Published on Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst (http://old.cacianalyst.org)


By Kevin Daniel Leahy (01/23/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)

October 2007 witnessed the latest in a series of charged discourses involving opposite wings of the Chechen rebel movement. On October 22, the then-separatist foreign minister, Akhmed Zakayev, issued an angst-ridden statement predicting that his president, Doku Umarov, would soon announce the creation of a “Caucasian Emirate” on the territory of the North Caucasus. A communiqué from Umarov duly surfaced on October 30, and while he stopped short of declaring the establishment of a “Caucasian Emirate”, the contents of his message contained serious implications for orthodox Chechen nationalists like Zakayev.

BACKGROUND: Portions of Umarov’s statement are potentially seminal and are worth quoting at length: “I am announcing to all Muslims that I am at war against the infidels under the banner of Allah. This means that I, Emir of the Caucasian Mujahedeen, reject all infidel laws that have been established in this world. I reject all laws and systems that the infidels have established on the land of the Caucasus. I reject and outlaw all names that the infidels use to split the Muslims. I outlaw all ethnic, territorial and colonial zones named ‘North Caucasus republics’...” Zakayev was likely most unsettled by the final sentence here. It can be assumed that the “ethnic, territorial and colonial zones” Umarov refers to are the jurisdictional entities we recognise as Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia and, indeed, Chechnya. Therefore, if Umarov is outlawing these entities, is he not, in effect, disbanding the Chechen republic of Ichkeria (ChRI)?

In June 2006, in one of his first statements as president, Umarov declared that “in legal terms, the Chechen republic of Ichkeria is an independent state”. In light of this assertion, if Umarov has now indeed disbanded the ChRI has he not behaved illegally? Zakayev stated on October 22 that the declaration of a “Caucasian Emirate” – an initiative which Zakayev regards as an FSB provocation – would “spell the end of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria”. Although there was no mention of a “Caucasian Emirate” in his eventual statement, Umarov has nevertheless hurriedly laid the groundwork for the imposition of such an entity at some future point in time. Elsewhere in his message Umarov sates: “Today our brothers are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Palestine...those who attack Muslims are our common enemies; our enemy is not only Russia, but also America, England, and Israel – all those who conduct war against Islam and Muslims”.

For Zakayev, who has been granted political asylum in the United Kingdom, Umarov’s designation of England (by which he meant the UK) as an enemy country must have been extremely embarrassing. An ardent secularist, and an unapologetic Chechen nationalist, Zakayev has been at pains over the past number of years to dispel the perception that the Chechen rebel movement is under the sway of radical Islamists. Now that Umarov has publicly made common cause with the Afghan Taliban, Zakayev’s protestations to the effect that the Chechen rebel movement is essentially secularist in outlook seem far less credible.

IMPLICATIONS: Umarov’s statement, in particular its anti-western timbre, bears the imprint of Movladi Udugov, the renowned Chechen spin-doctor who has consistently argued for the subordination of the Chechen nationalist agenda to the greater cause of pan-Islamic liberation of the Caucasus. As Umarov was given to proselytising about Chechnya’s right to self-determination and other shibboleths of Chechen nationalism during the early days of his presidency, his apparent conversion to the Udugov agenda is bracing. Zakayev, who evidently believed that Umarov was fundamentally a nationalist like him, is clearly disturbed by this turn of events and on November 20 he tendered his resignation as foreign minister.

It is not clear whether Umarov has actually undergone a profound ideological conversion or whether, at Udugov’s behest, he is merely pandering to wealthy foreign backers. What can be said, however, is that in light of Umarov’s public, ideological volte-face, Zakayev’s secular-nationalist discourse has lost considerable ground to Udugov’s radical, pan-Islamic agenda. Among the rebel leadership, Zakayev, it would seem, is now ploughing a lone ideological furrow. Ironically, those in Chechnya who are currently best disposed toward the nationalist agenda as Zakayev sees it are now to be found on the other side of the intra-Chechen political barricade. This throws up some tantalizing possibilities.

When Ramzan Kadyrov became Chechnya’s pro-Moscow president last February, Zakayev courted controversy by deeming it a positive development. Although he has described the Kadyrov regime as “cowardly and greedy”, Zakayev has nevertheless boasted that as a result of Moscow’s policy of “Chechenizing” the conflict, the rebels “have managed to legalize more than three thousand Chechen resistance fighters in the last six or seven years”. With respect to the Ramzan Kadyrov phenomenon, Zakayev expounds a subtle, historical argument which holds that the emergence of the Kadyrov clan is, in effect, a national self-preservation mechanism. According to Zakayev, the Kadyrov regime is presently functioning as a buffer, sparing the Chechen nation the worst excesses of direct occupation by Russian forces. Recent political initiatives associated with Ramzan Kadyrov have patently been aimed at portraying him as the chief protector of the Chechen nation. He has been eager to make a show of standing up to the federal authorities, demanding extra funding for rebuilding the economy, financial compensation for property destroyed by federal forces since 1994, as well as the repatriation of Chechen prisoners serving time in Russian jails.

CONCLUSIONS: Chechen nationalism is a broad church. Chechen loyalists who believe that Chechnya should remain a subject of the Russian Federation see no incongruity between this conviction and their own strongly-held sense of patriotism. There remain, of course, ardent separatists like Zakayev for whom de jure independence from Russia is the principal goal. Some have veered away from the orthodox separatist agenda in various directions. Ramzan Kadyrov, for instance, possibly at heart still a separatist, has donned the political garb of a loyalist. Other erstwhile Chechen nationalists, like Udugov, have come to embrace Islam as the new ideological locus for their struggle against Russia.

As mentioned above, it remains as yet unclear whether Doku Umarov has fully shed his nationalist skin. It is possible that Umarov’s recent statement is part of a Machiavellian maneuver designed to illicit greater financial support from unspecified patrons in the wider Islamic world. Indeed, Umarov has recently complained that while recruitment is not a problem for the rebels, finding the necessary funds to train these recruits is. However, Zakayev’s pained, almost hysterical, pre-emption of Umarov’s October 30 statement suggests that the former Ichkerian foreign minister believes that a very real ideological conversion is nigh. Given this unfolding state of affairs, is it possible that Zakayev, now ideologically estranged from the bulk of the rebel leadership, might seek to make common cause with Ramzan Kadyrov? This is unlikely, but not quite so huge a leap of logic as one might think. Others, like the former separatist stalwart Magomed Khambiev, have made this transition, albeit under some duress. In all likelihood, however, Zakayev will remain in the United Kingdom, sniping at Kadyrov’s kow-towing to President Putin while grudgingly acknowledging his usefulness as a bulwark against the outright colonization of Chechnya. In any case, recent events have reinforced the impression of Zakayev as an increasingly peripheral figure within the Chechen, or rather North Caucasian, resistance.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.

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