Report - Caspian Studies Program

Chechen Statehood: Is Islam an Obstacle?

Nabi Abdullaev, a native of Dagestan, has reported extensively on Chechnya-related issues. Following his graduation from the Dagestan State Technical University, he served on a UN Emergency Response Team, assisting victims of the first Chechen War (1994?1996). Since 1997, he has worked as a journalist for a number of Russian and international publications. In 1998, he became an Associated Press correspondent in Dagestan, reporting on the second Chechen War (1999?2001) for the AP, Voice of America, BBC, and MSNBC. In 2001, he moved to Moscow and became a staff writer for The Moscow Times. He is currently a MC/MPA student at the Kennedy School of Government.

Brenda Shaffer opened the event by emphasizing the importance of the Chechnya issue in light of the recent visit of President Vladimir Putin to the United States and the U.S. - Russian summit on Long Island. She pointed out that the Chechen issue was always a constant topic of discussion during U.S.- Russian meetings, but now it is rarely mentioned, and, if so, more and more through the prism of international terrorism In Dr. Shaffer?s opinion, the terrorist attacks conducted by Chechen radicals against Russian citizens have shaped the perception of the conflict by the international community in the last two years. Although the situation is still being considered from a human rights perspective, it is now also increasingly being viewed as part of the international war on terror.

Mr. Abdullaev began his presentation by addressing the historical and ethnic background of the Chechen conflict. In the 19th century, after a long period of resistance, Chechnya and Dagestan became part of the Russian empire. Chechens constitute the largest ethnic group in the North Caucasus: the republic is the size of Connecticut and had a population roughly totaling 1 million. Chechnya still has one of the highest birth rates in the Russian Federation. A number of events lie at the root of the current conflict and have contributed to setting Chechnya apart from other republics in the Russian Federation. Among these are the prolonged hostilities between Chechnya and the Russian empire and the deportation of the majority of the Chechen nation to Kazakhstan during World War II.

On the eve of the the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya elected its first president, General Djokhar Dudayev, who at that time was the only Chechen general in the Soviet Army. Dudayev?s first decree of November 1, 1991, was to declare Chechnya?s independence. The Russian parliament, however, refused to recognize Chechnya as an independent state. Despite that, in the course of the next three years, Dudayev continued to attempt to act as president of an independent state ? opening embassies and consulates, establishing new ministries, and attempting to develop trade relations with other states. The state- and nation-building in Chechnya was conducted in a way that contradicted Russia?s federal legislation. In 1993?1994, Russian troops were pushed out of the republic. Dudayev, however, managed to retain their arsenal to build his own army.

By December 1994, when Russia launched the first Chechen war, the Chechen army consisted mostly of volunteers led by field commanders, such as Shamil Basayev, who had gained experience fighting in other regional conflicts, including Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabagh. The first Chechen war was explicitly ethno-nationalistic. Chechen fighters were motivated by the idea of Chechnya as a sovereign state. President Dudayev succeeded in mobilizing resources and securing resistance against the federal troops.

At that point, Islam and religion, in general, did not play a significant role in military actions. But Islam was never far from the surface, and given the vacuum that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, the spread of Islam as an "official" religion was probably inevitable. Islamization was supported by foreign Islamist organizations. During the 1990s, significant amounts of money flowed into Chechnya from foreign Islamist organizations, dramatically increasing during the first Chechen war. Outside sources also partially financed the fighters. Mr. Abdullaev emphasized that in using the term "Islamist", he was referring to Islamism as a radical current in interpreting Islam and not to Islam itself.

After General Dudayev was killed by Russian federal intelligence services in April 1996, Chechen resistance increased. The structure of the resistance changed from a hierarchy pyramid to a network of independent warlords, leading to more attacks. Nevertheless, in August 1996, a long-negotiated peace accord was signed in Khasavyurt. The parties agreed to end military actions and to postpone the settlement of Chechnya?s political status for another 5 years. Moscow secured funding for the rebuilding of the republic?s infrastructure, and in January 1997, a new president, Aslan Maskhadov, was elected.

The period that followed the signing of the Khasavyurt peace accord is crucial to the understanding of the subsequent developments in Chechnya. The next three years witnessed a radical Islamization of the republic. Maskhadov put much effort into expanding his influence in Chechnya by acting as president of all Chechens. But Chechen society remained heterogeneous. A number of field commanders, including Shamil Basayev, had growing political ambitions and influence with the militants. Field commanders remained committed to continued military resistance, instead of a settlement with Moscow. There was a dramatic shift in the ideological undercurrent: now, instead of nationalistic ideas, religious and radical Islamist ideas prevailed. The sharia court system and an Islamic bank were established, and the Arabic alphabet was introduced as the script for the official clerical work. This made the shaping of a modern and secular state in Chechnya increasingly difficult.

Maskhadov succeeded neither in consolidating Chechen society nor in building a viable state. The state machinery was not able to keep Chechen society together. Maskhadov?s authority within the republic was undermined by his efforts to keep a peaceful relationship with Moscow. As a result of these developments, the idea of Islamic statehood prevailed over the model of a secular state based on the rule of law. Instead of consolidating the nation-building efforts, Chechnya became an outlaw area. One of the reasons for the difficulties that Maskhadov faced was the absence of a local, Chechen political elite. Members of the Chechen diaspora were reluctant to return to Grozny, Chechnya?s capital. As a result, the Chechen nation did not have sufficient intellectual and organizational resources to build a sustainable state. An increase in the tensions between Chechnya and Moscow became unavoidable.

In the meantime, field commanders Omar bin Khattab (a Saudi?born guerrilla with likely al-Qaeda ties) and Shamil Basayev established war courts. With the support from radical Islamists from the Middle East, they created military camps within Chechnya and built an army consisting of guerrilla fighters from Chechnya, Russia, and other states. In August 1999, a large group from this army invaded adjacent regions of Dagestan, ostensibly claiming to create an independent Islamic state of Chechnya and Dagestan. Chechen fighters counted on support from the Dagestani population. Mr. Abdullaev pointed out, however, that there were no cheers for the Chechens in Dagestan: against the Chechens? expectations, Dagestanis fought against them on the side of the Russian federal troops.

In essence, the second Chechen war started as a religious war aimed at building an Islamic state in Chechnya. Radical Islamism succeeded in taking over the real power in the republic from the elected president, Maskhadov. Maskhadov had almost no influence over the events in Dagestan: the first invasion was followed by another operation led by Basayev?s and bin Khattab?s military units. The invasion of Dagestan was heavily supported by outside sources. Mr. Abdullaev played videotapes and showed photographs that demonstrated evidence of this connection. He pointed out that the most militarily effective part of the Chechen resistance led by Basayev and bin Khattab became part of the international terrorism network?ideologically, if not organizationally. After several years of his rule, President Maskhadov turned out to be manipulated by radical fighters representing a radical current within Wahhabism ? a puritanical Islamist school of thought. In 2002, Maskhadov was forced to change the Chechen constitution into Nizam, a Wahhabite set of rules, the rebels? media sources reported.

Mr. Abdullaev pointed out that the spread of radical Islamism not only prevented Chechnya from building a democratic and viable state, but also partly caused the second Chechen war. It was not in the interests of the Chechen population: the nationalistic project of the early 1990s that aimed at the creation of Chechen state was gradually reduced to terrorist actions driven by radical Islamists. This became especially clear in the course of the Nord-Ost siege in late October 2002, when more than 800 people were taken hostage at a theater in the center of Moscow. The cruelty and senselessness of that action (senseless from the point of view of the secular cause, albeit not from the point of view of the Islamist wing of the resistance), which had been organized by Chechen fighters and headed by Movsar Barayev, demonstrated to the world that the war in Chechnya had lost its nationalist character and had turned instead into a chain of terrorist attacks. The loss of international recognition of a Chechen separatist war after the Nord-Ost incident reflected this radical shift. The kamikaze tactic was adopted as a key terrorist method to be used by the Chechen field commanders.

The chief point of Mr. Abdullaev?s presentation is that in the recent decade, Islamism as a radical political current has prevailed over sustainable nation-building in Chechnya, in essence making a viable Chechen state impossible. Whereas the first Chechen war was driven by an independence movement within the political elite of the Chechen republic, the Islamist movement was one of the chief causes of the second war in Chechnya.

Current developments in Chechnya do not provide much optimism, as long as military operations remain underway. In a referendum conducted earlier this year, Chechnya adopted a new constitution. Even though some measures have been taken to stabilize the situation in Chechnya, the republic is still far from stability and peace. President Akhmad Kadyrov has tried to consolidate Chechen society, which would be the most important accomplishment toward building a sustainable political system and a reliable state.

Nevertheless, Mr Abdullaev considers the current policies of the Russian federal government with respect to Chechnya to be the only appropriate ones, given the "Islamization" of the Chechen politics and the Chechens? inability to create a viable state on their own. Making the case for Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation, he asked his audience: Do Chechens have any better choice right now?


Q 1: How do you describe the relationship between Chechen elites and Islamists?

A: In my opinion, Islamists want to accomplish a global project. In doing so, they fight against independent secular states. They are interested in rather weak states that need their support.

Q 2: What you described is proof of desperation. Chechen rebels have been forced by the Russian state to protect their freedom and to use all means in their fight against Moscow. Besides, all evidence you brought does not prove connection between al Qaeda and Chechen field commanders.

A: I was not talking about organizational links. I argued that there are strong ideological and financial connections between international terrorist organizations and Chechen rebels. Often it is desperation that causes people to turn to methods of terror. However, Maskhadov has not effectively resisted those developments either.

Q 3: If ?Islamization" of Chechnya had not occurred, what should have Chechens considered to be a source of their unity and motivation?

A: I believe that attempts to radicalize Islam in Chechnya were to be expected. However, Maskhadov was entitled and empowered to preserve the secular state structure. He could have prevented many of the negative developments that have occurred since the end of the first Chechen war.

Q 4: How would you assess public support of the war in Chechnya by the Russian population?

A: It is extremely difficult to assess the extent to which the Russian public supports the operation in Chechnya for two reasons. Number one is that Russian media sources are under the Kremlin?s control and access to Chechnya for journalists is limited by the Russian authorities. And number two is that the international pressure on Moscow was eased significantly since Nord-Ost in October of last year. In addition, the majority of the Russian population seems to remain indifferent to what is happening in Chechnya.

Q 5: Isn?t it the Russian invasion that is the source of the problems and desperation? In my view, we should blame the occupation of Chechnya by Russian forces for all the problems.

A: I do not agree with the notion of "occupation": Russian federal troops have been acting on Russian territory. Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, and Moscow is entitled to secure law and order there. The Chechen fight for independence could have taken different forms. Why haven?t Chechens tried to seek international recognition from the outset of their national project instead of fighting? Unfortunately, political means have not been timely and effectively used for building a democratic and viable state.

Q 6: How probable is the potential spread of the war to other regions of the North Caucasus?

A: I do not consider spread of the war as very probable. Chechens have been seen as having an imperialistic approach towards other nationalities in the North Caucasus in the past decade. But as I said earlier, Dagestan was not involved in the conflict. The people of Dagestan, who sympathized with the Chechens during the first war and hosted over 140,000 Chechen refugees, were insulted by the Chechen military invasion of 1999, and most would never fight on the Chechen side. Several dozen Dagestani Wahhabites do fight on the side of the Chechen rebels.

Q 7: As you mentioned, the war is entering its fifth year. What is Putin?s exit strategy? Are we going to witness the repetition of the 1996?1999 developments in Chechnya?

A: A gradual stabilization of the situation in Chechnya is the only right way forward now. Moscow is not going to leave Chechnya. In fact, what is happening there right now is the building of a new Chechen state at Russia?s expense. It is a chance for Chechnya and for Russia. The method used by Moscow to do that is the "Chechenization" of the local government. Once key positions within the administration, in the court system, and law enforcement are handed over to Chechens, governance there will become more sustainable.

Q 8: Do you think that terrorist attacks will continue in the future, despite stabilization?

A: Yes, they will continue.

Q 9: Is Wahhabism an imported or native phenomenon?

A: It is an imported phenomenon, from the Middle East; however, there was rich soil for its proliferation, not only in Chechnya but also in Dagestan and other Muslim-populated republics.

Q 10: How much support do radical Islamists enjoy within the Chechen republic?

A: There isn?t that much support. However, it goes without saying that radical Islamists constitute the core of resistance in Chechnya.

For more information on this topic, Mr. Abdullaev recommends the following websites: ? hardcore, Islamist rebels? website ? Aslan Maskhadov?s personal website, moderate separatist ? daily Russian English-language newspaper ? Nezavisimaya Gazeta, daily Russian newspaper, runs a good religion supplement, NG-Religiya ? The Center for Defense Information, a U.S.-based NGO ? official site of the pro-Russian Chechen government

This is a summary of the event and not a transcript.

Summary by Dmitry Gavrilin, Kennedy School of Government

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Abdullaev, Nabi. “Chechen Statehood: Is Islam an Obstacle?.” Caspian Studies Program, .