On October 28, 2004, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a discussion on the current situation in Chechnya and the surrounding region. The speakers were Thomas De Waal, Program Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, UK, and Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at The Brookings Institution. Anatol Lieven, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the session.
Thomas De Waal recalled that the Chechen war had begun almost a decade ago, and no one had anticipated that a decade later the conflict would still be continuing. Unfortunately, too many agendas have been projected on to the Chechnya conflict by a variety of outsiders including Western commentators, most of which are of little interest to the Chechen or Russian populations. These include the agendas of the global jihad and western interests. De Waal outlined three broad changes in the Chechen conflict; 1) The conflict of Chechnya is no longer just limited to Chechnya, but involves the whole North Caucasus; 2) It has become a self-perpetuating conflict for a variety of reasons, predominantly economic; 3) The conflict is gaining an international dimension, and therefore requires international attention.
With the exception of a few revolts, the first Chechen war stopped at the borders of Chechnya, and it was apparent how little support the Chechen population received from their regional neighbors. That war was fought between the Chechens, on one side, and the federal forces, on the other. Today, this pattern has changed. Radical Islam has spread all over the North Caucasus. The Ingush involvement in the siege of the Ingush capital Nazran on June 22, testifies to the radicalization of populations that had previously stayed out of the conflict. Even in North Ossetia, a region with predominantly pagan or Christian population, loyalties to the Russian government have been shaken after the Beslan attack.
In other parts of the North Caucasus, such as Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, a strong Islamic element has been rising since the mid 1990’s. For example, in Afghanistan in 2001, volunteers from the North Caucasus were present who were not from Chechnya. The authorities have tried to crack down on this by unproductive measures, such as closing mosques. Today, the North Caucasus is a region where the state is weak, where radical Islam is increasingly attracting the young, and where huge socioeconomic problems exist, all breeding instability. The Russian Federal government is only using its default method to deal with these problems by increasing centralization. The North Caucasus, however, is an area that rules itself by consensus and decentralization, thus, greater instability is created by central intervention.
Four groups in Chechnya are fueling the conflict, rendering it self-perpetuating. The first party consists of the Federal Russian forces with a few other agencies, which still have a strong presence in Chechnya. They have strong institutional incentives to remain in Chechnya, such as higher pay and accelerated pension schemes for those serving in combat zones. Federal forces are evidently involved in trade of oil products and carry out extortion raids on local villages. These conditions motivate the troops to sustain the conflict.
A second group that is interested in the continuation of the conflict is the Kadyrovtsi, followers of the assassinated former pro-Russian President of Chechnya, Ahmed Kadyrov, and his son Ramzan. This group carries a deep-seated resentment toward the Russian federal forces and competes with them, often carrying out raids in Chechen villages. Moscow’s continual reliance on a single group, to which a monopoly of power is relegated (federal forces), contradicts the tradition of decentralized model of control in Chechnya, and further fuels the conflict between the Kadyrovtsi and the federal forces.
The third group contributing to the conflict is the rebel force. They differ greatly from the rebels of the 1990s. The former were fairly naïve village boys with broad political agendas, such as independence for Chechnya. Since 1997-1998,however, Islamic groups have become predominant in the region and jihad has come to replace independence as a motivating ideology, as it has become widely accepted as unattainable. Thus, economic goals, revenge, and forces of radical Islam fuel the current war. Yet Al Qaeda is a parallel, rather than the central, movement in the North Caucasus. The presence of two Arabs among 31 terrorists, who carried out the hostage-taking in Beslan, accurately reflects the proportion of international to homegrown rebel forces in Chechnya today.
The final group in this conflict is the “silent majority” of Chechnya. These people have experienced looting and violence both at the hands of the Russian forces and the Kadyrovtsi. They oppose Shamil Basaev and jihadism. This group forms a large constituency in Chechnya but it lacks representation. The global community should seek to engage it.
Considering how the Chechnya conflict has changed over the last ten years, it now requires international attention. Although the Russian government insists that the Chechnya conflict is a front of the international war on terror, it has persistently refused any international involvement. Continuous human rights violations in Chechnya demand worldwide attention, especially since Russia is a signatory to various human rights treaties pertaining to the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Besides, Russia has failed to solve the conflict on its own and the current corruption of the Russian Federal Security forces is creating further instability in the region. Russia has failed to constructively engage the local populations to promote stability in the region. The international community should work with Russia on addressing its huge security problem in Chechnya, while giving the Chechen people a rightful place on the agenda of the European Community.
Fiona Hill focused on President Putin’s governance changes since the Beslan attack. Hill pointed out that Putin’s actions since 2000 have actually steered away from coherent political and economic reintegration of Chechnya into the Russian Federation as a distinct entity. She addressed both the revocation of regional elections and the reinstitution of the former Nationality Ministry.
The changes that were announced on September 14, repealing regional elections of governors, clearly followed the pattern of increased centralization in the Russian Federation. Although the government claims such measures will increase local responsibility, a coherent plan for reintegration of Chechnya is still lacking. High unemployment and an unskilled labor force continue to plague the region, making the task of reintegration even more complex.
The reinstitution of the former Nationality Ministry, now the Ministry of Regional Development, also shows lack of concern for Chechen reintegration. The government under Putin has increasingly followed a pro-Russian ethnocentric line, causing a shift away from the recognition of Russia as a multiethnic state with autonomy within the Federation based on the distinction of national or ethnic rights. Although this reform is portrayed as a call for a broader civic identity, one should not forget the way in which the Putin administration has very openly identified with a Russo-centric identity and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Another change in governance that has occurred under Putin is the shift away from the idea of federalism from the bottom up, which was championed by President of Tatarstan in the 1990s and enshrined in the agreement signed by Tatarstan and Moscow. By doing away with regional elections, Putin is suggesting that federalism can only be from the top down, thus, mutual agreements are replaced by a delegation of power from the top. Such actions were necessary to curb governors’ excessive control in some regions, there is now a discussion of abolishing all federal units and turning them into a modified form of the czarist provinces, which would eliminate diverse regions.
Chechnya has been a very ethnically homogeneous region since the war, rendering national identity a key issue in the reintegration process. Thus, this shift in the direction of a unitary state by the federal government is alienating the North Caucasus and Tatarstan. It also creates a possibility of old nationalistic flames re-igniting in regions that might otherwise be economically and politically stable.
Thus, it is evident that a political framework for reintegration is necessary for Chechnya. This framework has to be based on a genuine desire for process and creativity as well as common ground that both the Chechen and Russian populations can agree on. Hill noted that all previous attempts have not failed, citing the agreements on swapping of prisoners and discussion of demilitarization in the 1990s.
With regard to international cooperation, there have also been developments in the Putin administration. President Putin has repeatedly made an analogy between Russia’s Chechnya situation and Great Britain’s relationship with the Highlanders of Scotland. Putin has pointed out that the representatives of the executive power of the people of Wales and Scotland are appointed by the government in London, yet this does not elicit any international criticism of a tyrannical rule.
What Putin is not taking account of, however, is that for three centuries since Scotland’s union with England in 1705, Scotland has had a great degree of autonomy, including its own legal, education and banking system, as well as a local democracy within local councils and representatives to the central parliament in London. Aside from Scotland’s 300 year history of autonomy, it has just established a full-fledged parliament with tax-levying authority, making Britain not a unitary state but in fact a federation. A similar pattern can be observed in the Wales and Northern Ireland, which also have their local assemblies. Therefore, the success of Great Britain does not simply rest in relegating authority down, but in a mixture of top-down executive power and bottom-up democratic participation, creating devolution of power rather than delegation.
This mixture of political compromise and flexibility is central to the ability to evolve political institutions. Although promised, this has been lacking in the Russian Federation, particularly after the Beslan tragedy. The need for international involvement is growing. Putin mentioned some possible international partners in the Chechnya solution, such as the OSCE and Jordan.
The lack of leadership in Chechnya is also hindering the peace process. The need for representation of the silent majority, and the unfortunate lack of a valid candidate, was a problem even before the first Chechen war. Due to Moscow’s continual fear of opposition, there is a lack of a tradition of national leadership or region-wide institutional structures. As a result, there is greater division along regional contours and a lack of a figure of national magnitude.
Anatol Lieven reminded the audience that both in 1921 and in the 1990s there has not been a clear cut solution to the Northern Ireland conflict in Great Britain, but rather a beginning of a process under which violence continued, but its support was greatly diminished. He suggested that this is the way in which we should envisage progress in Chechnya. We should not seek a clear cut "solution" to end the violence – something which is almost certainly impossible – but rather seek to encourage a process which will diminish violence, create real possibility for democratic politics in Chechnya, develop Chechen society, and reduce the Russian presence and abuses by the Russian forces.
During the questions and answers section, the panelists were asked about the beliefs and motivations of the rebel forces. The panelists replied that the rebel forces are disorganized and largely motivated by individual issues rather than by one unifying agenda. The majority of the rebels reside in villages, thus limiting the possibility of involvement by international terrorists.
The Chechen Diaspora was brought up as a possible source of a solution to the Chechen conflict. The panelists acknowledged that since close to 30,000 Chechen nationals live in Europe, and 300,000 in Moscow today, this is a possibility. The Kremlin’s behavior, however, is very discouraging, as was seen in the case of Malik Saidullayev, a Chechen businessman with connections to the Kremlin, who was shut out of the Chechen negotiation process through bureaucratic measures.
To a question about the Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his current role in the resolution of the Chechen conflict, the panelists replied that Maskhadov maintains some symbolic value for the Chechen people as a legitimately elected voice. His support and efficiency in solving the Chechen conflict, however, has dramatically declined over the years.
When asked to evaluate Russia’s commitment to international involvement in the conflict, as well as the interest of the international community to get involved, Anatol Lieven reminded the audience that most states, including India and Turkey, have always categorically rejected the internationalization of secessionist conflicts, and that Russia is therefore following the general rule of the world. The panelists concurred that the West had given little attention to this conflict. They also noted that the Russians are continuing to fail, creating greater instability in the region. Perhaps the EU could mediate this conflict given its experience with separatist movements and terrorist attacks.
Summary prepared by Alina Tourkova, Junior Fellow with the Russian Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.