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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Making Distinctions In Chechnya

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials in recent weeks have stepped up their efforts to portray the Chechen militants as terrorists and argue that the Russian campaign in the North Caucasus is part of the international antiterrorist effort.

But a Russian journalist who has covered the conflict there argues that in so doing, Moscow is failing to make and thus to exploit distinctions among Chechens fighting Russian forces between those with a pro-Western orientation and those who look to the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Anna Politkovskaya writes in the current issue of "Novaya gazeta" that Russian commanders have failed to focus on and make use of the increasingly deep "abyss" dividing Chechen separatists. Instead, they have taken refuge in a broad-brush approach, lumping all the Chechens into the category of "Muslim fundamentalist terrorists." She suggests that there are three main categories among the Chechen field commanders: First, there are those who may be called "pro-Western." They want "European rules applied to Chechnya, they want human rights in their traditional Western form, and they appeal to the European Union and other international organizations." And this group seeks "international trials for war crimes."

According to Politkovskaya, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is "the foremost leader in this camp" at least "for the time being." Other Chechen field commanders in this group view themselves as defenders of the Chechen national traditions and are actively opposed to Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Wahhabis that they feel undermine national unity and purpose.

The second group, Politkovskaya argues, are "the pro-Arabs" who "look to the Arab East for models." They seek "Arab-style Islamization of Chechnya, and they seek to attract followers by arguing that it will lead to the influx of "Middle Eastern and Arab-African money" to Chechnya. Politkovskaya suggests that some in this camp -- particularly commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab -- are only in it for the money, while others actually accept the Islamic perspective.

And what Politkovskaya called the "third force" in Chechnya includes the majority of the relatively small armed groups "that have joined the fray not so much to attack the federal forces [out of principle] as to take revenge for their dead or missing relatives."

This group, diverse in many ways, does not care about coordination, command, or broader political goals. Instead, those in this category are waging war on highly specific targets rather than pursuing any more general goals. This group gets its funding by theft or from economic groups on the ground. It places no hope in foreigners for either assistance or as models of current or future behavior.

Politkovskaya suggests that Moscow should play on these divisions, supporting the pro-Western side against the pro-Arab one. "Any secret service in the world would have done so," she writes. "Anyone but the Russian secret services."

She points to two major reasons for that: First of all the Russian secret services have their own ties with the pro-Arab Chechens and exploit these connections for their own purposes, some narrowly selfish such as corruption and others with broader geopolitical goals.

And second, Politkovskaya writes, "The Kremlin is determined to preserve the controllable, smoldering conflict in the Caucasus as the regime's major political reserve." Indeed, Russian polls suggest, President Vladimir Putin's high standing with Russian voters reflects at least in part their support for a vigorous campaign against the Chechens.

But in addition to the reasons Politkovskaya enumerates, there is yet another reason why Moscow may not now be interested in making the distinctions among Chechens that she suggests. Russian officials in recent weeks have sought to portray their efforts in Chechnya as being part of the common international struggle against terrorism and to demand that the West refrain from criticizing what Russian forces are doing there because of what the West may do elsewhere to fight terrorists.

Were the Russian authorities to do as Politkovskaya suggests, they would likely have greater difficulty in portraying to either domestic audiences or abroad the struggle of the Chechens as terrorism.

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