Chechnya
New Dimensions of the Old Crisis

Russian Outlook
The October 23-26 seizure of a Moscow theater--where 120 died of the 800 people taken hostage by fifty Chechen terrorists--briefly drew the world's attention to the far greater tragedy of Russia's war in Chechnya: the daily torment and relentless misery of the Chechen people, victimized by the indiscriminate brutality and corruption of the incompetently led Russian troops and by extortion and arbitrary executions by the guerilla warlords. Punctuated by two invasions by Russian troops in 1994 and 1999, the bloody stalemate in Chechnya is now in its twelfth year.

 

In the past six years, gradually accumulating evidence points to significant changes in the nature of the conflict and the agenda of the Chechen resistance. Graphically displayed during the hostage crisis in Moscow, the new dimensions complicate the bitter contest and are likely to increase the already formidable obstacles to a peaceful settlement.

 

While continuing to condemn the massive human rights abuses by the Russian troops in Chechnya and to press Moscow toward a political solution, the world--first and foremost the United States, which thus far has found in Russia a steady and reliable ally in the war on terrorism--ought to notice the new evidence and adjust both policy recommendations and expectations of the timing and the shape of the resolution.

 

The Road to Nord-Ost

 

The takeover of a Moscow theater during the performance of the musical Nord-Ost stemmed from eleven years of a complex and evolving conflict. Formerly a part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, Chechnya declared independence from Russia in November 1991. A nation of fearless Muslim warriors, the Chechens had fought Russian troops for several decades in the nineteenth century and were the last people of the northern Caucasus incorporated into the Russian empire, after the 1817-1864 Caucasian War.

 

Accused by Stalin of welcoming the Germans in World War II, the entire Chechen nation of 489,000 people was deported to Soviet Central Asia in 1944; an estimated 200,000 died there of hunger and disease. Nikita Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to return to their motherland in 1956. In November 1991 Chechnya's freely elected president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, declared independence, which was not recognized by Russia or any other state.

 

In the spring and summer of 1993 Dudaev dissolved the parliament and ordered the killing of scores of protestors in Chechnya's capital, Grozny. Hence he ruled as a brutal, erratic, and increasingly paranoid dictator; his small army of "bodyguards" murdered his enemies, both real and imagined.

 

Soon Chechnya became a lawless enclave, bristling with weapons bought from corrupt Russian generals and paid for with the profits from the oil field near Grozny. Trains passing through Chechnya were routinely robbed; Russian newspapers advised passengers how to barricade themselves in the compartments to survive. Knowing that they would never be extradited to Russia, criminals, including fugitives sought for murder and armed robbery, flocked to the mountain republic. An illicit drug and arms trade flourished, as did the counterfeiting of rubles. The "Chechen mafia" became one of the largest and most violent segments of the all-Russian criminal underworld.

 

The War of Attrition, 1994-1996

 

Seeking to reclaim what it considered Russian territory and end the violent anarchy that threatened to spread to the rest of the northern Caucasus, Russia invaded Chechnya in December 1994 and attempted to take Grozny in Stalingrad-like house-to-house battle. Well-supplied, skillful, experienced, and immensely brave Chechens slaughtered ill-trained Russian draftees by the hundreds. After the Russians resorted to indiscriminate bombing from air and missile attacks, Grozny was finally secured a month and a half later. As many as 30,000 civilians and at least 1,800 troops were killed, while the resistance fighters made an orderly retreat and regrouped in the mountains.

 

The siege of Grozny epitomized Russia's first campaign to pacify Chechnya: the ineptitude and brutality of the Russian troops, which routinely massacred Chechen civilians, and the courageous, steadfast, and tactically superior resistance, which inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

 

Soon guerillas began striking outside Chechnya. In June 1995 more than 200 fighters seized a hospital in the southern Russian city of Budyonovsk, 125 miles north of Chechnya. They held more than 2,000 patients and medical personnel hostage as they demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. After the Russian troops failed twice to dislodge the Chechens (who used patients, among them pregnant women from the maternity ward, as a shield), Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin negotiated by phone with the group's leader, Shamil Basaev; the guerillas were transported to the Chechen border and released. The 120 killed included police, troops, hostages, and several guerillas.

 

Half a year later Chechens captured the town of Kyzlyar in Dagestan and retreated to the nearby village of Pervomayskoe with more than 2,000 hostages. After a two-week siege, the Chechens broke through the cordon in a fierce night battle and escaped to Chechnya with more than 100 captives, whom they later exchanged for Chechen prisoners and the bodies of their killed comrades.

 

De Facto Independence, 1996-1999

 

Although most Russians opposed Chechnya's independence, the war soon became widely unpopular. Mounting casualties were daily reported on Russian television networks: tens of thousands of Chechens dead and hundreds of thousands displaced and at least 5,800 Russian soldiers killed. As he sought reelection in a tight race against a Communist candidate for presidency, Boris Yeltsin promised to end the war.

 

In May 1996 Yeltsin and the leader of Chechen resistance, Zelimkhan Yandarbieyv (who replaced Dudaev, killed a month before), signed a ceasefire agreement in the Kremlin. Although both sides violated the cessation of hostilities (with Chechens retaking Grozny in a lightning attack), in the predawn hours of August 31 in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt the secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council, General Alexander Lebed, and the chief of the general staff of the Chechen resistance, Aslan Maskhadov, signed an agreement that stipulated an immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops. By January 1, 1997, not a single Russian soldier remained in Chechnya. Although Chechnya's final political status was to be resolved in the next five years, it became de facto independent. Russia granted Chechnya its own constitution and "full control over finance" and over "natural resources."

 

A Somalia of the Caucasus. Elected president shortly thereafter, Aslan Maskhadov witnessed the disintegration of the Chechen state within three years of assuming power. Strengthened by the violence and devastation of the previous half decade, the traditional clan-based loyalties proved immeasurably stronger than allegiance to central authorities in Grozny.

 

Chechnya dissolved into murderous anarchy. Warlords and their heavily armed gangs turned the country into a Somalia of the Caucasus. In addition to expanding an already prominent role in Russian and international organized crime, Chechnya turned kidnappings for ransom into an industry. At least 1,100 people were kidnapped in the border areas outside Chechnya. The victims included international relief workers, Russian and foreign journalists, employees of private Russian and foreign companies, wealthy Chechens, and even ordinary citizens. To expedite the payment of ransom, severed limbs were often mailed to relatives of the prisoners. The abducted were frequently starved and tortured to death. (The handful of international relief organizations still operating in Chechnya require staff to be accompanied everywhere by armed security guards.)

 

One gang known for its extreme cruelty and rapacity was headed by the leader of the hostage-takers in Moscow last October, Movsar Baraev. The band, which Movsar inherited from his uncle Abri Baraev, who was killed earlier in 2002, was responsible for scores of murders and kidnappings, including the 1998 abduction for ransom and subsequent beheading of three Britons and a New Zealander who worked for a private telecommunications company.

 

Slavery became widespread. Some of the kidnapped were sold into indentured servitude to Chechen families. For years the slaves, as they were openly called, endured starvation, beating, and often maiming and mutilation.

 

Despite the Maskhadov administration's concerted effort, the republic of Ichkeria, with a lone howling wolf on its national flag, was not recognized by a single nation save Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In support of the utter fiction of Chechnya's continuing membership in the Russian Federation, Moscow continued to send hundreds of millions of rubles for "rehabilitation" as well as pensions and funds for schools and hospitals. Grozny authorities instantaneously stole all transfers and divided funds among the favored warlords.

 

A changing agenda. The years between 1996 and 1999 marked the beginning of the transformation of what had been a generally conventional, secular, ethnic, irredentist movement with aims limited to securing Chechnya's independence.

 

First came attacks on Russian troops in neighboring Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Ossetia. In April 1998, near the border of Ossetia and Ingushetia, a Chechen detachment attacked a motorcade of top officers of the Russian general staff and the leadership of the North Caucasus Military District; four generals were killed. A month later kidnappers captured the representative of the president of the Russian Federation in Chechnya, Valentin Vlasov. Unable to send armed police into Chechnya to search for Vlasov because of the Khasavayurt agreements, the Russian government authorized intermediaries to negotiate his release after five months in captivity for a ransom of a reported $4 million. In 1999 the representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation in Chechnya, Major General Gennadiy Shpigun, was abducted at the airport in Grozny. His body was found a year later.

 

Finally, in August and September 1999, 1,200-2,000 fighters invaded Dagestan from Chechnya with the goal of establishing an "Islamic republic of North Caucasus." They were repelled by primarily local troops and militia supported by the overwhelming majority of the multiethnic and predominantly Muslim population of Dagestan. Shamil Basaev's appeal to the Dagestani population "to rise up and end 140 years of occupation by the Muscovite infidels"[1] fell on deaf ears.

 

Soon after, the newly appointed prime minister of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, ordered the second invasion of Chechnya by 80,000 federal troops. Since then an estimated 80,000 Chechens have been killed (including elected or appointed Chechen officials assassinated by the rebels for cooperating with the federal government); another 35,000 "disappeared" and are

presumed dead. The number of refugees in neighboring Ingushetia is estimated at 110,000; 18,000-20,000 live in tent cities. At least 4,000 Russian soldiers were killed (Russian and foreign human rights groups put the number as high 14,000).

 

Palestinization of Chechnya?

 

Although hardly visible to the outside world behind the smoke of Russian carpet-bombing and overshadowed by the Russian-made humanitarian crisis of immense proportions, a significant shift began in the mid-1990s and especially since 1996 in the outlook and agenda of some of the key elements of the Chechen resistance. At the heart of this transmogrification was an evolution that closely resembled the change in the movement for the independence of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza, occupied by Israel in 1967).

 

Islamization

 

Although in both Palestine and Chechnya the secular and religious components have coexisted in the movement for independence, the Islamic element steadily strengthened at the expense of the secular objectives.

 

By 1999 secular agenda and symbols all but disappeared among the key leaders of the Chechen resistance. Dzhokhar Dudaev--a major general in the Soviet Air Force, a former member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and by all appearances an atheist, whose face was shaven save for a neat tiny moustache and who had invoked Islam solely to boost his own legitimacy in the fight against the Russians--would hardly have recognized the movement that he started. From a primarily secular movement of national liberation, Chechnya's war for independence increasingly looked like part of the worldwide jihad, as the top Chechen commanders grew long beards and started quoting the Koran.

 

The spread of Wahhabism. Since 1996 the resistance leaders and their troops have been switching their traditional allegiance from the Sufi branch of Islam to a radical interpretation of Wahhabism that celebrates death, suicide, and mass murder as weapons against the infidels. Converts included the top warlords Shamil Basaev, who led the takeover of the hospital in Budyonnovsk in 1995 and claimed responsibility for masterminding the October 2002 Nord-Ost hostage-

taking in a Moscow theater, and Salman Raduev, Dzhokhar Dudaev's son-in-law and the leader of the Kyzlyar raid in 1996. (Captured by Russian troops in March 2000 and sentenced to life in prison for terrorism, Raduev died in prison in December 2002.)

 

"Under the influence of . . . Arab mujahadeen," observed a Middle East policy analyst, "Basaev . . . appeared to have metamorphosed gradually from a Chechen nationalist to a Chechen Muslim."[2] His stated objective became a Chechen theocracy like that established by the leader of the Chechen resistance to the Russian empire (and Basaev's namesake), the ruthless and cunning Shamil [3] (1797-1871), the red-bearded imam who went everywhere with an axe-wielding executioner. (For a historically accurate sketch of Shamil, see one of Leo Tolstoy's finest novellas, Hadji Murat.)

 

On the videotaped statement of the hostage-takers, aired on the second day of the Moscow stand-off by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television network, the hostage-takers spoke against the backdrop of a green banner of Islam with white Koranic verses. The women wore Arab-style hijab (a head-to-toe black dress with only eyes uncovered), which Chechen women had not been seen wearing before.

 

The laws of Sharia. Even before President Maskhadov declared Chechnya an Islamic republic in November 1997, Chechnya introduced Islamic courts, which began sentencing those who violated the Koran-based Sharia law. In the first of the executions broadcast on Chechnya's state-run television, a man's throat was slit by a group of hooded men in April 1997. Subsequent executions by firing squad took place in Grozny's central Friendship of Peoples Square in the presence of thousands of spectators.

 

In response to statements by President Yeltsin and the Duma, horrified by what they labeled "barbaric," "medieval," and "impermissible" acts in what was nominally still part of Russia, the Chechen presidential spokesman said: "The disapproval by Russia and the West of our actions-shooting by a firing squad and public executions-means that we're heading in the right direction. There is no doubt that only the laws of Allah and norms of Sharia will be in force in Chechnya." [4] The Chechen vice president, Vakha Arsanov, added: "Hearing [the Russian protests] makes me laugh. I spit on Russia. . . . Russia means nothing to us; we are an independent state." [5]

 

Internationalization

 

Al Jazeera's broadcast of the videotaped statement of the terrorists in the Moscow theater highlighted the international dimension of the Chechen resistance: the network had established itself as a conduit for messages from the Al Qaeda leadership.

The Al Jazeera broadcast reflected the prominence that the Chechen cause had gained among fundamentalist Islamic militants. "Hundreds" of Arab volunteers, many veterans of the 1979-1988 war in Afghanistan, came to fight in Chechnya. [6] The most prominent was the Saudi-born commander Samir bin Saleh al Suwailem (known by the nom de guerre Khattab), who together with Basaev led the 1999 invasion of Dagestan. (Khattab was reported killed in April 2002.)

 

Zawahiri and Atta. As early as December 1996 Al Qaeda's second in command, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, tried clandestinely to enter Chechnya allegedly to find a new base for the organization after Sudan expelled the Al Qaeda leadership. Arrested in Dagestan with two Arab companions, Zawahiri spent six months in prison in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala; was found guilty of entering Russia without a visa; and released in May 1997. In a handwritten statement in Arabic, made public by the Russian authorities with other trial documents this past October, Zawahiri claimed to be a "businessman" who had entered Dagestan "to study the local market and to build contacts for our business." [7] In a file stored in a laptop computer found in an Al Qaeda safe house in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime, Zawahiri wrote, "God blinded [the Dagestani authorities] to our identities." [8]

 

Last fall the testimony at the Hamburg trial of Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan accused of assisting the September 11 hijackers, established a connection between some hijackers and the Chechen cause. The young men, who were said to be "obsessed with jihad" and "cheerfully" sang songs about martyrdom, "always talked about Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Chechnya." [9] In the fall of 1999 the three September 11 pilots-Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah-left Hamburg for the Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, with the intention of "fighting the Russians in Chechnya." [10] They were told that there were "enough fighters" in Chechnya. [11] Instead, according to German investigators, while in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda leadership ordered the three to "begin laying plans" for what became the September 11 attack. [12]

 

A new Afghanistan. An audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden and broadcast in November 2002 by Al Jazeera mentioned Chechnya in the long list of Muslim grievances: "As you look at your dead in Moscow, also recall ours in Chechnya." [13] Chechnya is constantly invoked by fundamentalist Islamic leaders in Pakistan. Along with Palestine, Chechnya has become the focal point in the call to war to the death against the West by Islamic extremists in Britain.

 

In 1999 at least 100 Al Qaeda fighters joined hundreds of Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge on the Georgian side of the Chechen-Georgian border. [14] According to the Georgian investigators and U.S. intelligence sources, the "[Al Qaeda] militants split their time between helping the Chechens in their war against Russia and helping the [Al Qaeda] international organization in its war against the United States."[15] One of the teams reportedly planned to blow up a U.S. or a Western installation in Russia, and another unit developed poisons "for possible attacks against Western targets in Central Asia." [16]

 

In October 2002 the U.S.-trained Georgian special forces captured fifteen Arab fighters in the Pankisi Gorge and immediately extradited them to the United States. Among them was the Egyptian Saif al-Islam al-Masry, a member of the Al Qaeda military committee. Trained by the Iran-supported Hezbollah terrorist group in southern Lebanon and dispatched by Al Qaeda to Somalia in the early 1990s, he was mentioned in the federal indictment of a prominent Muslim charity, the Illinois-based Benevolence International Foundation, as an officer of the foundation's "Chechen branch."[17]

 

Last fall France opened a special judicial inquiry into connections between French Muslim extremists and Chechnya. According to the presiding judge, "Chechnya could become the new Afghanistan. It could serve as a new laboratory for [terrorist] attacks as Afghanistan once did." [18]

 

Russia and the Arabs. Although it continues to resist an internationally brokered solution to the Chechen crisis, Russia is beginning to recognize the conflict's international dimension. One of the key and lasting consequences of the Moscow hostage crisis has been Russia's sharp turn from its traditional pro-Arab position. Immediately after the crisis, the ambassadors from all Arab nations with embassies in Moscow were called to the Foreign Ministry and sharply rebuked for not offering assistance in the negotiations with the terrorists. Russia also requested the extradition from Qatar of the cosigner of the May 1996 agreement, Zelikhman Yandarbiev, whose phone conversation with the hostage-takers Russian authorities claim to have intercepted.

 

A month later President Putin launched an unprecedented public attack on Saudi Arabia. At the conclusion of his meeting with President George W. Bush in Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg in November 2002, he said that "we should not forget about those who finance terrorism" and pointed out that the majority of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. "We should not forget about that," Putin repeated. [19]

 

A Changing Agenda: Khasavyurt and Camp David Rejected

 

The Khasavyurt agreement scuttled by the Chechen militants is similar to the settlement offered to and rejected by Yasir Arafat at Camp David in July 2000: de facto independence and secular statehood in return for the end of revolt and terrorism.

 

The struggle for a secular independent state has been submerged by a fundamentalist agenda that seeks not peace but victory in an endless jihad. In 1996 the top Chechen guerillas began forming jamaats, at once military detachments and fundamentalist religious communities, with the explicit goal of conquering neighboring Dagestan and joining it with Chechnya into an Islamic state.

 

Two months before the invasion of Dagestan, Chechnya's president, Aslan Maskhadov, told an interviewer: "After the [1994-1996] war I was tired, I was dreaming about a respite, as was the rest of the Chechen nation. But even then it looked like war was imminent. With dismay I listened to the speeches of a variety of [Chechen] politicians and [military] commanders. These calls for holy war, the liberation of the Caucasus, flying green flags [of Islam] over the Kremlin. I knew everything was heading toward war." [20] After the August invasion of Dagestan was repulsed, Shirvani Basaev, Shamil Basaev's brother, said: "The assault on Dagestan was just a rehearsal. It was nothing to do with oil or territory. This is jihad." [21]

 

According to one of the most knowledgeable Russian journalists, Andrei Babitsky-who spent months with the rebels in the 1990s and whose imprisonment by Russian troops on charges of assisting the enemy caused an international uproar-Baraev's was one of the jamaats. [22] The fighters called themselves mujahadeen and espoused "extreme fundamentalist Islam and fight under the slogan of jihad." [23]

 

The cult of suicide. Throughout both wars against the Russians, the Chechens rightly prided themselves on tactical acumen. Most soldiers not only escaped with their lives but carried away their wounded and dead while inflicting maximum damage on the enemy. For all their spectacular daring, the Chechen attacks--including the largest hostage-taking operations in Budyonovsk, Kyzlyar, and Pervomayskoe--were never about suicide.

 

By contrast, on the Al Jazeera tape-virtually indistinguishable from those of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or Hamas-the black-clad Chechens talked of little else. "I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," one said. [24] A woman in hijab added: "We have chosen to die in Moscow and we will kill hundreds of infidels. Even if we die, thousands of our brothers and sisters are ready to give their lives to free our motherland." [25]

 

In interviews they gave Russian radio and television inside the theater, the terrorists confirmed the tape's morbid tenor. "Our group is called Islam's suicide brigade," Movsar Baraev said. "Our dream is to become martyrs of Allah." [26] "We have come to die," an unidentified hostage-taker told an interviewer. "Our motto is freedom and paradise. We already have freedom as we've come to Moscow. Now we want to be in paradise." [27

 

Two months after the Nord-Ost hostage-taking, the Chechen resistance effected its first "classic" suicide bombing when, on December 27, 2002, two vehicles loaded with more than a ton of explosives crashed into the courtyard of the government headquarters in Grozny, killing 72 people and wounding 110.

 

Changing Leadership: Generations of War In the words of a Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, known for her brave reporting from and condemnation of the Russian war on Chechnya (the Moscow hostage-takers requested her by name as a negotiator), a new generation of the "sons" is increasingly taking over the armed resistance in Chechnya; aged twenty-five to thirty, this generation has come of age during war, has seen nothing but war, and has "known nothing but a Kalashnikov and the woods since they finished [high] school." [28]

 

In both Chechnya and Palestine in the past few years power has shifted from elected leaders (Maskhadov and Arafat) to fundamentalist warlords and heads of terrorist networks. According to Politkovskaya, Maskhadov's options are limited: choose "the frenzied radicalizations of the 'sons' or be swept away, and very soon." [29] Whether Maskhadov genuinely opposes the fundamentalist agenda or clandestinely approves of and supports it, he is perceived by a majority of Russians in much the same way as Israelis perceive Arafat: either responsible for the terrorist attacks or unable to control the jihad radicals.

 

In either case, after the terrorist attack in Moscow, the Russians no longer consider Maskhadov a viable negotiating partner. Asked after the Nord-Ost hostage-taking if Moscow should negotiate with Maskhadov or with someone else, only 17 percent named Maskhadov, while 42 percent thought that Moscow should seek out someone else. Just as the White House turned away from Arafat in June 2002, since October of the same year the United States no longer insists on Maskhadov as Russia's interlocutor.

 

Lessons from the Past

The illuminating analogies between Chechnya and other separatist movements are not limited to Palestine. The search for a solution to the Chechen stalemate might benefit from a look at the outcomes of several recent wars of national self-determination comparable in intensity, seeming intractability, length, and cruelty.

 

The Conflicts

 

Capturing the leader, ending the violence and offering a compromise: Turkey and the Kurds. From 1987, when a state of emergency was introduced in the country's southeast, to 2002 Turkey waged a war on Kurdish leftist separatists (the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK) seeking independence for the country's 12 million Kurds (about one-fifth of the country's population). Between 25,000 and 35,000 Kurds and at least 5,000 Turkish soldiers and police died. An estimated 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed; 2-3.5 million Kurds were displaced.

 

In addition to the scale of violence, the similarities between the Chechen and the Kurdish conflicts extend to the length and intensity (though not the details) of historical grievances against the central authorities. Since the early 1920s the Turkish state has sought to suppress or eradicate every sign of Kurdish national identity. The Kurdish language and culture have been banned. Teaching Kurdish in schools is a criminal offense. Radio and television broadcasting in Kurdish is prohibited, as are plays and movies. Children have been thrown in jail for playing Kurdish songs on a tape recorder. Local registrars routinely refuse to issue birth certificates for babies with Kurdish names.

 

Human rights abuses have been massive and systematic. Prisoners have been tortured; women have been routinely sexually humiliated or raped. [30] (Ending torture is a key requirement for Turkey's entry into the European Union.) In 2001 twenty-eight Kurdish boys, aged ten to fifteen, were arrested and charged with terrorism for allegedly chanting pro-Kurdish slogans. Six were kept in jail for a month until their first court hearing. [31]

 

Turkey's war on the Kurds was conducted behind a total information blackout: newspaper journalists, let alone television cameras, were not allowed anywhere near the battle zones. Using criminal penalties for "insulting" or "belittling" the armed forces, the security forces, Parliament, the president, or the judiciary, Turkish authorities charged--and courts sentenced--journalists to lengthy prison terms for merely mentioning the conflict and the Kurdish resistance. (In 1999 more journalists were imprisoned in Turkey than in China.) In 2000 criminal charges were brought against five campaigners for prisoners' rights for using the words "Kurdish women" in their speeches.

 

The violence generally subsided after the capture of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Three years after Ocalan called on his followers to end violence and limit demands to cultural autonomy and linguistic rights rather than independence, Turkey removed the prohibitions against broadcasts in Kurdish and appears ready to grant the Kurds limited autonomy.

 

Negotiating autonomy: Sri Lanka and the Tamils. Last September the government of Sri Lanka reached an agreement with the rebels who fought for the secession of the predominantly Tamil northern and eastern regions from the Sinhalese-majority state. The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, who pioneered suicide bombings that killed more than 1,500 people and conscripted children as fighters, agreed to "substantial regional autonomy" within a newly created federal state.

 

The war lasted nineteen years and resulted in 65,000 deaths and the displacement of 1.6 million of the island state's population of 18 million.

 

"Walking away": France and Algeria. Marked by cruelty on both sides, the 1954-1962 war in Algeria included widespread and systematic torture of suspects and prisoners by the French, the destruction of 8,000 villages in the pacification campaigns, and the forcible relocation of more than 2 million Algerians. The French resorted to collective punishment, concentration camps through which more than 100,000 Algerians passed, and security sweeps (ratissages)-comparable to the infamous Russian zachistki, from which many seized Chechens never returned-and the "disappearance" of 3,000 Algerians in police custody.

 

In the end an estimated 300,000 Algerians died at the hands of both occupying troops and the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) guerillas, as did 24,000 French soldiers. The French withdrawal was followed by torture and execution by the FLN of tens of thousands of pro-French "collaborators" and "traitors" including the so-called harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought alongside the French.

Terrorism and retaliation with no solution in sight: Kashmir and Palestine. Unlike the three cases above, no end has been found to the conflict in the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir in India, which separatists seek to join with neighboring Pakistan and where 80,000 people have died since 1947. Likewise, in the war for independence of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza (Palestine), an estimated 25,000 Palestinians and Israelis have died since the territories came under Israeli control in 1967.

 

Decisive Factors A comparison of Turkey and Sri Lanka with Algeria, Kashmir, and Palestine yields several factors that were decisive in bringing about the mutually acceptable end of violence. First, a compromise is more likely in conflicts where the religious factor is either nonexistent (both the Turks and the Kurdish are Muslim; both the armed forces and the PKK are secular in their ideology) or secondary to standard ethnic issues (as with the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamils, whose grievances included an inferior status of the Tamil language vis-a-vis the official Sinhala and discrimination in college admissions and state employment).

 

By contrast, in Algeria, Kashmir, and Palestine the movements for national liberation became religious wars between Muslims and Christians, Muslims and Hindus (Kashmir), and Muslims and Jews (Israel), even if they began as generally secular movements (Algeria and Palestine). Demands for ethnic equality can be negotiated; the war of religions has thus far ended in defeat or stalemate.

 

Ending a conflict by walking away is immeasurably harder when the disputed territory is contiguous than when it lies far away from the country's borders. Thus only Algeria achieved full independence; although it had been part of France for more than a century, it was separated from it by the Mediterranean. Relinquishing contiguous territory was unacceptable to either Sri Lanka or Turkey.

 

Deinternationalization as a key to successful resolution. Islamization and consequently internationalization lead to a change of agenda as secular pro-independence movements morph into fronts of the worldwide jihad, with volunteers and funds from all over the Muslim world.

 

By contrast, in Turkey the Kurds' pro-independence quest drew little, if any, support from Muslim fundamentalists. The Sri Lanka settlement followed the termination of outside assistance. First, India stopped supplying the Tamil insurgents with arms, ammunition, and logistical support after the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil Tigers in 1991. Then the Tamil diaspora in the United States, Canada, Europe, and India ended financial support after the United States, Britain, and India declared the Tigers a terrorist organization.

 

Furthermore, in the nonreligious and thus noninternationalized or de-internationalized conflicts in Turkey and Sri Lanka, the countries' territorial integrity was not negotiable as far as the national authorities were concerned. The separatists in the end accepted political or cultural autonomy rather than total independence. Such a compromise seems distant in Kashmir or Palestine as long as irredentist movements are dominated by the proponents of world jihad. The limits of autonomy can be negotiated; liberation from the infidels, by definition, may not be compromised.

 

Implications for the Russo-Chechen Conflict

 

With Islamization and the internationalization of the Chechen pro-independence movement, a carefully crafted and mutually acceptable settlement along the Sri Lankan lines appears out of the question. In addition to the same two obstacles, the Turkish solution--decapitation of the movement and the end of insurgence in exchange for the life of the supreme leader--is even less plausible because of the decentralization of the Chechen resistance, the Chechen code of honor that equates surrender with betrayal, and the apparent commitment of its top commanders to suicide.

 

The French model is not applicable because the overwhelming majority of Russians, including some of the war's most vocal and courageous opponents, cannot conceive of compromising the country's territorial integrity. Declaring Chechnya "autonomous" and "walking away" are perforce unacceptable to Russian public opinion because Moscow already "walked away" in Khasavyurt in 1996, with resulting periodic raids on Russian territory, the death of more than 300 people in the bombing of three apartment buildings (one in Moscow) in August 1999, and the invasion of Dagestan.

 

Immediately after the Nord-Ost hostage takeover, most of the friends in Moscow whom I spoke with over the phone advocated stena, a wall along the border with Chechnya. Interviewed several days later by an American reporter, a middle-class Muscovite, too, "believed [that] the possible solution ... may well be 'to build a Chinese wall' around Chechnya, trapping the people and the problem inside, where it can't infect the rest of Russia." [32] But the Russian stena for Chechnya is hardly more practical than a similar plan in Israel: an estimated 800,000 Chechens live in Russia outside Chechnya (40,000- 400,000 in Moscow).

 

The Question of Leadership At the heart of the conflict is the Chechens' legitimate desire for self-rule and the repeated and savage historical injustice dealt the Chechen people by Russia and the Soviet Union. No solution is likely until the injustice is acknowledged and corrected.

 

The settlement may not be achieved without a profound change on the part of the Russians. With public opinion consistently far more inclined toward ending the war than otherwise, on the Russian side the solution is primarily a matter of strong, creative, and courageous leadership.

 

Only a strong leader can declare a war lost. In many respects President Putin may be uniquely suited for such a role. Because of the country's economic progress and the rise in the standard of living (now in its fourth consecutive year) and his uncanny ability to "connect" with the majority of the Russian people, his popularity is enormous and consistent. If anyone can forge a painful exit from Chechnya, Vladimir Putin is the man.

 

Yet the obstacles are formidable. In many respects Chechnya has brought Putin to power. From almost complete obscurity Putin became the country's most popular politician during the fall and winter of 1999- 2000 because his steely public resolve to win the war in Chechnya reassured a nation paralyzed with grief and fear in the wake of the 1999 invasion of Dagestan and the apartment bombings. Those who witnessed Putin at the U.S.-Russian summits report the apparently genuine fury when the question of Chechnya was raised.

 

Second, regardless of the final details, an exit from Chechnya will call for enormous political sacrifice and perhaps physical courage. Following a decisive reelection victory in 1996, Yeltsin "walked away" from Chechnya to fulfill a key campaign promise. For all his popularity, Putin may not want to jeopardize his reelection in 2004. Instead, like Yeltsin, he may postpone serious negotiations until after the election.

 

Finally, an inevitably painful compromise in Chechnya (again, regardless of the shape of the accord) would just as inevitably subject Putin, as it did Yeltsin, to relentless hatred by Russian nationalists and "popular patriots." Should the economy falter, he may even face attempts at impeachment, as Yeltsin did in 1999. In the worst case he may be subjected to assassination plots, like the ones that nearly killed de Gaulle after the Algerian settlement.

 

"Palestinian" Solutions for a "Palestinized" Chechnya Yet even the most propitious changes "on the ground" are not likely to succeed alone in the absence of change in the larger context of the Russo-Chechen conflict. If Palestinization of the Chechen conflict has advanced as far as it appears, especially in Islamization and internationalization, the road to its solution is similar to those likely to bring peace to Palestine and Israel.

 

As with its Palestinian counterpart, the conflict must be, first and foremost, deinternationalized.

Such a development may only be a result of a sharp setback for the global fundamentalist militant Islamic International following a sustained and successful war against Al Qaeda and concomitantly a change in the Middle East's political landscape, beginning in Iraq and Iran.

 

By stanching the flow of money, weapons, ammunition, and volunteers, deinternationalization is likely to lead over time to the weakening of the radical Islamic component of the Chechen struggle, its detachment from the world jihad, and a return of the Chechen resistance to an agenda that can be managed in good faith negotiations.

 

An Improbable but Not Impossible Alignment

 

History is littered with examples of peoples' legitimate aspirations for ethnic equality, national dignity, or social justice hijacked, cynically exploited, misdirected, and in the end subverted by ruthless fanatics in pursuit of their own ideological or power agendas. Compounded by the savagery of the Russian retaliation, the Chechen conflict has traveled far in a most inauspicious and hopeless direction. Both in Russia and in Chechnya only a complex and fortuitous combination of many factors may reverse that course: most important, deinternationalization and de-Islamization of the Chechen resistance and a genuine, strong, and creative impulse toward a negotiated solution in Moscow.

 

Only time will tell if Chechnya and Russia will be lucky enough to be delivered from the present vicious circle by such an alignment of the heavens--highly improbable today but far from impossible even in the near future.

 

Notes

1. Brian Glyn Williams, "The Russo-Chechen War: A Threat to Stability in the Middle East and Eurasia," Middle East Policy 8 (1) (March 1, 2001), p. 6. Accessed www.nexis.com on December 16, 2002.

 

2. Ibid.

 

3. Ibid.

 

4. Said Isaev, "Chechnya to Live by Sharia Laws Only," ITAR-TASS, September 17, 1997. Accessed at www.nexis.com on December 16, 2002.

 

5. Colin McMahon, "Executions Remind Uneasy Russia of Chechnya's Islamic Path," Chicago Tribune, September 12, 2002, p. 14.

 

6. Williams, "The Russo-Chechen War," p. 4.

 

7. Mark Franchetti, Christina Lamb, and Ben Aris, "Kremlin Probes Al-Qaeda Links," Ottawa Citizen, October 27, 2002, p. A1.

 

8. Ibid.

 

9. Dirk Laabs, "Holy War Planning Described," Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2002, p. 4.

 

10. Anton Notz and Hugh Williamson, "Court Hears 9/11 Pilots Had Links with Chechens," Financial Times, October 30, 2002, p. 7.

 

11. Ibid.

 

12. John Crewdson, "9/11 Suspect Backs Theory on Al Qaeda," Chicago Tribune, October 23, 2002, p. 1.

 

13. Agence France Press, "Text of Reputed Bin Laden Audiotape Broadcast by Al Jazeera," November 13, 2002.

 

14. Peter Baker, "15 Tied to Al Qaeda Turned over to the U.S.," Washington Post, October 22, 2002, p. A17.

 

15. Ibid.

 

16. Ibid.

 

17. Ibid.

 

18. Elaine Sciolino and Desmond Butler, "Europeans Fear That the Threat from Radical Islamists Is Increasing," New York Times, December 8, 2002, p. 32.

 

19. "Remarks following Discussions with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and an Exchange with Reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia," Public Papers of the Presidents, November 25, 2002. Accessed at www.nexis.com on December 12, 2002.

 

20. Gazeta Wyborcza, June 17, 1999, p. 3, as quoted in Williams, "Russo-Chechen War," pp. 7-8.

 

21. Jill Doughtery, "Putin Marks Victory in Dagestan;

Russia Bombs Chechen Bases," August 26, 1999. Accessed at www.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9908/26/russian/dagestan on December 16, 2002.

 

22. Andrei Babitsky, "Who is Movsar Baraev?" RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly, October

 

24, 2002, pp. 3-4.

 

23. Ibid.

 

24. "Hostage-Takers 'Ready to Die'," BBC News, October 25, 2002. Accessed at www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/world/europe/2360735.stm on December 12, 2002.

 

25. Ibid.

 

26. The Week, November 2, 2002, p. 11.

 

27. "Hostage-Takers 'Ready to Die.'"

 

28. Anna Politkovskaya, "The 'Sons' Rise in Chechnya," Washington Post, November 3, 2002, p. B7.

 

29. Ibid.

 

30. "Turkey," in U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices-2001, March 4, 2002, pp. 5-8.

 

31. Ibid.

 

32. Susan Glasser, "Russian Crisis Brings War Home," Washington Post, November 3, 2002, p. A20.

 

Leon Aron is a resident scholar at AEI.

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