Chechnya: Moscow's Revenge

By Jean, Francois | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Chechnya: Moscow's Revenge

Jean, Francois, Harvard International Review

The Human-Rights Debacle in Chechnya

The period of respite is over. After three years of uneasy calm, Chechnya once more finds itself in the grip of war. The Khasavyurt Accords of August 31, 1996, which brought an end to two years of conflict, were ultimately nothing more than a brief hiatus in the centuries-old confrontation between Russians and Chechens. It did not take long for the excesses generated by the anarchy in Grozny to be manipulated by the cynical maneuvers of the Kremlin oligarchy and for Chechnya to be set once more on the road to confrontation with Russia. It seemed inevitable that Chechnya, marked by two centuries of resistance to Russian colonialism and so recently devastated by fighting (December 1994 to August 1996), would once again fall into a morass of violence and conflict.

After three years, the course of history appears to be repeating itself. It would be comical if it were not so disastrous for Chechnya, Russia, and the Caucasus. This new war will be even crueler than the previous war, which decimated the Chechen population. It will be a more absurd war, too, because neither of the two goals formulated by Russia's reckless leaders--the "liquidation of the terrorists" and the "liberation of Chechnya"--is likely to be achieved. And it will also be a more worrisome war because it casts a particularly harsh light on the present state of Russia's social and political systems and threatens to drag the entire Caucasus into the dispute.

State in Crisis

For the past three years, Chechnya has been in a state of limbo, tormented both by de facto independence and a state of anarchy that is liable to degenerate into fratricidal conflict. Because the Chechen state has been unable to assert its legitimacy and the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has been unable to assert his authority, the country has become a hunting ground for criminal and fundamentalist groups that operate with impunity.

The arrival of Islamic fundamentalist groups known as Wahhabis is one such example. Their arrival was unexpected because they oppose all forms of popular religion, including Sufism, which is dominant in the northern Caucasus. In Chechnya, Islam was established by the Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya Sufi brotherhoods. Identifying with the national resistance movement during the wars of the nineteenth century, these brotherhoods became a central element of Chechen society during the era of Stalinist repression and deportation. Despite its antagonism towards the Sufis, the Wahhabi tradition successfully established itself thanks to the previous war, which profoundly disrupted Chechen society and hardened Chechen attitudes. Although the Wahhabi tradition remains marginal, it has consolidated its influence by offering a framework for socialization to disoriented young people in a devastated country. Fundamentalism did not, however, progress entirely unopposed. When the war ended, the Wahhabis were expelled from many ar eas, sometimes after armed struggles, as at Gudermes in the summer of 1998. Although the Wahhabis retreated to their strongholds, they continue to exert tremendous influence because of their economic clout. Aided by the blockade imposed by Moscow and the withdrawal of the few humanitarian organizations present in Chechnya, fundamentalist networks have effectively become the only source of external financing in Chechnya.

The Wahhabi groups exhibit considerable potential to destabilize Chechnya as shown by their armed intervention in neighboring Dagestan. In early August 1999, and again in the following month, Shamil Bassaev and Khattab, a Wahhabi commander of Saudi origin who fought in Chechnya during the last conflict, crossed over to Dagestan with several hundred fighters to assist an Islamic group in the region of Botlikh and Tsumada. This incursion by militant Wahhabis was backed by sponsors from the Middle East and was resisted by Dagestani federal forces. Together with the deadly bomb attacks carried out in Russia in August and September 1999, this military escapade (to which Chechen hard-liners either foolishly committed themselves or into which they allowed themselves to be led) provided the trigger, or the pretext, for Russia's present war against Chechnya. …

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