Rebel Republic: Russia's Chechen Conundrum

Article excerpt

On face, the referendum held in Chechnya on March 24, 2003, seems like a hopeful sign. By a broad margin--Russian election officials reported roughly 95 percent of voters in favor--Chechens approved a Kremlin-backed draft constitution that would make Chechnya permanently and immutably subordinate to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking an end to the most recent four-year conflict, called the vote the resolution of "the last serious problem regarding Russia's territorial integrity."

But below the surface, this "progress" only bodes greater instability in Russia's renegade republic. International observers and foreign reporters--those who were allowed to view the proceedings at all--remain suspicious of voting irregularities, coercion, and electoral fraud. And much as most Chechens want to see an end to the dislocation of their region, it is unlikely that such a broad swath would agree to give up Chechnya's long-standing claims to independence. The referendum is but one example of the Russian orchestrations in Chechnya, which have stymied any possible peace in the region.

Likewise, in Chechnya's October 2003 presidential elections, the question is not whom the Chechen people will choose, but whom the Kremlin will pick. That impression was reinforced in mid-September 2003, when two leading candidates abruptly dropped from the ballot, which will likely clear the field for the current Russia-appointed leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, to win the election.

As Russia implements measure after authoritarian measure to gain control in Chechnya, the republic only becomes more volatile. Though Chechens generally practice a moderate form of Islam, fundamentalist Islamic militants known as Wahhabis have infiltrated the region in recent years. The result is a radicalized rebel population that has proclaimed Chechnya's struggle for independence as a jihad, a holy war against Russian infidels. Extremist Islamist organizations have provided outside aid to Chechen guerrillas, with both training and financial backing coming from sources in the Middle East. Rebels derive most of their funding, however, from criminal activities that include drug trafficking and oil smuggling. Kidnappings for ransom are another large source of illegal income in Chechnya, where thousands of people have gone missing. …

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