The Chechnya Conflict: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

By Hughes, James | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Chechnya Conflict: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?


Hughes, James, Demokratizatsiya


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 nationbuilding 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. Thus, you only became a terrorist when you killed against their interests."3

Recent state definitions of terrorism are generic and are applied in such a politicized and selective manner as to undermine their credibility. Modern academic definitions of terrorism, in contrast, generally identify the act as illegitimate not because of the ends to which it is applied, but because of what it entails as a means of violence, namely, that it implies violent action against civilians or noncombatants.4 States may sometimes interpret the term noncombatant generously to include their military personnel who are off duty or otherwise not actively engaged in conflict. But the international laws and customs of war (notably, the Geneva Conventions) employ "noncombatant" as a synonym for "civilian."5 One of the key elements in the academic definitions is the notion that the immediate target of a terrorist attack is secondary and is a proxy for communicating a threat to a primary target that is elsewhere-the wider political community or government. …

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