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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

View From the Chechen Border

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Just across the Chechen border people have a different perspective on the war, and on the hostage crisis that took place 1,500 kilometers to the north, in Moscow. I spent the first half of this month interviewing people in the republic of Dagestan, between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. Inevitably, visits to the region dispel those generalizations that come too easily when one is at a distance. Consider these common assumptions about the war in Chechnya.

The Muslim peoples of the Caucasus resent Russian rule. This is true for many Chechens, but it is false for most of the Muslim peoples of the region. In 2000, I conducted a survey of 1,000 respondents throughout Dagestan. Most Dagestanis saw Chechnya as the greatest threat to their stability, and said that they would place their trust in Russian officials in the event of a crisis. All Dagestani ethnic groups, including Dagestan's indigenous Chechens, desired closer relations with Moscow.

The current chaos in the Caucasus results from Russia's invasion of Chechnya. Certainly the wars in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 and again from 1999 have added to instability in the region. But when Russia withdrew from Chechnya between 1996 and 1999, Dagestani citizens were terrorized by Chechen raiders. Thousands of people were kidnapped and held in Chechnya, where many were tortured and mutilated. In Chechnya's neighboring republics, the situation stabilized with the return of federal troops.

Islamist extremism in Chechnya is the result of Russian invasions. Violence in Chechnya has contributed to extremism, but militant fundamentalism came first to Dagestan in the early 1990s, and spread from there to Chechnya. It is impossible to blame extremism on Russian invasions since Russia did not invade Dagestan. My survey in the region, combined with interviews with local elites, suggests that political corruption, economic collapse and cultural transition have fed extremism. Indeed, when militants from Chechnya invaded Dagestan in 1999, local militias joined with federal troops to rid their republic of the extremists.

Chechen separatists can be distinguished from Islamist extremists. The first Chechen conflict was a separatist struggle, but the current conflict is far more complex. Chechnya had already achieved de facto independence from Russia when Chechen commanders invaded Dagestan in 1999. Since then, al-Qaida's presence in Chechnya and its financial support for Chechen militants have been documented. Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was imprisoned in Dagestan in 1998 while attempting to establish al-Qaida bases in the region, and Arab fighters with established ties to the terrorist organization have been killed or captured in and around Chechnya. Yet for the most part the extremists are not Arabs but are the brothers, cousins and sons of locals who harbor nationalist sentiments or are simply too exhausted to care about anything but peace. There are many Chechens who support the current Chechen government, which is often characterized as "pro-Russian" but which is actually "anti-extremist." These moderates are regularly attacked by the Chechen militants and then brutalized by Russian troops who fail to distinguish them from the extremists. Russian brutality adds to the appeal of extremism, thereby completing the vicious cycle. The war might have ended long ago had the Russian military protected the rights of those they claim are Russian citizens.

An end to the war in Chechnya would reduce violence and restore human rights. Not necessarily. The region suffered horrific violence and massive human rights abuses from 1996 to 1999 after Russia withdrew from Chechnya, yet these abuses received little notice in the West. With the hostage industry flourishing after the withdrawal, few Westerners ventured into the area, and as a result the violence and abuses of those years received little publicity.

The Moscow hostage crisis shows that the militants have not been defeated. True, but Chechen militants have tended to resort to high-profile hostage situations (in 1995 and 1996) when their cause is most desperate. The Moscow hostage crisis is a sign of the militants' weakness.

Russia deserves U.S. support to end this crisis, and subsequent assistance in relieving the suffering and restoring the rights of the Chechen people.

Robert Bruce Ware, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.