TCS Daily

Chechen Outreach?

By Dmitry Shlapentokh - February 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Recently, the Internet site Kavkaz—the organ of the Chechens who have engaged in almost 15 years of war with Russia—published a lengthy discussion between two leading members of the movement: Akhmed Zakaev and Movladi Udugov. They each assessed the future of the movement and its nature. Interestingly enough, the Russian mass media, which usually ignore Chechen publications, immediately responded, sending the message that they are ready to compromise even with those whom they so recently had regarded as implacable terrorists.

Zakaev, who lives in London with his family and who played the role of vice prime minister of the virtual Chechen state, made his point clear. Chechens are to proceed with the policy and the programs with which they started their struggle with the Russians after the collapse of the USSR. In fact, Zakaev implied that it is a continuation of the Chechen struggle in the first half of the 19th century. The nature of the struggle implies that Chechen leadership should appeal to Chechen nationalism and forge an independent Chechen state. This state is to be respectful to the Islamic tradition, but its foundation is to be the Chechen nationalistic animus in the context of international law.

Udugov, until recently minister of propaganda for the virtual Chechen government, promulgated quite a different ideology. Not the Chechen state but universal Khalifat should be the goal of the movement. For this reason Chechen fighters should appeal not just to Chechens but to all Muslims, including converts, even if they are ethnic Russians.

This lengthy document, published on the official Chechen site, is important for various reasons. One, which seems to be obvious, is that it indicates a deep split among the Chechen leadership. But there is another aspect of the story that has been ignored by foreign observers: Moscow, troubled by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, has sent Zakaev a signal that it is ready to compromise with his people regardless of the legacy of the past .

Zakaev is hardly a darling of the Russian elite. In fact, in 2004, when hostage-taking in Beslan in southern Russia led to the death of several hundred children, Soviet authorities proclaimed that Zakaev (who was already in London), together with others, was responsible for the crime, and demanded that he be sent back to Russia. At the same time, after the publication of the discussion, Izvestiia, one of the leading Russian national vehicles, published quite a sympathetic article on Zakaev. In fact, it is possibly the first time in post-Soviet history when a major liberal newspaper has published a positive article about a leading person in the Chechen resistance, especially one who is implicitly connected with child-killing. In Vladimir Putin's Russia with its tight control over the mainstream media, this article could hardly been published without the tacit approval of the Kremlin.

In the article, the reader would find that Zakaev was not a hardened terrorist but a refined intellectual and former actor. His hobnobbing with other prominent Russian exiles in London—including the notorious tycoon Boris Berezovsky, mortal enemy of Putin—was the result not of a lack of principles but of purely pragmatic considerations. Zakaev needed money and actually despised his benefactor. Moreover, the author of the piece even expressed his sympathy for Zakaev when he had spent time in limbo, fearing that he would be given to the Russian government. In his turn, Zakaev expressed his love not just for Russia but even for Russian soldiers, and went so far as to proclaim, according to the article, that he would be ready to defend Russia against foreign threats.

Why is there such sympathy for Zakaev? The reason is that he represents the nationalistic animus of not just Chechens but other ethnic groups in Russia who want, if not independence, at least greater autonomy from Moscow. This movement undoubtedly bothers Moscow; but it does not constitute much of a threat, at least in the short run, because the members of these groups with their strong nationalistic feelings are usually separated from each other.

The story is different with the jihadists—represented by Udugov—with their emphasis on ideological bonds. They embrace all types of people and could not just unify the Muslims of the Caucasus but spread all over Russia. Moreover, the Islamic jihadists, more than anybody else, engage in wholesale terror, discarding any proposals for compromise. It is clear that Moscow was pleased by the split of Chechen nationalists from jihadists and, implicitly, sent a message of its willingness to compromise, as the Izvestiia article indicated. Of course, only time will show whether Moscow's overture will work.

The writer is an associate professor at Indiana University and author of East Against West (Publish America, 2005).


1 Comment

Promoting democracy
You can't encourage a Zakaev without giving sustenance to an Udugov. Satisfy the national aspirations of the Chechen people (as must eventually happen) and they will form their own government. A pro-Russian party and a pan-Islamist party are only two of a number of distinct political persuasions that will form in such a republic.

America has made its choice-- to part with its traditional allies the corrupt and fossilized dictatorships, and embrace whoever may be the victor when people are permitted actual self rule. One has to accept that the Chechens will decide, once freedom is attained, in which camp their own best interests lay. I don't think they will seek our advice in the matter.

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