Mysterious Shifts in Chechnya

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Like one of those dark mysterious beech forests of the Caucasus, Chechnya still contains many secrets and most of what is going on there is hidden from outside view.

From a distance, it looks as though war is over and the republic's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, is firmly in control. Kadyrov is now busy eliminating the threat posed by the last substantial visible armed group operating in Chechnya, the Vostok battalion run by the Yamadayev brothers.

Somewhere in the shadows, a much less visible armed resistance numbering perhaps a few hundred men still flickers on in the southeastern mountains, but they are the hardest of a hard core: There can be little motivation to sustain a partisan war in current-day Chechnya.

Some important shifts are occurring, and I got a glimpse of this last week from an address given in London by exiled Chechen pro-independence leader Akhmed Zakayev.

To my astonishment, Zakayev, who is supposed to be leading a separatist struggle, gave a very upbeat assessment of the current state of affairs in his homeland.

"The decolonization of Chechnya is now a fact," said Zakayev, adding for good measure, "The Chechen people have won this war."

I was sitting next to well-known political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, and we both practically fell off our chairs. We pressed Zakayev to say more. He said the conclusion should be self-evident. At great and tragic cost, he said, Chechnya had now become separate from Russia. Colonial rule was dead, and Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin had achieved exactly the opposite of what they wanted. Twenty years ago, Zakayev said, a Chechen child on a bus in Grozny would have been clipped behind the ear for speaking in the Chechen language. Now the ethnic Russian population had virtually all left -- something Zakayev said he regretted -- and Chechen culture is predominant. Kadyrov, Zakayev said, had played his part and "done very important work for the liberation of Chechnya."

Could it be that an exiled pro-independence leader, whom the Russian government wants to extradite, is praising the work of a loyalist, whom that government installed in office? Madness surely -- but actually quite logical within the internal dynamics of Chechnya.

Kadyrov and Zakayev are in fact cut from the same cloth, both springing from the same nationalist movement of the early 1990s. Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, was once a rebel fighter and associate of Zakayev's -- before he dramatically switched sides in 1999 to serve the Russians. In fact, the purported crimes over which the Prosecutor General's Office tried and failed to extradite Zakayev from London in 2003 all date back to the years 1994 to 1996 and could just as easily have been laid against Akhmad Kadyrov.

Two significant changes have occurred in the last year. The first is that Kadyrov junior has won undisputed power. He is now getting rid of his last rivals and winning ever greater control of Chechnya's revenue flows. He has won popularity by confining the federal army to barracks and promoting Chechen traditional Islam in opposition to the extremists.

The second change is a split inside what remains of the "Chechen resistance." Chechen field commander Doku Umarov has proclaimed himself "Emir of the Caucasus" and now heads an unashamedly Islamist movement that sponsors violence across the entire North Caucasus. Umarov still has the support of veteran ideologue Movladi Udugov and the hate-filled web site Kavkaz Center. His main emissary abroad is Shamsuddin Batukayev, who won notoriety as the "Shariah judge" who staged a public execution in Grozny in 1997.

Zakayev, a London resident, is now called "prime minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria" and leads a disparate group of nationalist pro-Western Chechens in Europe. When I met him recently for a follow-up interview, I found him unusually cheerful, evidently relieved by his split from the Islamists and by recent developments. "Time is on our side," he said.

He clearly enjoyed giving rather equivocal praise for Ramzan Kadyrov, aware that it could only embarrass the leader in Grozny. "Kadyrov is resolving the social problems of the population, and we welcome that," the rebel leader said. Zakayev called Kadyrov, 31, a "representative of the crippled generation," his world-view entirely shaped by war. Although he undoubtedly had blood on his hands, he had helped rid Chechnya of the worst excesses of the federal military.

Zakayev was seeing developments from the viewpoint of a Chechen nationalist. He insisted that his supporters would not target other Chechens, only the federal military. Besides, he said, up to three-quarters of Kadyrov's police force are former fighters. "I can't call 90 percent of the population of Chechnya traitors," he said.

Why this convergence of interests? Mainly I think because the Chechens are a small ethnic group, and that makes civil war an anathema. Fighters and leaders can change sides -- as the famous Chechen warrior Hadji Murat, later made famous by Leo Tolstoy, did when he defected to the Russians in 1851. But as long as they stay loyal to their friends and family and preserve their social bonds, all can be forgiven. Chechens are often characterized as hot-headed and romantic, but it should not be forgotten that they also have a hard-headed pragmatic streak without which they would not have survived deep traumas such as Stalin's mass deportations of 1944.

Also, Chechnya remains traumatized after two wars and needs time to recuperate. For all his mafia-style excesses, much of the population of Chechnya seems to believe that Ramzan Kadyrov provides a good medium-term solution simply because he is giving them a chance to rebuild their lives.

He gets this qualified support from a mass of Chechens, who feel alienated from Russia but are tired of war and confrontation. They are probably content with rule from Moscow, as long as it provides money and so long as federal soldiers are kept out of their backyards. In the long term, these people have very little in common with the rest of Russia and are set on an entirely different trajectory.

For good or ill, this process is under way in Chechnya, and it is bigger than Ramzan Kadyrov or Akhmed Zakayev, or indeed President Dmitry Medvedev. The irony is that Chechnya did not start down this separate path on the day in 1991 that Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed what was a mainly fictional independence for his republic. It began on the day three years later that Yeltsin made the tragic decision to send in federal forces and, as he thought, crush Chechen separatism once and for all.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.