Chechnya’s troubles spill over into Dagestan- More areas in the Caucasus at risk

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Russia is intensifying efforts to assert the so called ‘managed democracy’ that topped the public agenda at the onset of President Vladimir Putin’s rule a decade ago.

Russia is intensifying efforts to assert the so called ‘managed democracy’ that topped the public agenda at the onset of President Vladimir Putin’s rule a decade ago. The many questions that arose at the time regarding the future of the Soviet Union have by far not been answered. So far, only one thing is clear; inactivity ultimately leads to destruction.

The unresolved Chechen situation that Putin inherited from his predecessor has been a thorn in his side – more than he admits. But the Chechen situation is beginning to be reproduced in Dagestan and this indicates that the Chechen rebels are simply advancing toward their goal of ‘reclaiming’ the entire Caucasian region in order to Islamicise the entire area.

Terrorists in Dagestan over the last weeks have shown themselves to be quite sophisticated and they would not be able to conduct the highly targeted attacks on authorities, Russian soldiers, officials and police officers without having been trained by the kind of terrorist organizations that make life impossible in Iraq. Their viciousness is bad. One radical Islamic group threatened to extend its assassinations of police to not only police officers themselves but also to their families. The perpetrators of the violence are mostly Islamic guerrillas and the maffia that have crossed the border from Chechnya as well as members of ethnic minorities from Dagestan that are joining in the battle. Among the professed reasons for their violence are the republic’s corruption and abuse. The ultimate aim of the rebels in Chechnya is to control the entire Caucasus and claim it back from the Russians.

The rise in violence in Dagestan now threatens to destroy a country which despite having more ethnic nationalities than its troubled Western neighbor Chechnya, has a long history of a peaceful democracy made up of a rather unique tribal system. The peace has long been precarious but not completely untenable. Unlike Chechnya, the republic of Dagestan’s troubles never really have spun into an outright war, even though support for independence was rife. Yet all the ingredients for a similar situation as the one in Chechnya are there; ethnic strife, in the absence of a resolved political situation, religious extremism (much of it spilt over from across the border), human rights violations.

The frequent headline news coming out of Dagestan of late has stirred speculation as to who these terrorists are and just how linked up they are to outside groups like the Mujahideen or Al Queda. Juan Cole’s weblog recently carried a report that it’s highly likely that the Chechen fighters are aided by the same outsiders that are responsible for the Iraqi insurgencies. “The news that Iraqi […] security services are infiltrated [….] wasn’t really all that unique”, the log reports. “The same happens in Chechnya. […] Chechen resistance soldiers (or mujaheeds) fight against the Russian army as well as so-called pro-Russian Chechen militia (police) and soldiers. The former accuse latter of the betrayel of Chechen interests. There are people among pro-Russian Chechens, who in reality work for mujahids,” according to the Azerbaijani dr. Alpay Ahmadov in Baku, lecurer of department of International Relations and Regional Studies of the Baku Slav University.

Ahmadov furthermore asserts that the heads of some districts (governors), ethnically Chechens, appointed by Russian administration secretly pay tribute to the field commanders of the Mujahideen. They do this to escape assasination against themselves. This is also supported from other sources. Russian commanders selling weapons to mujahideen too, just to make a living. The war on all accounts has little or nothing to do with ideology, but everything with mob rule, gangsterdom and religious strife. Its crossing the border marks an important victory for the fighters, who claim that the whole of the Caucasus has Islamic rather than Russian roots.

A report written by Yossef Bodansky, the former Director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U. S. Congress, as well as the World Terrorism Analyst with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies cites a commanders in Chechnya as early as 1995 as announcing the beginning of region-wide mobilization in order to orchestrate a widespread rebellion against Russia. “The Caucasus area does not belong to Russia, it belongs to its Muslim people from the Black to the Caspian sea. The area was savagely suppressed and occupied by criminal Russia about 150 years ago, now is the time for every Muslim to share the reward of freeing the land of the free, Caucasia,” one commander was reported as saying. This commander was referring to Russia’s original conquest and submission of Chechnya and Dagestan, a war which lasted from 1825 to 1859. Local resistance against the Russian rule reached a highlight when Imam Shamil during the 1850s led the people in revolt.

Bodansky says that soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the entire region started to prepare for a major escalation in the fighting to be initiated by the Chechen and Islamist forces. This process was being aided by the outside influence from among others the Armed Islamic Movement, which in 1994 adopted the cause as a Jihad. “Senior Islamist commanders and emissaries deployed to Grozny from where they coordinated their activities with the authorities in such places as Tehran, Khartoum, and Islamabad,” he writes. This also led to a number of Islamist militant Jihad charities setting up front offices in the country. In 1995, a number more were established, which were used for money transfers and this facilitated the arrival of the foreign fighters, some of whom received training in a camp located at Khowst, where Chechens signing up for the troops were also trained. Their goal was to fight the Russian ‘occupying forces who came to subjugate Muslim Caucasia under their Christian Orthodox rule’, the commanders reported in late December 1994. The training of the fighters is seen as the main reason for the army’s success, not in the least because a strict control and command system is maintained.

Officially the war between Russia and Chechnya was concluded in 1996, but the government the Russians put in charge of the independent state was hardly viable and was under attack from both the Russian troops and the rebels. The fighting continued mainly over oil pipelines going through the country. Contacts between the Russian intelligence and the rebels often lead to ‘deals’ including the release of rebels having been taken hostage in return for guarantees. But many of the agreements were broken and the Chechnyan semi independence ended in 1999. This ended the rule of the former separatist Aslan Maskahadov, who many believe was the last person to have been able to negotiate peace. The rebels managed to regain effective control over large part of their country and declared they would be working toward driving the Russian troops out of the whole of the Northern Caucasus. Events in Dagestan show that their terrorization of the population is succeeding.

The Kremlin is still hesitant about instilling change in the explosive region and matters are simply spinning out of control currently. Analysts say that the entire Russian Caucasus has come to a boiling point, under extremist threat even in regions that have no history of militant Islam. Aside from the fire catching on in Dagestan now, other regions like Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessiya are the likely next areas where the terrorists are likely to start their violence aimed at overthrowing the incumbent Moscow backed rulers. “The entire Caucasus is ready to explode”, says Alexei Malashenko, an Islam expert at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.

President Putin visited the troubled country earlier this week and vowed to take action. Visiting security agencies and border guards in the city of Astrakhan, he said: “We will strengthen our position in Dagestan. We are aware of the local situation, so we should and will resolve this problem.” But for these words to translate into actions, Moscow will have to adopt a more proactive approach.

It is likely that this is on the agenda, also inspired by having lost effective control over other former republics Georgia, Ukraine and the Central Asian states, who now are more officially independent and possibly more democratic and therefore more eligible for cooperation in Western structures than Russia itself. Moscow announced plans to double its armed forces in Kyrgyzstan and is currently in negotations with Kyrgyzstan to get permission to do so. The move coincides with growing criticism of the US presence in the country. Radio Free Europe reported that the new Kyrgyz president has mentioned that the new president Kurmanbek Bakiev said this week the necessity of the US base in his country should be discussed. Bakiev’s message was relayed by Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to Russia. Russia’s statement about its readiness to increase troops in Kant has to be understood as a statement that it is ready to replace the U.S. in the Central Asian region, analysts said.

Whatever path Russia chooses in dealing with the Dagestan problem, it will reveal both information about Russia’s future foreign policy and just how semi autonomous regions like Dagestan, which are made up of various tribes and ethnicities, are likely to take to any Kremlin-led doctoring. So far, Russian policy has been notoriously hands off. President Putin has been rather brusque about the situation in Chechnya, saying that the war had ended in 1996 and that Russia had little to do with the country. Further clarification on the ongoing Russian army involvement in Chechnya is usually mysteriously absent from official comments.

The few efforts the Russians made to install a political system of some kind have resulted in next to nothing. A referendum among the Dagestani population on whether to introduce democratically elected regional politicians was rejected by the population. And further efforts were abandoned when the Chechen rebels carried out their landmark Beslan school shooting. President Putin has especially come under increased criticism in Chechnya for scrapping the plans to hold elections for regional leaders as part of a reform package he said was needed to combat the threat of terrorism. Instead, he’s taken to appointing the regional heads himself. “The changes to the Russian constitution, by which Putin himself appoints and removes regional heads from their posts, has brought the whole North Caucasus against him,” top separatist Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev said in an interview aired by Radio Liberty last weekend.

The Dagistani population’s veto of the plans for greater democracy highlights the fact that Dagestanis are keener to keep the tribally oriented structures in tact that they rely on in their daily lives than to take a gamble for the sake of having an effective democratic government the election of which in itself might overthrow these structures. The reasoning is inspired by fear for loss of positions that are precarious already.

Since 1991, Dagestan has been run by Magomedali Magomedov, a ruler who’s recently turned 75 and has been accepted by both the majority of the country’s population and the Kremlin, by dint of his tact and age. Even though voices were heard saying that the Moscow administration would gladly see the back of the leader, this hasn’t translated into his being removed, likely because Moscow fears any change will incite the negative elements in Dagestan. Magomedov is believed by many to be around the only person who has the capacity to actually get a slight grip on the situation because he is accepted by the main of the country’s 37 ethnic groups. His position is unshakeable even in the face of the recent violence. But he is also rather old.

One expert on ethnic relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, Sergei Markedonov, believes that the alternative candidates that the Kremlin might have in mind for ruling the country are high risk at best. Now that the referendums have turned into a ‘no’ the political stalemate leaves the country all the more vulnerable to extremists filling the void. The choice of a new leader could easily provoke massive ethnic-political upset, Markedonov says. “Stability in the republic could be shattered by the introduction of new rules of the game that most Dagestanis do not understand.” It will require some tact to introduce anything new in this country. The three referendums over the issue of country’s leadership have thrown light on what the population’s opionions are. They have split the republic along the ethnic border. Most Avars and Laks support the idea of presidency in the republic, while Lezghinians and Darghinians oppose it.

So far, no real credible effort has gone underway by outside international parties to mediate in the conflict. Late last year, the Germans sent a proposal to Moscow to negotiate peace which President Putin said he accepted. But so far it has failed to take off. Three months later, when Putin met leaders of France, Germany and Spain, Chechnya wasn’t discussed. And when the strenuous summit between the US president George Bush and Putin took place, the country was also not on the agenda.

International observers in the shape of newspaper men and analysts suggest a few strategies. They have indicated that ending the war is rather an impossible task and the remaining leaders of the rebel movement after the assassination of Aslan Mashkadov, have indicated they are not interested in negotiations. In stead of peace talks or a truce the Russian government is combating the rebels by trying to reduce support among the Chechen population. In his comments broadcast on radio Liberty’s Chechen service, Sadulayev was taunting Putin, saying all Russian reforms intended to prevent attacks by the Chechen rebels are merely boosting militant recruits. “Putin has no way to end this war. And we are not weakening, and are not on our knees,” the rebel leader Sadulayev told Radio Liberty.

All the parties involved in the Chechen conflict are immensely despicable if not for their tactics employed then for the disrespect for human life. The conflict certainly highlights one of Russia’s most negative features, and it might be the most indicative of this nation’s desperate manoeuvers for survival in its current form. In a recent poll, held on one of the few Chechen news services, the, people were asked when they thought the Soviet Union would collapse. Only a slight majority (32%) of the 1005 voters answered they thought the country will not collapse. Another 26% said they thought it would not occur before 2015. A further 25% believed this might happen in 2008 and another 18% deferred the Soviet Union’s dying age to within the next 50 years.

During recent years, the way the Russian population’s political ideas were developing has been the subject of a lot of research. Studies indicate there is a variety of tendencies and trends all round, but the consensus is that the right wing has gained dramatically in Russia. At the same time, president Putin has managed to extend his rather autocratic, yet Western leaning rule, which makes him the target of even more continuous speculation. He’s overseen parliamentary elections in 2003 and presidential elections in 2004 the democratic calibre of which left a lot to be desired. Russia’s press freedom and civil liberties for ordinary Russians have suffered. Judging from a number of standards, Russia has gone back on itself at least fifteen years; this means that the country is back at the level of freedom it had during the Soviet Union era.

Yet the Russians themselves believe that the only way out of their conondrum is through strong leadership. Polls reveal that the Russian population -suffering no doubt from a thing that might in the West be described as ‘disappointment fatigue’- are rather pleased with the increase in the government’s control. One of Mr Putin’s very own enemies, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the oil magnat owner of Yukos oil who was recently jailed for nine years by the Putin administration, said he believed that Putin isn’t a liberal or a democrat, but that he is more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population. Khodorkovsky – who had made public statements in favor of the opposition- might not be so sure of this now, having been put away after a mock trial on charges that were merely a smokescreen for his support for the opposition.

But his observations are confirmed by others too. Early last year, public opinion surveys by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in Washington showed that the Russian population was likely composed of roughly one-third democrats, one-third autocrats and one-third that are ideologically up for grabs—people who do not know if they prefer authoritarian or democratic forms of government. “Perhaps more shocking, Stalin’s popularity, fifty years after his death, is surprisingly high even among younger generations. The assumption that the older authoritarians will die out and be replaced by young democrats is just not supported by our data or recent elections”, according to the report.

If the Russian population is appreciating more authoritarian rule, they are getting what they are asking for under Putin. Some believe that the way the Russian incumbent administration has been running the country however -stage managing more events than many would care to know of- has led to this in ways that are less perceptible than many even suspect. The process has gone accompanied by a steady decline in press freedom over the past few years. Downgrading Russia from “partly free” to “not free”, Freedom House, a New York headquartered global research agency which publishes annual studies gauging “Freedom in the World” based on assessments of political rights and civil liberties.

“Russia’s step backwards into the Not Free category is the culmination of a growing trend under President Vladimir Putin to concentrate political authority, harass and intimidate the media, and politicize the country’s law-enforcement system,” said Freedom House Executive Director, Jennifer Windsor, in the report issued at year end 2004. “These moves mark a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism in Russia, made more worrisome by President Putin’s recent heavy-handed meddling in political developments in neighboring countries such as Ukraine.”

The demotion caused an international loss of face for the Russian governing administration. President Putin has done his best from the onset of his rule to push for closer ties with the West and to be described as a country that is ‘not free’ was certainly not on his spin doctors’ list. Since the start of his rule Putin managed to walk a tightrope, which many believe incorporated a number of faked scenarios, even to the extent that he had propagandists fanning nationalist opposition to the Westernized stance in order to make the clamp down on the press more understandable in Western eyes. Whether or not these allegations of faking it are true isn’t all that important. Putin’s own statements clarifying his choices are, however. Himself totally comfortable with Western norms, he defends his Western leaning and warming Russia’s ties with NATO, saying he believes it completely corresponds with Russia’s interests. This makes sense. Russia doesn’t like to be outwitted by its former republics on any front. Russia’s opposition to the Baltics joining the international alliance has been fierce.

But not everybody buys into the propaganda. One Chechen journalist pointed out in a recent article that a self-imposed saturation point to the state propaganda has now been reached and that the media is instructed to stop blaming the Chechens for every accident that happens. This journalist believes that the propaganda machine has got to the point that people have received their due of fear. “The people shall not be frightened `too much’ with regard to the Chechnyan rebels”, he writes. Indicating the kind of scepticism which people view the Russian government with, he believes there’s a general design that stipulates that “the degree of fear shall be moderate most of the time”. And why? Well, citizens may start to demand putting an end to the Russian troop deployment in Chechnya.