Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Chechnya: Russia’s Second Afghanistan

The one constant among Chechens is a fundamental opposition to Russian rule, which is sometimes superseded by calculations of group and individual expediency. Russia’s only significant advantage in Chechnya is that a large proportion of the Chechen population is war weary and has become disabused of the separatists as well as of the Russians. After ten years of turmoil, many Chechens are willing to acquiesce reluctantly in Russian rule, so long as it brings them a modicum of security. The problem for Moscow is that it has not been able to suppress the militant Chechen resistance through force and political manipulation. The result has been chronic instability, the devastation of Chechnya’s economy and infrastructure, an exodus of refugees to other Caucasian republics, waves of resistance strikes in Russia and a weakening of Moscow’s power in the Caucasus.

During the ten years of struggle, Moscow has pursued a policy of imposing its rule by force and attempting to install compliant leaders, rejecting the option of negotiating with the opposition. Most public discourse about that policy concerns whether or not Moscow should shift gears and try to enter negotiations. Critics of the military option tend to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stubbornness for continued failures in Chechnya, but there are plausible reasons why Russia has not turned to negotiation.

Most importantly, Chechen society has become so politically fragmented that it is not clear if any deal that Russia might make, for example, with Maskhadov’s exile government of Ichkeria, would be effective on the ground. The resistance is split between Chechen nationalists and far more uncompromising Islamists and warlords, particularly Shamil Basayev who is deemed responsible and has claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist acts committed outside Chechnya. Even if Moscow could bring some of the nationalists on board, that would not guarantee peace and security, at least in the short term, and would probably lead to more autonomy for Chechnya than the Russians are willing to permit on a lasting basis.

In addition, Russia has a vital security interest in maintaining its territorial integrity and discouraging bids for autonomy in republics where ethnic Russians are a minority, particularly in the Caucasus. Rebel movements have sprung up in neighboring Ingushetia, which has ethnic and religious ties to Chechnya. Inter-clan conflict has arisen in the republic of Dagestan and there have been recent reported incidents of armed confrontations with security forces in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. A generous grant of autonomy by Moscow to Chechnya might not result in effective separatist movements elsewhere, but it would be highly likely to create instability in the region.

Finally, Russia has a vital strategic interest in maintaining control over the northern Caucasus region and expanding its influence into the southern Caucasus to break American encirclement through Georgia and Azerbaijan, and prevent the United States from monopolizing Caspian Sea oil. De jure or de facto separation of Chechnya from Russia would be a major setback to core Russian strategic aims.

The Election of Alu Alkhanov

Russia’s severe predicament in Chechnya is illustrated by the election to Chechnya’s presidency on August 29, 2004 of Alu Alkhanov to replace Kadyrov. Widely seen internationally and within Chechnya as a rigged vote, the election detracted from Russia’s legitimacy in Chechnya. A former Chechen interior minister and security operative, Alkhanov has no ties to the opposition and has been ordered by Moscow not to negotiate with it. Unlike Kadyrov, he has no prestige or base of support in the population, although he is linked to the powerful clan led by Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the late president, who controls a formidable independent militia, and is too young to constitutionally assume the presidency.

Moscow has attempted to increase acceptance of Alkhanov by permitting him to pursue a policy of diverting all of Chechnya’s oil revenues to reconstruction efforts in the republic. Yet with most of the fields depleted and most of the refining capacity impaired, this plan seems to be an effort by Moscow to avoid having to give direct reconstruction aid, which in the past has been frittered away by corruption.

By putting up as weak a figure as Alkhanov, Russia has shown the weakness of the hand it has to play in Chechnya. The resistance forces understand this, which is why they have launched their spectacular strikes. After the airliner and school bombings, Moscow is faced with a choice between trying to apply massive coercive power to crush the rebellion, letting conditions go on as they are or attempting to make some kind of bargain with segments of the opposition. Each of those options has more downside risk than upside potential, and each of them has benefits for the resistance. Massive force will further alienate the Chechens from Russia; continuation of chronic instability will do the same; negotiation will spell a diminution of Russian power if a bargain is made, and will be a sign of weakness that will likely embolden the hard-line opposition. There is also the option of another Russian withdrawal from Chechnya, but that would mean a severe weakening of Russian influence in the Caucasus.

International Complications

Just as was the case in its intervention in Afghanistan, Russia faces the additional problem that the opposition to its policies is aided by the United States. Chechen businessman Malik Saydullayev, who would have been the only credible candidate contesting Alkhanov in the presidential election had he not been barred from running because of a technical problem with his passport, has said that “Russia has geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Caucasus, the heart of which is Chechnya, and developed N.A.T.O. countries also have interests in the Caucasus. This war is over these interests.”

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