The contrast between the nationalistic sentiment of self-determination emphasised in the First Chechen War and the rhetorical transition towards radical Islam in the Second Chechen War has been highlighted by many as evidence of the significance of the Chechen conflict in the global ‘War on Terror’. A deliberate portrayal of the conflict in terms of the fight against international Islamic terrorism in the post-9/11 world has occurred by the Russian government, lending legitimacy to their methods and goals in the region. This essay will examine how Russia has managed to illustrate the Chechen conflict in terms of a global fight against international Islamic terrorism, and the validity and implications of this. The rhetoric and media coverage of the conflict as a counter-terrorism operation have proven particularly valuable after 9/11, and by ‘playing the Islamic card’ (Russell 2005: 111), Russia has been able to carry out the war without accountability. However, the role of the international community, the Chechen separatists, and the foreign Islamist jihadis themselves must also be scrutinised, as all three could be complicit to some extent in this depiction of the conflict as part of a global jihadist struggle, rather than a fight for Chechen independence and self-determination.
Russia has gone about portraying the conflict in Chechnya as ‘an anti-terrorist operation…fighting the threat of international Islamic terrorism rather than secession’ by utilising the ‘War on Terror’ as an ‘overarching conceptual prism’ (Snetkov 2007: 1352). The main feature of this has been the use of rhetorical action both at a governmental level and through the official media. It has proven to be a powerful instrument for Russia to designate the Chechens as Islamic terrorists ‘immersed in the totalitarian ideology of global jihad’ (Souleimanov 2008: 1200) rather than as fighting for the freedom of their homeland. To emphasise the ‘Al-Qaeda connection’, Russian officials have regularly exaggerated the international Islamic presence in Chechnya and across the North Caucasus, despite a lack of substantial evidence (Trenin 2004: 91). The framing of the conflict in terms of a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ has been highly politicised, being presented as part of a new, larger and more endemic threat to both Russia and global security rather than the alternative of a Russian ‘attempt to retain legitimacy and explain away the failure to resolve the Chechen crisis’ (Snetkov 2007: 1362).
Meanwhile the state-controlled media has reported the conflict in these terms, and ‘all coverage is compatible with official aims’ (Kramer 2005: 257). In 1999, the Putin Administration ordered all Russian news media to refer to the Chechen resistance fighters as ‘terrorists’ rather than designations such as ‘rebels’ or ‘insurgents’ (Russell 2005: 108). This manipulation of the media has been compounded by an attempt to maintain popular support by heightening anti-Chechen sentiments and ‘Caucasophobia’ among ethnic Russians, and this has been achieved by demonising the Chechens as representatives of international Islamic terrorism (112). The Russian response to terrorist attacks such as the Moscow apartment building bombings of September 1999 has been to demonise the entire Chechen separatist movement, invoking a Russian desire for revenge and inevitably contributing to the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Chechnya.
In addition to this, the state clampdown on independent media, and any reporting of the conflict in general, led to a lack of outspoken opposition. In an attempt to restrict negative reporting, Russia has banned the media from Chechnya as part of their waging of ‘information warfare’ (109). Journalists attempting to report on the Chechen conflict have come under huge governmental pressure, including beatings, intimidation and disappearances (Kramer 2005: 257). Criticism has not been tolerated, as tragically demonstrated in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of Russian policies in Chechnya (Politkovskaya 2004) who was murdered in 2006.
The post-9/11 international political climate proved particularly favourable to Russia’s depiction of the Chechen conflict by retrospectively justifying their policies towards Chechnya. Vladimir Putin has taken ‘every opportunity’ since 9/11 to present Russia’s conflict with the Chechens as a ‘component of the coalition’s overall struggle with Islamic insurgents’ (Russell 2007: 90) Western leaders including George W. Bush and Tony Blair notably drew parallels between the Russian and American experience of combating international Islamic terrorism (94). Meanwhile the phenomenon of ‘traumatised democracies’ led to an expression of mutual empathy between the United States and Russia, with terrorist attacks resulting in ‘intensified feelings of insecurity, an intolerance of any opposition to sometimes quite drastic counterinsurgency measures and an ambiguous attitude to both the norms of international law and the reaction of world public opinion’ (Russell 2005: 109). Thus, the West has shown passivity towards Russian policies in Chechnya, including a noteworthy lack of criticism of the widespread atrocities and human rights abuses throughout the conflict. This passivity occurred even at public level, with the mainstream media polarising the conflict as merely another front in the ‘War on Terror’, thereby marginalizing moderates. Perhaps an alleged ‘complexity fatigue’ on behalf of the general public is an issue here (Russell 2006: 961).
Active collusion between Russia and the West has even been suggested on the Chechen issue, as the U.S. attempted to win Russian backing in the UN Security Council for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At this time, the U.S. added three Chechen groups to the Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTO) list in an attempt to show solidarity with their newfound allies in the ‘War on Terror’ (Hughes 2007: 295). By doing so, the U.S. gave an ‘immense boost to Putin’s attempt to win international credibility for Russia’s claim that the war in Chechnya was part of a global war on terrorism’ (296). The events of 9/11 proved to be ‘a powerful catalyst for Russian-American rapprochement’, with the extent of co-operation between these unlikely allies resulting in the U.S. toning down any criticism of the brutal methods used by Russian troops in Chechnya (Trenin 2004: 204).
However, it must be acknowledged that Russia’s claim that the Chechen conflict is part of the ‘War on Terror’ is not totally baseless. Links do exist between the Chechen rebels and Arab terrorists in the Middle East, facilitated by Chechnya’s religious ties and the place of the North Caucasus in the grand narrative of global jihad (Mukhina 2005: 520-522). The ‘Islamic factor’ has certainly gained more prominence than it had during the First Chechen War, with methods, symbols, and rhetoric showing the influence of the radical Salafists upon the previously secular values of the Chechen separatist movement.
The Chechen use of tactics such as suicide bombing and mass-hostage taking have led to accusations of an alliance with al-Qaeda (Moore 2008: 425), whilst the events at both the Dubrovka Theatre and the Beslan School were dominated by radical Islamist rhetoric. Influential foreign mujahideen such as Ibn al-Khattab, of Saudi origin, have latched onto the movement and proceeded to frame Chechnya as part of a global jihadist struggle (Vidino 2005: 58). Furthermore, it must be noted that Islamist raids into Dagestan, ordered by Khattab and Shamil Basaev, were the chief factor in the launch of the Second Chechen War by Russia (Kramer 2005: 212). Despite this, although ‘foreign financiers and ideologues…played a prominent role in the Chechen resistance movement in the second conflict’ (Moore 2009: 90), a ‘complexity of unholy alliances’ existed with tensions between foreign fighters and Chechen separatists.
However, it is crucial to note that ‘Wahhabism has not replaced national separatism as the chief motivating force’ and attacks by Chechen separatists are confined to inside Russia, rather than on a global level (Kramer 2005: 252). The majority of Chechens have not adopted a wider Islamic fundamentalist cause, and global jihad is not their objective. Despite the arguments above, to depict the conflict in Chechnya as solely a counter-terrorist operation within the broader ‘War on Terror’ is a deliberate and strategic manipulation by the Russian government. By doing this, they have proven able to wage the war in Chechnya without accountability, whilst retaining legitimacy to the international community due to the fixation with international Islamic terrorism. There are many important local factors to note and the context of Chechnya is crucial, as it is difficult to generalise the Chechen conflict to other disputes.
First of all, it must be understood that the Muslim community itself is divided in Chechnya, with the Sufi majority differing substantially in religious practice to the imported Salafist minority, who are estimated to make up 10% of the Chechen population (Bowker 2004: 466). Indeed, there is a considerable degree of hostility from the Sufi majority, who feel the radical minority and its links to international terrorism have ‘poisoned’ their ‘valid claim for independence’ (Nivat 2005: 418). Furthermore, the locals are keenly attached to local customs and traditions, which are opposed by the Islamists, and associated the foreign newcomers with problems of drug trafficking and organised crime (Souleimanov 2008: 1208). The implementation of Shari’ah courts proved unpopular with many, and the reaction to Salafi ideals by the majority of Chechens was distinctly lukewarm. Additionally, the scale of any external forces has always been limited in Chechnya, estimated at just 200 at any given time (Wilhelmson 2005: 42-45).
The radicalisation of the Chechen resistance movement after the First Chechen War seems to have been largely as a uniting factor and tool of mobilisation. The legacy of Imam Shamil and the Chechen cultural narrative was invoked in the form of Islam to unite Chechens around the banner of independence, and this certainly proved to be ‘a useful mobilising tool’ (Wilhelmson 2005: 36). The idea that ‘money can buy ideas’ (40) in a desperate region is important here, as the financial and human resources provided by external Islamist groups seem to have far greater importance than their ideological and spiritual meaning.
Indeed, it has been frequently commented of the Chechen conflict that ‘Islam is but a cover for very secular pragmatic objectives in economic and political spheres and the religious renaissance is merely a convenient tool for attaining separatist ends’ (Trenin 2004: 73). Even in the horrific events of the Beslan School Siege of 2004, and the Dubrovka Theatre in 2002, terrorist demands never exceeded the local agenda of independence for Chechnya and a cessation of hostilities, showing that even this resort to terrorism may have been ‘a purely rational decision motivated by practical expediency rather than imported fanaticism’ (Souleimanov 2008: 1213).
This pragmatism would suggest that jihadists ‘mistakenly identified Chechnya as a new bridgehead in their world struggle’ (de Waal 2004: 60) and would lead to the conclusion that Russian treatment of the conflict as a counter-terrorism operation is erroneous. Despite this, the Chechen emphasis on Islamic fundamentalism, even if it is merely ‘spiritual clothing’, has facilitated Russia’s efforts to portray Chechnya as a vital battleground in the ‘War on Terror’.
Russia’s generalisation of all Chechen separatists as part of international Islamic terrorism resulted in a refusal to negotiate or compromise. This was despite the lack of radicalism among the moderate majority of the Chechen population, and the rejection of Salafism by the leader of the separatist movement, Aslan Maskhadov (Souleimanov 2008: 1211). Offers of negotiation by Maskhadov were rejected by Russia, thereby alienating moderate Chechens and forcing many into alliance with the radical warlords (Wilhelmson 2005: 50-1). The paradox of this refusal to compromise, as with much counter-terrorism policy, is that it inevitably created ‘fertile ground for further recruitment’ into the ranks of the extremists (53).
Furthermore, it is important to consider the underlying factors contributing to the radicalisation of Chechnya, including: their current and historical repression at the hands of Russia; corruption; poverty; socio-economic desperation; and the persistent violation of human rights. The conflict itself inevitably radicalises many, especially when alternatives to military resolution are rejected by Russia. The ‘disastrous extent of abuses’ by Russian troops in Chechnya, including extortion, beatings, torture, kidnappings, murder, and rape (Trenin 2004: 210), have served to reinforce the Chechen perception of injustice. Meanwhile due to the framing of the conflict as part of the ‘War on Terror’, there is a distinct lack of condemnation from the international community. Criticism after 9/11 gradually became ‘the sole domain of NGOs’, and the U.S. and Europe turned silent on the issue, with the only exceptions being Poland, Denmark, and the Czech Republic (Souleimanov 2008: 1203).
The current situation in Chechnya is one of ‘Chechenisation’ of the issue, by handing it over to the pro-Russian President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Whilst this has stabilised the situation somewhat, Kadyrov has shelved hopes of independence, thereby polarising the issue as one between the pro-Russian administration and international Islamic extremists. However, the radical elements of the Chechen separatist resistance are ‘home-grown…stemming from the brutality of the first war’ which ‘destroyed Chechen society and left behind a gaping hole that is still unfilled’ (de Waal 2004: 55). By framing the conflict as part of the global ‘War on Terror’, Russia has perhaps created a self-fulfilling prophecy in demonising the Chechen separatists and marginalizing moderates. Indeed, any who refuse total surrender are perceived by both Russia and the West to be advocates of Islamic terrorism (Russell 2005: 113).
To conclude, the Russian framing of the Chechen conflict as part of the global ‘War on Terror’ has been carried out by Russia for strategic goals. The deliberately misleading represention of Chechen separatists as ‘terrorists’ has occurred by demonising them and linking the conflict in Chechnya to the global struggle against international Islamic terrorism. However, external factors in the Chechen conflict are limited, and it is far more likely that ‘its horrors have been bred locally’ (de Waal 2004: 55) by centuries of repression culminating in the brutality evident in both Chechen wars. Russia has gone about this portrayal by utilising the power of rhetoric and the media, whilst the events of 9/11 and the ensuing launch of the U.S-led ‘War on Terror’ proved to be an invaluable opportunity, which was fully exploited.
By successfully linking the conflict in Chechnya to Al-Qaeda and international Islamic terrorism, Russia gained backing from the international community and its actions were therefore legitimised, as by default their opponents were ‘terrorists’. Whilst the Chechen resistance movement remains largely focused on goals of independence and self-determination, Russian policies and polarisation of the issue have resulted in the radicalisation of many. This is evident in the growing extremist Salafist minority, who wield significant influence. The desperation of the Chechen people pushes them into the arms of the extremists, albeit largely for pragmatic reasons to aid their local agendas. However, whilst their objectives remain localised, their methods grow increasingly brutal and desperate, as shown in the tragic events of the Beslan School Siege. By demonising the Chechen separatist movement and associating it with international Islamic terrorism, Russia may have succeeded in legitimising their own actions. However, the dangerously cyclical nature of violence, coupled with the increasing desperation of the Chechen people, could well result in the conflict descending into further chaos in the future, with no real diplomatic end in sight.
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Written by: Steven Hawkes
Written at: Monash University
Written for: Benjamin MacQueen
Date written: October 2010
We continue today with Part II of Anders T Carlsson’s essay “The Russian-Chechen conflict: Factors that triggered the conflict to become an armed conflict in 1994-1996 and then again in 1999”. Don’t forget to read Part I.
Political Factors that triggered the conflict to war
Political transitions is a triggering cause in the Russian-Chechen conflict. The Chechen decision to declare independence was taken by Dzhokhar Dudayev after being elected president in 1991. The Russian state had no intention to recognize this unilateral declaration. These two positions constitute the conflict over the Chechen territory.
The decision to start war in Chechnya in 1994 was taken by the Russian president Boris Yeltsin. In 1999 it was taken by the prime minister Vladimir Putin. These historic facts support the theory that political decisions most often are the proximate (triggering) causes for war. It is also important to state that the decisions by the leaders were taken due to underlying political (the urge to stay in power), economic and military-strategic factors.
From the Chechen declaration of independence in 1991 Dzhokhar Dudayev and Boris Yeltsin had a long and hostile arguing, both attacking and insulting each other. This increased the hostile situation. The personal antagonism and inability to raise above this is in my sources said to be the reason for why the conflict could not be solved by negotiations like it had been done in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.
In 1994 the ultra nationalist leader Zjirinovskij´s party had won 25% of the seats in the Duma – the Russian parliament. Yeltsin is said to have had ideas of a ”short successful war” to improve his popularity among the nationalists to be able to secure his power in the next presidential election. Intensifying leadership struggles is an important triggering cause explaining why the invasion of Chechnya was launched in December 1994. By the time for the campaign for the 1996 presidential elections the war was a heavy weight on the shoulders of president Yeltsin who gave order to negotiate a ceasefire. As a result the Russian troops left Chechnya but it was only a tactical and temporary withdrawal.
View of a gorge in the Caucasus Mountains in Chechnya.
Early color photograph from Russia, created by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1909 to 1915.
Photo from wiki.
During the summer of 1999 Chechen fighters went into Dagestan proclaiming to fight for the establishment of a joint Muslim state in Northern Caucasus. As a response Yeltsin fired the Russian prime minister Sergej Stepasjin and replaced him with the head of the internal security forces (FSB) Vladimir Putin. Putin declared that Chechnya was going to be subdued with violence and launched a new military offensive. This second war was supported by controlled reports in Russian national media and made Putin widely popular within Russia. When Yeltsin declared his resignation at New Years Eve 1999 he appointed Putin as his successor. This shows how political transitions and agendas has significant influence on conflicts.
In March 2003 a criticized election on a new Chechen constitution took place and in October the by Putin proposed candidate Ahmed Kadyrov was elected president. From this on Moscow have appointed new president candidates when the former have been killed. The present Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, that was elected in what has been called a charade election in 2007 has set up a strong militia “the Kadyrovtsy” to wipe out all sessessionists and revenge the killing of his father – who was assassinated.while being president of Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov is the head of the pro-Putin United Russia party that rules Chechnya today. The rule of Kadyrov has made the eliminating of the “separatists” a local pro Russian Chechen issue. Human Right Organisations condemns the methods used by the Kadyrovtsy. In April 2009 it was announced from Kreml that the military operation was ended as a result of the improved situation in Chechnya. This has also lead to growing inter-group competition and violence.
Ultra nationalistic and fascistic movements has grew to such extent in Russia that it is regarded as dangerous for people with ethnic background in the Caucasus or Central Asia to live in Russia. They are targets for violence, extortion and some times even murder. The prevailing racism in Russia is part of an influential exclusionary nationalistic ideology that is also used by Vladimir Putin for his own purposes. The racist perception of Chechen and other Caucasian people makes it possible to wage extreme violence and war on these populations. This shows that increasingly influential exclusionary ideologies is part of the explanation what makes internal war possible.
Economic and social factors that triggered the conflict to war
Before the wars Chechnya was a transit country for oil and gas pipelines from the oil rich Caspian Sea region to the Black Sea Cost. It was also a country with own but fading oil reserves. It was of economic and strategic significance for Russia to control the area mostly for the sake of the pipelines.
As a result of the first war the infrastructure in Chechnya was destroyed and due to the isolation from the world and the Russian politics the infrastructure was not rebuilt. It was extremely hard to make an income and as a result violence and criminal actions like kidnappings and theft increased and spilled over into neighbouring states. This further isolated Chechnya and made the situation even worse. These mounting economic problems is also an explanation of what triggered the war.
Map of Chechnya. From wiki.
Conceptual and perceptual factors that triggered the conflict to war
The racist perception of Chechen and other Caucasian people that many Russians holds make it possible to wage extreme violence and war on populations like the Chechen. The intensifying patterns of cultural discrimination from the beginning of the 1990´s is also a triggering cause that makes the wars possible and accepted within Russia.
A series of bombings of civilian houses in Moscow and other Russian cities in September 1999 were said to be the deeds of Chechen terrorists and gave Putin a broad support for starting his military offensive in 1999. There are accusations that FSB were indeed responsible. However, the bombings was used to explain why the war in Chechnya was necessary. This is just one example of how ethnic bashing and propaganda are used for the purpose of gathering support for why conflicts should be solved by military means. The politically initiated propaganda in support of the war is made possible and has a strong impact because the media in Russia is controlled by the state. The state controlled TV-channels are the main source of information for the vast majority in present day Russia. The state controlled media are regarded as tools for the ruling group to maintain power.
Conclusion of he triggering causes of two wars between Russia and Chechnya
As shown in the text the Russian-Chechen conflict escalated into war as the result of decisions taken by the leaders of the Russian state and the leader of the territory of Chechnya that wanted to break free from Russia. The reason that the conflict was not solved peacefully was elite driven and internal (Chechnya was a part of Russia that wanted to break free.)
It is important to state that the decisions taken by the leaders were due to underlying political (the urge to stay in power), economical and military-strategic factors. The historical background with a persistent resistance and almost permanent warfare from 1783 to 1943 and the following deportation of the Chechen population has created experiences and memories that forms the notion of the other as a permanent enemy. The Russian hard-core decision to dominate the Caucasian territory and the Chechen hard-core resistance to this is the reason why the conflict started and has continued. War might maybe have been avoided like in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan if Boris Yeltsin and Dzhokhar Dudayev had not been driven also by personal antagonism.
This text is also a result of a dialogue with David Johansson in the process of writing.
BBC profile: Chechnya
BBC article Chechnya making regional waves, 17 January, 2000
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Åsne Seierstad, Ängeln i Grozny, Smedjebacken, 2008.
Ebba Sävborg, Tjetjenien – krig i tvåhundra år, in Världspolitikens dagsfrågor, No 2, Stockholm 2003.