TCS Daily

Russia's Phantom War on Terror

By Christian Jokinen - October 21, 2004 12:00 AM

The tragedy of the school siege of Beslan, North Ossetia, in the beginning of September was a reminder for the world of the fact that terrorist tactics have been successful in penetrating the North Caucasian conflict region. However, the common interpretations and conclusions arising from the tragedy show deep misunderstanding of the whole situation in the Caucasus as well as in the more general relations between Russia and its Muslim minorities and neighbor countries. The Chechen War as well as the other Caucasus conflicts is not about Russia fighting against terrorists, as often falsely presented. In Chechnya and increasingly also in its surrounding North Caucasian republics, there is a mix of various Russian government forces, national liberation movements or separatists, Islamist radicals, gangsters, private armies and local village-based defense or resistance formations. It is not only over-simplification but actually disinformation to present them belonging to two opposite camps only.

In the early 1990s, the situation was very different. During the de facto independence of Chechnya under President Dzhokhar Dudayev, a secular nationalist, Chechnya was secular and West-oriented, strongly rejecting Islamic extremism. While Islamism arrived in the Russian-ruled Dagestan and in Uzbekistan as early as in 1991-1992, in Chechnya this only happened when the Russian troops had assassinated Dudayev in April 1996. Resulting from Dudayev's death and the destruction of the Chechen state and infrastructure by Russian invasion, Wahhabi radicals began operating in Chechnya in late 1995. From the very beginning, they were a political opposition against the national independence movement. Three years later, the Islamists, led by the radical commander Shamil Basayev, were becoming a serious rival and threat to the secular Chechen nationalists. Ironically it was Moscow that insisted Basayev and some of his allies to be included in the nationalist-led government of President Aslan Maskhadov. Soon, however, Basayev completely broke up with Maskhadov's moderates and became a fundamentalist sponsored by mysterious Arab extremists.

Russia has not done much to fight terrorists, gangsters or radical Islamists in the Caucasus. Moscow's main concern was always separatism - in other words, continuation of the process that began by the collapse of Soviet communism. Many nations, including Chechnya's neighbor Georgia, had gained or regained their independence, and that was the one and only aspiration of the Chechen separatists, too. What Russia was afraid of was a "domino effect" - that granting Chechnya independence would launch a never-ending series of separatist demands across the empire. That was a phantom - only a few small non-Russian republics at the edges of the huge Russian landmass were seriously prepared to secede. But to cover the hollowness of the frightening chaos theory so efficiently marketed to Western analysts, Russia created additional phantoms out of "Islamic threat" and "terrorist conspiracy".

For a long period, in fact, Russia still saw the internationalism of radical Islamists as a force they could exploit to undermine the nation-building project of the Chechen independence movement. Russia did little to stop the spread of externally imported radical Islamism in the Caucasus, and was even arming several gangs, preparing them for armed rebellion against the secular Chechen nationalists. Groups of armed troublemakers that Russian secret services supplied with arms were released from Russian prisons to lead rebellions against Chechen and Georgian governments. Russia did nothing to stop their useful pawns from running trade on drugs and arms, contract killing, kidnapping and other forms of organized crime. The most notorious parts of the Chechen mafia were always on the Russian side since it allowed them to maintain their business in Russian cities and even abroad. Nothing of the kind is possible for the isolated and outgunned Chechen independence movement's guerrillas.

Also the Russian army in Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Javakhetia, Karabagh and all the North Caucasus became directly involved in organized crime and banditry. These forces consist of separate troops and installations of the military, the FSB, the GRU, the Ministry of Interior, as well as irregular troops such as Cossack regiments, "volunteer" paramilitaries, cadres of Russian ultranationalist organizations, and private armies of those local warlords who have a deal or a business relationship with Moscow. All of them started running arbitrary kidnapping for ransom as well as selling the bodies of tortured and murdered youths back to their relatives. Thousands of civilians, including children, have been murdered in this way, and dozens of mass graves have been discovered.

Now the lawlessness and arbitrary terror have turned against Russian society. Moscow's policy in the Caucasus has not only criminalized the borderlands of the empire and brought the rogue methods of war-zone policing to the streets of Russian cities. It has also attracted the international Islamist terrorists to the North Caucasus. The phantoms that Russian propaganda once created out of the strictly patriotic local nationalists who wished nothing more than self-determination are real now. Thanks to Russian policy, the moderate separatists have lost control over much of the Caucasus to various armed formations, some operating with Moscow's mandate, while others with claimed cause of Islam or resistance to Russian rule.

The author is an analyst of the Research Unit for Conflicts and Terrorism at the University of Turku, Department of Contemporary History.


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