Caucasus. From Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

by Majnat Kurbanova 23 November 2010

The 19 October attack on Chechnya’s parliament building by guerrillas – in broad daylight, in the center of Grozny, and during a visit by Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev – did not only surprise the deputies preparing for the morning session. In fact, the raid was a shock for many observers as well as for those who, over the last few years, have tirelessly repeated that the Chechen rebels are few and unable to threaten the country's stability and prosperity. What is more, two months earlier, the guerrillas managed to attack Tsentoroi, the birthplace of the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Under Kadyrov's government, this small village at the foot of the mountains has come to resemble a medieval fortress, protected by hundreds of the president's most trusted guards. Both operations showed that, far from being suppressed, as many Russian sources claimed, the Chechen opposition can penetrate any building or village in the republic, even the most obsessively guarded.


Both attacks were attributed to the Chechen warlords who have recently emerged from the shadows of the self-proclaimed emir of the Caucasus, Doku Umarov. Forty-year-old Khuseyn Gakayev, whom Umarov stripped of his rank for insubordination, was particularly singled out. Because external observers have great difficulty finding their way in the intricacies of the Chechen rebellion, which has become the northern Caucasus' rebellion, let us take a brief excursion into its recent past in order to better understand an ever-complicating situation.




There is no exact date for the start of the second Chechen war. Most observers identify the starting point as 30 September 1999, when Russian troops entered Chechnya. However, by July-August 1999, the Russian air force was bombing the Chechen territories, especially the mountains.  The so-called active phase of the conflict, characterized by extensive bombing and thousands of civilian victims, can be understood as completed only if one considers the Russian army’s advance into the country and its establishment of control over most villages in the republic. However, the overt battle between Russian and Chechen forces turned into an ongoing military conflict.


During these 11 years, the Russian security services have managed to eliminate most Chechen leaders, including the democratically elected president Aslan Maskhadov. The same destiny awaited his successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, and a better-known commander, Shamil Basayev, both killed in 2006. By then the Chechen opposition, virtually decapitated, faced its most critical point since the beginning of the war. On the one hand, the Kremlin relied on the so-called “Chechenization” of the conflict by conspicuously financing many Chechen military divisions loyal to Russia, led by Kadyrov. Furthermore, many thousands of Russian soldiers were still present in the country. The local population, after years of struggling to survive the war, found itself hostage to the Kremlin's new strategy. For one person joining the resistance, a whole family or village would suffer exemplary punishments. Consequently, people were too scared to provide any kind of material support or even publicly express sympathy for the rebels.




In these very critical conditions, the leadership of the Chechen rebels passed to Umarov, hero of the first Chechen war and one of the few battlefield leaders of the old generation. In the recent past, Umarov had been one of the moderate Chechen commanders, but the complicating situation led him to quickly adopt an explicit, radical Islamic rhetoric. It should be noted that, until 2007, the Chechen rebel forces included not only Chechen soldiers, but also troops from throughout the northern Caucasus – the so-called Caucasian front. The Chechen wars, as long predicted by many observers, had extended to the neighboring regions. The bloody clashes between the army and the anti-Russia rebels of Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria were raging even more furiously than in Chechnya itself.


Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for the Moscow subway bombings in March.


In 2007, Umarov announced the creation of a new state under the pompous name of Caucasus Emirate. By replacing the apparently outdated idea of Chechen national independence, he appealed to the fact that neighboring republics shared Chechnya’s opposition to Russia. Since the mujahideen of the other republics were not eager to fight and die for Chechen independence, he needed them to join forces against Russia under the name of Islam and based on a unitary Caucasian state. Rebels did not enthusiastically accept this decision by Umarov, who became their leader through the procedures set by the Constitution of Ichkeria (the self-proclaimed Chechen independent state), which states that a president who dies is replaced by his deputy. Some battlefield leaders, but also representatives of the Chechen opposition in Europe, considered the declaration of the new Caucasus Emirate a betrayal of the ancient independence goals for Chechnya. Some also stated that the Russian security services financed the proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate in order to take away the legal basis for Chechen independence and to stigmatize the opposition movement as Islamic terrorism. Yet, despite the violent criticism, few Chechen commanders dared to openly confront Umarov, apparently believing the captain should not be changed in the middle of the match.


Over the following three years, Umarov's rhetoric has become increasingly extremist, but little has changed for Chechnya or the rest of the northern Caucasus. The Russian troops and Kadyrov's men keep using terror and violence against the population. The rebels keep performing small raids against the soldiers. Occasionally, Umarov states he knows about and supports all significant terrorist acts on the Russian territory, which has a strong impact on the rebels' overall reputation.


Sometimes the situation reaches the absurd, as when the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus claimed responsibility for an explosion in a mid-rank manager's garage in Moscow or an accident in a power plant. Thus, the very idea of independence was gradually compromised not only in the eyes of external observers, but also in those of the Chechen population itself. For this ideal, thousands of young soldiers died in the last wars, hundreds of thousands people were killed in bloody chaos, and many more were forced to leave their homeland to seek refuge beyond the Russian borders. Those who stay have to live in terror and fear.




Last summer, a split developed among the rebels. After contradictory statements by Umarov concerning his retirement, some Chechen commanders, led by Khuseyn Gakayev, declared they no longer trusted him, although they are committed to keep fighting against Russian occupation. Presumably, their refusal to follow Umarov indicates their intention not to be “the Chechen wing of the global jihad,” but to strive for independence by forcing the Russian side to negotiate for peace.


In this regard, Gakayev and his men are unlikely to fully reject the idea of the unification of the Caucasus. It will be even more difficult for them to escape the Islamic flag: to do so would mean losing consensus among the young opposition who resent both the smothering system of terror and repression established by the pro-Russian administration and Umarov's radically pro-jihad statements. After reclaiming the struggle for Chechen independence, Gakayev and company will more likely keep middle positions, which will undoubtedly bring them new supporters and significantly widen their social base – also because many young people are disappointed by Kadyrov but do not wish to join some sort of Chechen wing of Al Qaeda.


Thus, 11 years after the beginning of the second Chechen war, part of the rebels went back to the origins, as did the Russian government. After so many years of efforts and victims, the Russian leadership faces the fact that neither erasing whole towns and villages, nor massively financing pro-Russian Chechen forces and the cleverly labeled “Chechenization of the conflict” has ended years of mass terror. These tactics have not brought the Russian government closer to the goal of wiping from the Chechen people's consciousness the hostility toward Russia and its representatives as well as finally delegitimizing and suppressing the opposition by casting it under the label of “international terrorism.”


All this means that unfortunately, in the near future, we can expect violent attacks like those in Tsentoroi or the parliament at anytime, anyplace. Which in turn can only lead to intensified terrorism and violence by Russian security forces.

Majnat Kurbanova worked as a correspondent for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta from Grozny from the start of the second Chechen war until 2004. She has been living in exile in Germany since then. This article originally appeared in Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

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