Chechnya: Echoes Of Afghanistan

Surrogate: Russia tries to hand off its responsibility, but the country is ready for a political solution.

November 30, 2003|By Thomas De Waal | Thomas De Waal,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fourteen years ago, the Soviet army pulled out of Afghanistan and handed it over to Moscow's chosen leader, Najibullah. In February 1989, Boris Gromov, the last Russian soldier in the country, symbolically crossed the iron bridge at Termez over the Amu Darya River, and peace was declared. But of course it was not over. The withdrawal led to a brutal civil war, years of fighting between rival warlords, and the arrival of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Now there is a disturbing parallel with that other victim of Russian military power, Chechnya. Of course the comparison is far from exact, and Moscow has no intention of letting go of Chechnya altogether. But in one sense the parallel goes very far.

Moscow is now subcontracting its war to a local appointee. The role of Najibullah has been assigned to Akhmad Kadyrov, a former rebel commander who switched sides and was elected "president" of Chechnya in a widely reviled poll Oct. 5.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is hoping to cut back on Russian troop numbers in time for his own bid for re-election next spring, handing much of the "burden of security" to Kadyrov's loyal police force of 12,000 men.

The pro-independence rebels are not defeated, so in effect this means Chechnya is about to have a civil war: very much Afghanistan revisited. It is worth reflecting on what the consequences could be, not only for Chechnya and Russia, but for the wider world.

Like Afghanistan, Chechnya has been subjected to the most intense of violence over the past nine years. That has created a new generation of young militants, many of whom are turning to radical Islam and taking their violence outside the borders of Chechnya, including to Moscow.

By unilaterally imposing a local satrap on Chechnya, Moscow has given up hopes of a broad-based political process.

The first Chechen war of 1994-1996 was the nastiest of a series of post-Soviet conflicts fought over the division of the spoils of the U.S.S.R. Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader who tried to proclaim independence, was a recognizably Soviet figure: a loyal Communist and army officer who belatedly discovered nationalism.

What distinguished the first Chechen war from the wars in Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia was the scale of the violence. It was as though the Russian army unleashed all the destruction in its own rebel republic that it had kept pent up during the Cold War.

The second war, which started in 1999 - and which has claimed the lives of at least 5,000 Russian soldiers, and as many Chechen fighters - has mutated into something just as brutal and more sinister.

The first sign of a new kind of conflict came a year ago when masked Chechens seized the theater showing the Nord-Ost musical in Moscow and took the audience hostage. More than 120 hostages and all the attackers died when Russian special forces stormed the theater.

The young Chechen hostage-takers paid awkward homage to tapes they had seen of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and even gave their own video to Al-Jazeera. They wore masks and headbands with Arabic inscriptions. They talked about martyrdom and - incoherently - about Islam. These were not post-Soviet nationalists, and they offered no sense of a political goal.

Putin has been able to keep Chechnya out of people's consciousness in two ways. First, the Russian media have basically stopped covering the conflict. And effectively neutralizing Western criticism, Putin presents Chechnya as being a front in the "war on terror" and the battle against Osama bin Laden. There is an al-Qaida link in the Chechen conflict. Saudi money and a handful of volunteers have infiltrated Chechnya.

The connection, however, is still more ideological than physical. Luckily for the Chechens, the high mountains of the Caucasus prevent all but a handful of volunteers from getting across. Moreover, most Chechens, even those with an abiding hatred of the Russian army, are still loyal to their old Sufi religious practices and hostile to foreign proselytizers. Chechnya remains sui generis.

But Chechnya is slowly corrupting almost every aspect of Russian society. Putin's rolling-back of the media, once vibrant under Boris N. Yeltsin, has been made easier by the "war on terrorism." The Russian army seems to grow more criminal, and military reform has been postponed.

Chechnya has also boxed in Russian politics, providing it with a self-fulfilling threat of terrorism that dictates an authoritarian response. Putin's Russia is less tolerant than Yeltsin's. Hateful views about Chechens are aired freely. In a recent debate on the BBC central Asian service, I was put up against a Russian member of parliament named Alexei Mitrofanov, who said almost casually, "Putin missed his chance on Sept. 12, 2001. When America was busy, he should have wiped Chechnya off the face of the Earth."

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