From Nationalism to Islamism: Separatism in Post-Soviet Chechnya (Part Two)

This is Part Two of a three-part series on the evolution of separatism in Chechnya in the post-Soviet era. You can find Part One here.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

 

The First Chechen War (1994-1996): Nationalism Erupts into War for Independence

The first war between Chechnya and the Russian Federation was protracted and especially bloody. Casualty estimates fluctuate wildly. Many estimates leave casualty numbers between 50,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians and 17,300 Chechen militants/military killed. For its part, it’s estimated that Russia lost more than 5,700 military personnel and more than 150 civilians in the war. However, these numbers are disputed and the real number of deaths is difficult to assess.

The first Chechen war lasted more than 20 months and ended with a tenuous agreement between the Russian Federation and Chechnya. This agreement ostensibly granted the Chechens independence. The period between the first and second Chechen wars was a moderate victory for separatists. Chechen government officials administered the region with reduced influence from Moscow. Clashes between the two sides ceased.

A Chechen man prays during the battle for Grozny. The flame in the background is coming from a gas pipeline which was hit by shrapnel. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev.

A Chechen man prays during the battle for Grozny. The flame in the background is coming from a gas pipeline which was hit by shrapnel. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev.

Galeotti’s overview of the first Chechen war highlights the destruction that the conflict wreaked upon the region. In particular, Galeotti underlines the intensity of the outcome’s impact on both Russia and Chechnya. For Russia, the withdrawal of Russian military forces from the restive republic meant an internationally recognized defeat. The military had proven to lack capability and its readiness for such a mission to suppress separatism was viewed by others within the Russian Federation as an inspiration for insurrection. For Chechens, the victory represented the culmination of nearly two centuries of battle against domination by their northern Russian neighbors. The satisfaction of autonomy from Moscow, even if limited, was a boon to Chechnya’s nationalist character. Galeotti writes:

Post-Soviet Russia fought its first war – the First Chechen War – in 1994-96. In effect, it lost: a nation with a population of 147 million was forced to recognize the effective autonomy of Chechnya, a country one-hundredth its size and with less than one-hundredth of its people. A mix of brilliant guerrilla warfare and ruthless terrorism was able to humble Russia’s decaying remnants of the Soviet war machine. (Galeotti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994– 2009. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009. Osprey Publishing. 2014.)

"Chechen Madonna" Description: "I was unable to help anybody since my right arm was broken. There was no time for helping. Everybody was lying on the ground, both shoppers and merchants. One on top of another. I found out later that three were lying on top of my husband, all of them were dead. He survived. I heard neither screams nor groans. I just saw opened mouths and grimaces. The survivors were trying to move but kept falling down again. I held my wounded arm and ran behind a counter. I was looking for my husband, but hadn't found him. I was hoping to see at least his coat which he was dressed in. I stepped over the bodies, slipped on the blood, fell down and was rolling in blood as I tried to get up. I fell again, got up and suddenly saw my husband in his leather coat. I went closer, touched him, shook him, and he opened his eyes. Then we realized that we were both alive."  Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

“Chechen Madonna”
Description: “I was unable to help anybody since my right arm was broken. There was no time for helping. Everybody was lying on the ground, both shoppers and merchants. One on top of another. I found out later that three were lying on top of my husband, all of them were dead. He survived. I heard neither screams nor groans. I just saw opened mouths and grimaces. The survivors were trying to move but kept falling down again. I held my wounded arm and ran behind a counter. I was looking for my husband, but hadn’t found him. I was hoping to see at least his coat which he was dressed in. I stepped over the bodies, slipped on the blood, fell down and was rolling in blood as I tried to get up. I fell again, got up and suddenly saw my husband in his leather coat. I went closer, touched him, shook him, and he opened his eyes. Then we realized that we were both alive.”
Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

Russian public opinion of the military action in Chechnya (which was largely unfavorable) eventually forced President Boris Yeltsin forced the government in Moscow to agree to a ceasefire. On August 31, 1996 in neighboring Dagestan, the two belligerents signed the Khasav-Yurt Joint Declaration and Principles for Mutual Relations”. The Khasav-Yurt Agreement formed a foundation for cooperation in ending the conflict and establishing a structure of governance that led to more autonomy for Chechen leaders. However, the peace would be comparatively short-lived.

The origins of the modern conflict in Chechnya must be analyzed in context of recent history in order to thoroughly assess the catalysts for the two most recent wars. In particular, the wars of the 19th century and the deportations that calcified in the national identities of many North Caucasians through familial heritage are an extraordinarily strong driver of modern nationalism in Chechnya. As Moshe Gammer notes:

“…on 23 February 1944 all Daghestani Chechens were ‘deported’ to Central Asia together with their co-ethnics across the border.7 Thirteen years later, in 1957, the Chechens (like other ‘deported’ peoples) were ‘rehabilitated’ by Khrushchev and allowed to return to their homeland. Relations between the Chechens and the authorities in Makhachkala as well as with the other Daghestani nationalities, mainly the Avars, remained awkward. The Chechens harboured the feeling that the republican authorities did not make any effort to protect them from ‘deportation’ as the authorities did with regard to other, ‘core’ Daghestani nationalities. Indeed, in the glasnost years and after Chechens often bluntly accused the then republican party secretary (who was an Avar) of selling the Aki Chechens out in order to save others from ‘deportation’.” (Gammer, Moshe. “From the challenge of nationalism to the challenge of Islam: the case of Daghestan”. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)

A Chechen fighter holds up his home-made gun during the battle for Grozny, January 1995. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev.

A Chechen fighter holds up his home-made gun during the battle for Grozny, January 1995. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev.

The first war in Chechnya was a product of decades of administrative subordination by Russian dominated political apparatuses. As the Chechens were subjected to mass deportation and outright marginalization from the rungs of power in the Soviet Union, nationalism grew to a level that was unsustainable. Given the opportunity to reach for independence just as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, Chechen nationalists seized the moment. The resulting bloody war was a product of this period in time. Anatol Lieven makes special note of the environment at the time of the creation of the Russian Federation. The motivation for Chechens to pursue independence was clear in context of the eroding mechanisms by which the Soviets had ruled in the Soviet Union’s final years as well as the Russians who would dominate the political structure of the newly formed Russian Federation. This created an almost perfect storm for the emergence of Chechen separatism to the forefront of politics in the Caucasus:

“In the early 1990s, both the Russian central state and the Chechen state got much weaker; but both in fact were stronger than they appeared. The Chechen state was stronger because, as the event proved, it could in the last resort rely on the support of the great majority of its members in the face of outside attack. The Russian state was stronger than many thought because, with the sole exception of the Chechens, it did not face really determined ethnic secessionist movements from its federal elements. This was a key difference between the new Russian Federation and the old Soviet Union, and a key reason why the new Russia has endured even in the face of military defeat…” (Lieven, Anatol. “Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power.” Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1998. 56.)

Carolotta Gall and Thomas de Waal summarize the tragedy of the first Chechen conflict by noting the failure of the negotiators to ensure a codified structure for a future Chechen state. They note that the failure of the politicians and officials to avoid war was due to both ignorance and a nationalized public:

“The tragedy of Chechnya is that the war could have been avoided and pride satisfied on both sides if the Chechens could have struck a deal with Moscow on ‘special status’ or a moratorium on independence in 1992 and 1993. The Chechens could have agreed to it even if they didn’t intend to observe it. Dudayev said several times that if he had had a face-to-face meeting with Yeltsin everything could have been sorted out. Possibly such a meeting would not have achieved anything. But more than 60,000 deaths later it would have been worth an attempt. While Moscow repeated the slogan of ‘territorial integrity’, Chechnya repeated the slogan of ‘independence’. The issue was really one of freedom and human rights of a long-oppressed people. Using the formulae ‘sovereignty’ or ‘self-determination’, there were plenty of possibilities for constructive compromise.” Gall, Carlotta and Thomas de Waal. “Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus”. New York University Press. New York and London. 1998. 370.)

 

The Second Chechen War: To Islamism

In September of 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow killed nearly 300 Russians and injured 650. These bombings, together with the ongoing war in Dagestan (neighboring Chechnya to its east), effectively ignited the second war in Chechnya. As The Economist explains, the fundamental underpinning of the conflict was altered in a fundamental way in the interwar period that separated the first war in Chechnya from the second:

“The second war in 1999 began with an insurgence of Chechen rebels into Dagestan, with the aim of freeing their Muslim brothers from occupation by infidels. The Islamisation of the conflict opened up a fierce sectarian fight between Sufism, a traditional form of Islam based on local customs, and Salafism, a more radical form that promotes sharia law.” (“Islamists in Russia.”, The Economist, April 27, 2013)

Aslan Maskhadov, third President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in 1999. Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

Aslan Maskhadov, third President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in 1999.
Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

At the time of the second outbreak of war in Chechnya, former Chechen separatist military leader Aslan Maskhadov had been elected to the office of president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the de facto independent Chechnya of the brief interwar period. Maskhadov had begun moving to avoid the co-opting of the nationalist-based Chechen separatist movement by Islamists, but with little success. In doing so, Maskhadov’s ruling nationalists had split with Shamil Basayev’s Islamist group. In an effort to placate the Islamists and avoid a split, Maskhadov agreed to install Sharia Law in February of 1999. It did little to sate the appetite of the Islamist guerilla militants for further action against Russian domination. During this time, there were several attempts on Maskhadov’s life, all assumed to be conducted by Russian intelligence services.

Islamist Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev in 1995.  Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

Islamist Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev in 1995.
Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

Basayev was instrumental in integrating Wahhabism into a Chechen conflict that prior to the second war had been largely characterized by nationalist sentiment. Basayev’s Salafist sponsors were a key component that changed the overarching character of the Chechen conflict from one based in nationalism to one firmly rooted in Islamist ideology and Salafism:

“The armed activity of the Salafis has been guided by the principles of jihad and was aimed at pursuing an alternative state-building project—the creation of an Islamic Caliphate in the Northern Caucasus based on fundamentalist values. Basayev, as a military strategist, quickly realized the organizational benefits of ‘Wahhabi’ structures and the efficiency of their mechanisms for generating support. In particular, by the summer of 1998 following his failure as Prime Minister and with his heroic image rapidly fading away, Basayev became increasingly involved in Salafi projects. Basayev was in good contacts with the Daghestani Islamist leaders and when the prosecution of salafis in Daghestan intensified he encouraged their migration to Chechnya. He then successfully employed Islam for his political ends in Chechnya, namely to compete with Maskhadov for power.” (Sokirianskaia, Ekaterina. “Ideology and conflict: Chechen political nationalism prior to, and during, ten years of war”. Chapter 7. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)

In 1999, Basayev and other Islamist leaders sought to incite a wider war against Russia. Moscow declared that the perpetrators of the apartment bombing were led by Saudi-born jihadist Ibn al-Khattab, a veteran of Afghanistan’s war against Soviet occupation. Al-Khattab was falsely reported killed on numerous occasions. Many of those false reports embolden al-Khattab and encouraged followers. However, al-Khattab was finally killed when Ibragim Alauri (a Dagestani courier who was working for al-Khattab) was sent by FSB officials to locate al-Khattab while carrying a letter laced with a nerve agent. The operation resulted in al-Khattab’s assassination in Dagestan. Maskhadov opposed the plan and advised against it. Basayev went ahead anyway and began incursions into Dagestan. The incursions into Dagestan, taken together with the apartment bombings, effectively ignited the second Chechen war. The second war raged for years and slowly the conflict evolved from one inspired by nationalism-based separatism to one based largely on Islamist ideology, pivoting around Islamist leaders such as Basayev.

After a short ceasefire with Russia in 2005, Maskhadov was targeted again by the Russian security services. In March, the Russian FSB raided a location, resulting in the death of Maskhadov. Following the operation, contradictory reports alternatively claimed that Maskhadov was the victim of inadvertent fire during the initial raid or was victim to fire from his own group. The official report by the FSB originally stated that they had intended to take Maskhadov alive. FSB reports state that the Chechen leader was killed during the raid by a grenade from Russian forces. Other reports assert that Maskhadov’s nephew had shot his uncle while carrying out a prior agreement between the two to kill Maskhadov if there were ever a chance the Russians would take him alive.

Shamil Basayev (left) and Ibn al Khattab. Photo courtesy of The Hindu.

Shamil Basayev (left) and Ibn al Khattab. Photo courtesy of The Hindu.com.

Basayev later tracked down Alauri, the courier that had assassinated al-Khattab. Alauri was found in Azerbaijan and was killed on the orders of Basayev. Basayev himself went on to continue fighting, later becoming known for conducting the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (also located in the North Caucasus), which killed more than 350 children. Basayev was killed in a massive (and curious) explosion in neighboring Ingushetia near its border with North Ossetia. According to The Long War Journal, the detonation of the device that felled the Chechen militant leader was assessed to have been the result of an accident. However, many theories also point to an assassination plot carried out by Russian intelligence services and the true cause of Basayev’s death remains one of debate among many Chechens. The second Chechen war officially carried on through multiple iterations, lasting until 2009 when the FSB officially declared the end of operations in support of anti-terrorism. However, Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule steadily wore through separatism in Chechnya and militants were relegated to short and intense bursts of attacks on infrastructure and population centers.

While many theories exist as to whether the apartment bombings that essentially catalyzed the second war in Chechnya were conducted by North Caucasus-based Islamist militants or Russian security services (most theories revolve around the FSB, led at the time by Director Vladimir Putin), what followed was another decade of war in the North Caucasus. Many analysts assert that the rise of Putin can be directly attributed to the attack and his later authoritative posturing on the crisis. The rise of Putin would ultimately lead directly to the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov.

 

The Rise of Ramzan Kadyrov

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov at a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2011.  Photo courtesy of government.ru.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov at a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2011.
Photo courtesy of government.ru.

On February 15, 2007 Russian President Putin officially removed then Chechen President Alu Alkhanov, replacing him with Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, then having just turned 30 years old. The move was entirely expected, delayed only by Kadyrov’s age. By installing the son of the assassinated former President Akhmad Kadyrov, Putin placed an influential and brutal leader in the presidency of a region that was still reeling with separatist violence and a growing Islamist influence in the insurgency still wracking the region. The move would prove to be a decision that would pay dividends for stability for the remainder of the second war in Chechnya and beyond. Again Galeotti writes of the impact of the Kadyrov family:

“Akhmad and more especially Ramzan Kadyrov have been crucial instruments of Putin’s success in Chechnya. By installing a Chechen government – and two presidents who fought against the Russians in the First Chechen War – Moscow can claim a degree of legitimacy, even if international assessments are that the elections held to elevate both Kadyrovs were neither free nor fair. More to the point, by ‘Chechenizing’ the war and passing the bulk of the mopping-up operations to local forces, the Kremlin could minimize Russian casualties and get round the evident problems with the fitness, training and morale of many of its own troops. The Kadyrovtsy and similar Chechen forces, drawn largely from ex-rebels, knew the land and their enemies’ tactics and hideouts. They also provided an escape valve, a means whereby rebels (and especially those of the old-school nationalist variety) who had tired of the struggle or who were disenchanted by the slide towards terrorism and jihadism could defect with safety and honour.” (Galeotti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994– 2009. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009. Osprey Publishing. 2014.)

SOCHI. With President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov in August 2009. Photo courtesy of www.Kremlin.ru.

SOCHI. With President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov in August 2009.
Photo courtesy of www.Kremlin.ru.

Kadyrov’s rise to lead Chechnya in the wake of the launching of the second Chechen war was meteoric. Having switched sides with his father and the Kadyrov clan at the outset of the second war, Kadyrov was well-positioned to eventually impact the conflict in a way that far exceeded any Chechen leader, separatist or Russian-aligned, in the post Soviet period.

Kadyrov has taken on the issue of Chechen separatism with a particularly fervent animosity for the militants battling against Russian rule. Throughout the period of both his time as prime minister as well as president, Kadyrov and his government have been the subject of accusations of egregious human rights abuses. A rebel who fought the Russian government in the first Chechen war, Kadyrov switched sides (along with his father) at the outset of the second Chechen war. Following his father’s lead, Ramzan quickly rose to the position of prime minister following then-Prime Minister Sergei Abramov’s car accident in late 2005. In an effort to co-opt the surging initiative and popular support of the growing Islamism-based insurgency during the second Chechen war, Kadyrov installed Sharia law and largely sought to undermine the claims of the Islamist opposition to the moral high ground in the second war. Chechnya has remained under Sharia law ever since.

THE KREMLIN, MOSCOW. With the President of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadrov. Photo courtesy of Presidential Press and Information Office and attribute www.kremlin.ru.

THE KREMLIN, MOSCOW. With the President of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadrov. Photo courtesy of Presidential Press and Information Office and attribute www.kremlin.ru.

By the time of his appointment as the head of Chechnya, Kadyrov had become very influential even outside of Chechnya within the Russian Federation. That influence has carried over to today. Comparatively, there are few leaders today in Russia that can lay claim to a similar level of regional power. Throughout his rule, Kadyrov has been characterized by his critics as an organized criminal leader running a region in the Federation. Other critics go further to accuse him of running Chechnya as a criminal state within a state. Kadyrov is also a very capable political leader who has repeatedly reinforced the notion that his ultimate loyalty is to Putin himself. As a result, Putin has given Kadyrov wide latitude by which to exert his authority over Chechnya. The payoff for Putin remains the subjugation of an insurgency and separatist movement in a region of extraordinarily important geopolitical consequence for Moscow.

Russian Orthodox dignitaries , Ramzan Kadyrov and Mufti Sultan Mirzaev at the opening of Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny in July 2008.  Photo courtesy of Juerg Vollmer.

Russian Orthodox dignitaries , Ramzan Kadyrov and Mufti Sultan Mirzaev at the opening of Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny in July 2008.
Photo courtesy of Juerg Vollmer.

Throughout Kadyrov’s reign as leader of Chechnya has been accusations that the leader is involved in or has ordered the assassinations of journalists, human rights leaders, dissidents, and political opposition have been leveled consistently by his opponents and adversaries. More recently, Kadyrov has been the subject of accusations of involvement in the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27, 2015. The intrigue that followed the assassination of Nemtsov was made more curious by the 10-day media hiatus of Putin that followed and the arrest of five ethnic Chechens. The detained Chechen suspects include Zaur Dadayev, a former deputy commander of the Sever (North) Chechen battalion. Russian authorities claimed to have conducted forensic analysis confirmed that Dudayev had been the assassin who murdered Nemtsov. Dayev’s original statement of responsibility further clouded the investigation. However, Dadayev has since retracted that statement.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov in June 2012. Photo courtesy of government.ru.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov in June 2012.
Photo courtesy of government.ru.

These curiosities add context to the importance of Ramzan Kadyrov’s leadership in Chechnya and his ability to suppress separatism in the region. For Moscow, Kadyrov’s ongoing effort to mitigate rising insurrectionist sentiment among the Chechens is an essential part of Russia’s strategy to ensure their dominance of the region. The North Caucasus remains a vital area for Russian strategists for several reasons, among these energy resources in the Caspian Sea and the historical trend of destabilizing separatism in Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.

The two Chechen wars fought by Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union are an important historical benchmark for Moscow. Any separatism rising from the North Caucasus would have far-reaching consequences for a Russian regime that aspires to a return to great power status. To understand why separatism in Chechnya poses such a great threat to the security of the Russian Federation, one must understand the evolution of the most recent Chechen separatist movement from one based in nationalism to one that is dominated by Islamism and international sponsorship.

In Part Three, I will conclude the series by assessing the impact of two decades of separatist conflict in Chechnya. I will examine the impact of the evolution of the character of the separatism from nationalism to Islamism and look ahead to what it means for the future of Chechnya.

(Featured photo: A Chechen fighter runs past a burnt Russian armoured personnel vehicle {BMP-2} during the battle for Grozny during the first Chechen war in 1995. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev.)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.