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Russia: Chechen Warlord Basayev Back On Stage

  • Sophie Lambroschini



While 10 days of fighting in Dagestan havent brought any obvious advantage to the Islamic militants or to Russian troops, both are claiming that victory is near. On the guerillas' side, Shamil Basayev -- the Chechen warlord leading the militants -- is back on Russian television screens. Basayev -- one of the main figures during the 1994 to 1996 war in Chechnya -- is taunting Moscow by threatening to unleash a new military operation by tomorrow. Our Moscow correspondent, Sophie Lambroschini, profiles Basayev, Russia's so-called "enemy number one."

Moscow, 17 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Shamil Basayev -- the field commander who four years ago humiliated Russia when he successfully occupied a Russian hospital in the southern town of Budennovsk and escaped conviction -- is again needling Moscow from his hideout in the Caucasian mountains.

Dressed in military gear, his wild beard flowing, Basayev has repeatedly promised to chase Russian forces out of Dagestan. He is threatening a new raid by tomorrow and mocks what he calls the Russian armys inability to fight in the mountains.

This time Basayev is a loner, however. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has carefully kept his distance from the fighting, calling the militants "erring Chechens" and explaining that Basayev's raids have nothing to do with Grozny.

Since no real victory is in sight, what are Basayevs objectives and motivations?

According to Basayev, he is leading a Jihad, a holy war, aimed at re-establishing a theocratic Islamic state in the North Caucasus. In this, he is looking a century back to when the legendary Imam Shamyl founded his Islamic state in the same region and used religion to federate the Caucasian minorities against Russian rule. The reference to a Jihad states that religion is more important than nationality. Basayev has been promoting these ideas for two years through a Congress of the People of Ichkeria (Chechnya) and Dagestan, which has no official status in either region.

According to Abdul Khakim Sultygov, a Chechen sociologist, Basayev went "from being a Chechen fighter to becoming an Islamic fighter."

During the past year, Basayev seems to have grown closer to the fundamentalist movement in Chechnya. But Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in the former Soviet Union with the Carnegie Fund, told RFE/RL that Basayev is not a fundamentalist.

Malashenko says that in the North Caucasus, Islam helped save different ethnic groups' cultural identity in the midst of Soviet assimilation. From this point of view, Malashenko says, Basayev is a Muslim. However, he says he doesn't think this is the essence of Basayev's nature. He believes Basayev is simply pursuing what the Chechen authorities have been trying to do since the end of the war.

"When the war ended, he [Basayev] -- like all the other [Chechen leaders] -- counted on Islam as a political lever to build a new Chechen state [which would] first consolidate society and second, bring order."

Indeed, some elements of what is generally described as Islamic rule already existed during the war, in order to impose order and discipline among Chechen troops, including those under Basayev's command.

Before the presidential elections in 1997, Basayev -- like the other presidential contenders -- talked about creating an Islamic state. But Basayev's campaign was an imaginative mix of populism tainted with social Islam. He promoted Islam as the ultimate guarantor of the poor. The charismatic war hero promised that under his Islamic presidency, each man would get a privatization voucher worth $10,000 and that he would build a Disneyland-style park in the center of Grozny for children.

Basayev finished second in the election behind Maskhadov. Though a much-admired field commander, Basayev never really managed to adapt his influence to post-war conditions and quickly joined the opposition to Maskhadov.

Apart from a job as a computer salesman in Moscow, Basayev has had only one job -- fighting. First in Abkhazia, then in Chechnya. Malashenko notes that Basayev's attempts at a civilian career failed completely.

Malashenko believes that Basayev is suffering from something of an inferiority complex. He didnt become a constructive Chechen politician. He remained a field commander. Malashenko says Basayev is conscious of the fact that he failed in Chechnya, "that he didn't even succeed in getting rid of Maskhadov."

Malashenko notes that in this context, Basayev's choice to go back to war in order to "build up his image" appears a logical step.

"The people surrounding him don't know how to do anything. They only know how to fight. How can [Basayev] coordinate them? How can [he] unite them again around himself? Only by war. However, [launching a war] against Maskhadov is not working [and] is dangerous. Against Russia it is hopeless. Organizing terrorist acts like in Budennovsk? That would compromise [his] authority permanently. So what is left is Dagestan, the idea of creating an Islamic state [there]."

Although more careful in his analysis, Chechen sociologist Sultygov concedes that Basayev "turned to God by leading a Jihad" because he had "exhausted other means of serving Chechnya."

However, RFE/RL's expert on Chechnya, Andrei Babitsky, emphasizes that Basayev didnt create the problems in Dagestan, he only gave momentum to processes that appeared inevitable.

Contrary to the opinion of Russian generals, Babitsky says, the Chechens don't need the support of the local population because they don't plan to live and govern in Dagestan. He says they were just invited, possibly even paid, to lead the Jihad, "the war against non-believers."

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