Eleven years after the second war with Russia, a series of violent attacks by the Chechen rebels reminds us that war is raging in the northern Caucasus
The attack on Chechnya’s parliament building by guerrillas – in broad daylight, in the centre of Grozny, and during the visit of the head of Russian police and Minister of Interior, Rashid Nurgaliyev – did not only surprise the deputies preparing for the morning session. In fact, the raid was a shock for many observers as well as for those who, over the last few years, have tirelessly repeated that the Chechen rebels are few and unable to threaten in any way the country's stability and prosperity. What is more, two months earlier, the guerrillas managed to attack Tsentoroi, the birthplace of the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Under Kadyrov's government, this small village at the feet of the mountains has come to resemble a medieval fortress, protected by hundreds of the president's most trusted guards. Both operations showed that the Chechen opposition has not been suppressed – as stated by many Russian sources, but also can penetrate any building or village in the republic, even the most obsessively guarded.
Both attacks were attributed to the Chechen warlords who have recently emerged from the shadows of the self-proclaimed emir of the Caucasus, Doku Umarov. Particular credit is given to 40-year-old Khuseyn Gakayev, who Umarov stripped of all grades for insubordination. Because external observers have great difficulty finding their way in the intricacies of the Chechen rebellion – that has become the northern Caucasus' rebellion, let us take a brief excursion in its recent past in order to better understand an ever complicating situation.
A step back
There is no exact date for the start of the second Chechen war. Most observers identify the starting point as 30 September 1999, when Russian troops entered Chechnya. However, already in July-August 1999, the Russian air force was bombing the Chechen territories, and especially the mountains. The so-called active phase of the conflict, characterised by extensive bombing and thousands of civilian victims, can be understood as completed only if once considers the Russian army’s advance into the country and establishing control over most villages in the republic. However, the overt battle between Russian and Chechen forces turned into an ongoing military conflict.
During these eleven years, the Russian security services have managed to eliminate most Chechen leaders, including the democratically elected president Aslan Maskhadov. The same destiny awaited his successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev and a better-known commander Shamil Basayev, both killed in 2006. By then the Chechen opposition, virtually decapitated and left without many of its prominent leaders, faced the most critical situation since the beginning of the war. On the one hand, the Kremlin relied on the so-called “Chechenisation” of the conflict by conspicuously financing many Chechen military divisions loyal to Russia, led by Ramzan Kadyrov. Furthermore, many thousands of Russian soldiers were still present in the country. The local population, after years of struggling to survive the war, found itself hostage of the Kremlin's new strategy. For one person joining the resistance, a whole family or village would suffer exemplary punishments. Consequently, people were too scared to provide any kind of material support or even publicly express their empathy towards the rebels.
The arrival of Doku Umarov
In these very critical conditions, the leadership of the Chechen rebels passed to Doku Umarov, hero of the first Chechen war and one of the few battlefield leaders of the old generation. In the recent past, Doku Umarov had been one of the moderate Chechen commanders, but the complicating situation led him to quickly adopt an explicit, radical Islamic rhetoric. It should be noted that, until 2007, the Chechen rebel forces included not only Chechen soldiers, but also whole troops from the northern Caucasus – the so-called Caucasian front. The Chechen wars, as long predicted by many observers, had extended to the neighbouring regions. The bloody clashes between the army and the anti-Russia rebels of Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria were raging even more furiously than in Chechnya itself.
In 2007, Doku Umarov announced the creation of a new state under the pompous name of Caucasus Emirate. By replacing the apparently outdated idea of Chechen national independence, he appealed to the fact that neighbouring republics shared Chechnya’s opposition to Russia. Since the mujahideen of the other republics were not eager to fight and die for Chechen independence, he needed them to join forces against Russia under the name of Islam and based on a unitary Caucasian state. Rebels did not enthusiastically accept this decision by Umarov, who became leader of the rebels through the procedures set by the Constitution of Ichkeria (the self-proclaimed Chechen independent state) – according to which, if a president dies, he is replaced by his deputy. Some battlefield leaders, but also representatives of the Chechen opposition in Europe, considered the declaration of the new Caucasus Emirate a betrayal of the ancient independence goals for Chechnya. Some also stated that the Russian security services financed the proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate in order to both take away the legal basis for Chechen independence and also to stigmatise the opposition movement as Islamic terrorism. Yet, despite the violent criticism, few Chechen commanders dared to openly confront Umarov, apparently believing the captain should not be changed in the middle of the match.
Over the following three years, Umarov's rhetoric became increasingly extremist, but little changed for Chechnya or the rest of the northern Caucasus. The Russian troops and Ramzan Kadyrov's men keep using terror and violence against the population. The rebels keep performing small raids against the soldiers. Occasionally, Umarov states he knows about and supports all significant terrorist acts on the Russian territory, which has a strong impact on the rebels' overall reputation.
Sometimes the situation reaches the absurd, as when the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus claimed responsibility for an explosion in a mid-rank manager's garage in Moscow or an accident in a power plant. Thus, the very idea of independence was gradually compromised not only in the eyes of external observers, but also in those of the Chechen population itself. For this ideal, thousands of young soldiers died in the last wars, hundreds of thousands people were killed in bloody chaos, and many more were forced to leave their homeland to seek refuge beyond the Russian borders. Those who stay have to live in terror and fear.
The beginning of a new phase for the rebels
Last summer, a split developed among the rebels. Some Chechen commanders, led by Khuseyn Gakayev, declared they no longer trust Doku Umarov, although they are committed to keep fighting against Russian occupation. Presumably, their refusal to follow Umarov indicates their intention not to be “the Chechen wing of the global jihad”, but to strive for independence by forcing the Russian side to negotiate for peace.
In this regard, Gakayev and his men are unlikely to fully reject the idea of the unification of the Caucasus. It will be even more difficult for them to escape the Islamic flag – to do so would mean losing consensus among the young opposition who resent both the smothering system of terror and repression established by the pro-Russian administration and Umarov's radically pro-jihad statements. After reclaiming the struggle for Chechen independence, Gakayev and company will more likely keep middle positions, which will undoubtedly bring them new supporters and significantly widen their social base – also because many young people are disappointed by Ramzan Kadyrov, but do not wish to join some sort of Chechen wing of Al Qaeda.
Thus, eleven years after the beginning of the second Chechen war, part of the rebels went back to the origins, as did the Russian government. After so many years of efforts and victims, the Russian leadership faces the fact that neither erasing whole towns and villages, nor massively financing pro-Russian Chechen forces and the cleverly labelled “Chechenisation of the conflict” have ended years of mass terror. Their tactics have not brought the Russian government closer to the goal: eradicate from the Chechen people's consciousness the hostility towards Russia and its representatives as well as finally delegitimise and suppress the opposition by casting it under the label of “international terrorism”.
All this means that unfortunately, in the near future, we can expect violent attacks like those in Tsentoroi or the parliament at anytime, anyplace. In its turn, this can only lead to intensified terrorism and violence by Russian security forces.