Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Chechnya Conflict: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Chechnya Conflict: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Article excerpt

Abstract: The term terrorism is one of the most politicized and contested concepts in the modern era. Russia has consistently framed the conflict in Chechnya as an issue of terrorism and banditry. Western policy has been inconsistent, oscillating between criticism of Russia's excessive application of force and sympathy for Russia, in particular after 9/11 and the start of the war on terror. This article examines the debates over the nature of terrorism and explores whether terrorism is an analytically meaningful and useful concept to explain the conflict in Chechnya. It demonstrates that if we employ the most widely accepted and plausible definition of terrorism--the targeting of noncombatants--then the use of such tactics has been peripheral to the Chechen resistance, although it has gradually becoming more systematic in response to Russia's disproportionate brutality against Chechen civilians.

Keywords: Chechnya, Maskhadov, military, Putin, Russia, terrorism


Armed conflicts remind us that definitions and labels have political consequences and are therefore politicized. Russia's policy toward secessionist Chechnya from the early 1990s onward has consistently framed the conflict against the Chechen resistance in the idiom of a struggle against terrorism. Although Yeltsin periodically engaged in a peace process with the moderate leaders of the Chechen resistance, Putin's policy has been uncompromising. When asked by a journalist in February 2004 about the potential for negotiations in Chechnya, Putin rejected the idea outright: "Russia does not negotiate with terrorists, we destroy them." (1) Given that terrorism is one of the most politicized and contested concepts in the modern era, is it analytically meaningful or useful to apply it to any conflict, let alone the conflict in Chechnya? There is no international consensus as to what actions or principles the term terrorism should cover, and the adage "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter" captures succinctly the essential problem of politicized usage inherent in the term in Chechnya and elsewhere.

What Is Terrorism?

The founding fathers of the United States established the principle, based on the ideas of John Locke, that any group has the right to resort to armed rebellion to remove a tyrannical government, or "governments of force" as Thomas Jefferson put it. The most contentious definitional problem with the term terrorism, however, is how it should be distinguished from the legitimate use of violence in rebellion. Nonjudgmental and nonemotive terms such as insurgency, insurrection, rebellion, guerrilla, or partisan war are often employed to describe armed conflict. These terms are often associated with nationalist or nation-building revolts, revolutionary movements, and resistance to foreign occupation. States, especially colonial powers, have traditionally denied the political motivations and aspirations of nationalist resistance and have employed criminalizing references to denounce them, notably terms such as gangs, bandits, thugs, monsters, or terrorists. The framing of a conflict as terrorist in nature is a classic device employed by a state to denigrate legitimate resistance. States generally do not employ ordinary criminal procedure to repress such resistance but instead use special legal or security regimes. In managing counterinsurgency, states often adhere to the British colonial principle that sometimes "in order to maintain law and order ... it is necessary for government itself to break it for a time." (2) There are many historical contradictions of how states manipulate resistance and the term terrorism. As Chin Peng, the leader of the communist resistance to the British in Malaya stated: "When we worked with the British during the Japanese occupation and killed people--essentially in Britain's interests--we were neither bandits nor terrorists. Indeed, we were applauded, praised and given awards. …

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