Wed, 09 Jul 2003

Links between Chechens and al-Qaeda questioned

Gwynne Dyer, Columnist, London

"All terror acts committed on Chechen territory are financed by international terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda," claimed Col. Ilya Shabalkin, head of the Russian FSB security service's operations in Chechnya, in May. Yes, indeed, said Russian President Vladimir Putin, and everything Russia does in Chechnya is "a contribution to the global war on terror."

Does that mean that the suicide bombers who killed 17 young Russians at a rock concert outside Moscow on Saturday were agents of Osama bin Laden? No, of course not. But that is what the Russian authorities want us to believe, and elsewhere there is remarkable willingness to go along with it.

India accepts Russia's definition of the problem because it also faces a terrorist campaign by Muslim separatists in the state of Kashmir. Nine months ago the U.S. and Britain still condemned the murder of civilians by Russian troops in Chechnya (at least 60 people "disappear" each month) and called for Moscow to negotiate a "political solution" with the separatists, but then they invaded Iraq.

Now the U.S. State Department praises the sham elections Moscow is holding in Chechnya and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair says that it is "absolutely the right thing to do."

If your troops are occupying a largely Muslim territory, legally or not, and some of the local people start using terrorist violence to get them out, then it is tempting to blame it on an international Islamic terrorist conspiracy. If foreign Muslims sympathize with the locals, that just strengthens your case. And if you link up with other non-Muslim powers who are facing the same kind of local resistance, then maybe you can impose these definitions on the whole world. But it doesn't make them true.

Chechnya's real misfortune (apart from being conquered by Russia in the first place) is that it ended up in Soviet times not as a full "Union Republic" like Estonia, Georgia and Tajikistan, but as an "autonomous republic" within Russia. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, all the Union Republics took their independence, including the Russian Federation -- but none of the "autonomous republics" within Russia, most of them Muslim- majority, were allowed to follow suit. So the Chechens just declared independence anyway.

There was nothing Islamic about it then, just pure nationalism. The Chechens resisted Russian conquest for a generation before they were finally subdued in 1858.They never really accepted Russian rule, and their welcome for the brief German military incursion into the Caucasus during the World War II earned them mass deportation to central Asia in 1944 after Stalin's troops returned. The survivors were allowed to go home in 1957, but half of the entire Chechen population was killed in this savage case of ethnic cleansing. So anti-Russian feeling was as strong in 1991 as it was in 1858.

The Chechen independence leader in 1991 was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general whose knowledge of Islam was so slight that he declared that believers should be free to pray three times a day. (The right number is five.) The post-Communist government in Moscow didn't want to fight, but it didn't want to let Chechnya go either, partly because vital oil pipelines cross its territory and partly because it feared a domino effect in other Muslim-majority parts of the Russian Federation.

After three years of hesitation, Boris Yeltsin sent Russian troops in to end the secession in 1994 -- and the Chechens fought them to a standstill. A cease-fire in 1996 might eventually have led to a peaceful separation, but the sheer ruthlessness of the Russian troops had radicalized too many of the Chechen fighters.

Dudayev's successor, Aslan Maskhadov, was never able to gain control over all of the Chechen guerrilla groups, many of them now dedicated Islamists, that sprang up during the war. In the next two years they kidnapped or murdered over a thousand Russians and other foreigners in Chechnya, made terrorist attacks in Russia proper -- and gave Moscow a pretext to invade Chechnya again in 1999.

Many suspect that the terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 were actually done by Russian agents provocateurs, but they let Vladimir Putin wrap himself in the Russian flag and win the election of early 2000 as the man who could solve the Chechen problem.Except that it isn't solved. Of the 600,000 Chechens who lived in the republic in 1991, about one-third have been killed and another third are refugees, but the Chechen resistance continues to kill ten to twenty Russian soldiers a week.

Once in a while, as in the seizure of the theater in Moscow last October or the rock concert at Tushino airfield last weekend, Chechen terrorists strike targets in Russia itself, but the vast majority of the deaths on both sides are in Chechnya. Despite the great errors and monstrous crimes committed by people on both sides, it is still essentially a problem of decolonization after the belated end of the Russian empire in 1991, and the right solution for Chechnya is still independence.

It's easy to see why Putin's government wants to link Chechnya to more complex issues like India's presence in Kashmir and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. It's a lot harder to understand why New Delhi, Washington and London would allow this blatant case of Russian imperial overstay to blight their already difficult relations with the countries of the Muslim world.