Chechniia: Quo Vadis?

By Glen E. Howard
Date: May, 12, 1999


    First of all, I would like to thank Professors S Frederick Starr, Charles Fairbanks and Dr. John C. K. Daly for the opportunity to speak today at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. Secondly, I would like to thank Sheikh Hisham Kabbani for the opportunity to have traveled with him to Chechniia. This trip would not have been possible without his determination to bring the plight of the Chechen people to the attention of American policymakers and the American Muslim community. I must say that traveling with Sheikh Hisham truly offered a rare glimpse inside the world of Sufism in the Caucasus. I witnessed over a dozen live performances of the Chechen zikr, in none other than the home of the Chechen President and this was quite a remarkable experience.

    Our trip to Chechniia came at a unique time. Sheikh Hisham’s delegation, which included two Spanish journalists, became the first group of foreigners to visit Chechniia since the murder and beheadings of four British-employed telecom workers in December 1998. To be honest, I would be lying if I did not admit that his gruesome murder did not cause a certain degree of apprehension among us before departing for Chechniia. To further add to the excitement of traveling to Chechniia, we learned on the eve of our departure that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov had just announced his decision to implement shariat law, which is a truly a key landmark event for a Muslim region of the former Soviet Union.

    Much of my anxiety over traveling to Chechniia soon dissipated when I arrived in Moscow and witnessed the efficient handling of our stay by the Chechen diplomatic mission based in the Russian capital. I was greatly surprised that we did not encounter even the slightest problem during our stay in Moscow despite being guests of the Chechen government. While in Moscow I clearly sensed that Russia and Chechniia are trying to distance themselves from the past. It seems both sides are struggling to put aside their differences and look toward the future. It also became clearly evident that former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov has played a pivotal role in charting a new course of relations with Chechniia. Perhaps more than any other Russian official Primakov seems to have understood the importance of why the two countries need to forge a new relationship based upon mutual respect and understanding. I only hope that his successor, former Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin will draw lessons from Mr. Primakov, although I fear that much of the progress made with Chechniia will be lost as the ‘Party of War’ slowly reemerges in Russia. I only hope that I am wrong for my visit to Chechniia gave me a great deal of hope about the future of Russia’s relations with Chechniia.

    Our journey to Chechniia began on February 8th when we flew from Vnukovo airport in Moscow to Grozny for a four day odyssey that offered great excitement and high adventure. We flew to Grozny on a chartered Tu-134 plane that President Maskhadov uses to fly government ministers back and forth from Chechniia. When our plane began its descent into Grozny we all felt a surge of excitement and hope for this beleaguered country. But even before we landed in Grozny the devastation of the war quickly became apparent as our plane circled the Chechen capital.

    Even from a distance the fires of over a hundred oil wells surround Grozny today and continue to burn out of control. Chechniia’s smoke filled horizon reminded me of what Kuwait looked like in 1991 when Saddam Hussein orchestrated one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of warfare. As I counted the burning oil wells I could not help but think of why it is that the west reacted so swiftly to assist Kuwait with its environmental disaster as Chechniia’s oil wells have burned continuously for over three years without so much as an ounce of concern from environmental groups in the West. Chechniia’s Oil Minister told me that these burning oil wells release approximately 84,000 barrels a day into the earth’s atmosphere. When I heard this statistic I could not help but wonder that with the price of oil rebounding to nearly $20 a barrel what might Chechniia do with the potential oil revenue from these wells if only it had better equipment and some modest level of western expertise. To date Chechniia has only been able to extinguish 43 out of 137 oil wells that were set ablaze by the Russians at the end of the war.

    Once our plane had landed in Grozny we began to inspect the devastated city as the shock of what we saw seemed to be far worse than anything that I could have ever imagined. While Grozny is alive and slowly recovering from the war, it still remains a ghost like city of 400,000 that remains a pile of rubble. After seeing Grozny first-hand there is only one other city, which I can envision comparing it to and that city is Stalingrad. Today Grozny, one of the largest cities in the northern Caucasus, is nothing more than a modern day Stalingrad with no running water or electricity nearly three years after the end of the war.

    Since the end of the war Chechniia and its devastated capital have made no noticeable progress toward reconstruction. Over $34 billion in Russian pledges to rebuild Chechniia have failed to materialize. While Russia’s excuse is somewhat understandable due to the deteriorating Russian economy, the role of the west in ignoring the devastation there is mind boggling. If anything the West, particularly the United States, should have helped Chechniia, and I am not speaking about diplomatic recognition, but basic help at the humanitarian level.

    Only recently, three years after the end of the war, has the United States managed to help Chechniia by agreeing to provide President Maskhadov with over 5000 tons of American wheat. As I speak today a ship loaded with American wheat is preparing to dock at Novorossisk and unload its cargo for Chechniia. Unfortunately American humanitarian assistance this year will begin and end with this shipment. No additional economic assistance will be provided to Chechniia after this shipment. Moreover, what is even more notable about this shipment other than it came from the United States, is that it largely came about at the request of Prime Minister Primakov who convinced American officials in Moscow that Chechniia should receive this assistance. Moreover, Primakov even agreed with President Maskhadov to allow a group of Chechen security guards to travel to Novorossisk and escort the wheat back to Chechniia.

    Chechniia has paid the price for its independence. First by suffering during its war of independence when President Clinton and Strobe Talbott ignored the plight of the Chechens, and now several years later when Chechniia asks not for diplomatic recognition, but for a modest level of medical and humanitarian assistance. If the United States can fly countless numbers of humanitarian supplies to assist Armenia when it suffered a devastating earthquake, why is it that the United States cannot help Chechniia combat a tuberculosis epidemic that is ravaging Chechen villages. There are no Chechen doctors or exchange students studying in the United States despite billions of dollars in American assistance for the Newly Independent States. It seems that yet again Chechniia is paying the price of achieving what Americans cherish the most their independence.

    It is ironic that the West continues to treat President Maskhadov as if he some sort of dictator who is unable to run his country. In 1997 President Maskhadov won a free and fair democratic election winning over 60% of the vote. Yes, it is true that Maskhadov has political rivals, and that there is a problem with crime and lawlessness in Chechniia. But there is also a problem with crime and lawlessness in Russia, Columbia, and many other regions of the world. Yet I do not think that this should prevent the United States from addressing Chechniia’s basic humanitarian needs.

    This brings me to another question. If President Maskhadov is so bad, what then are the other choices available in Chechniia? Surely if you ask any Russian official, the highly pragmatic President Maskhadov will be viewed in a much more positive light as the current Chechen President seems to be a much better option than Shamyl Basaev or Salman Raduev. None of Maskhadov’s political rivals share his level of pragmatism and patience, nor do they have any desire to improve relations with Russia. In fact, if it were left up to them we would see the northern Caucasus erupt into another war.

    I think that in light of these choices the West should be more conciliatory toward President Maskhadov and understand the enormous size of the problems that he faces. In fact, the problems besetting President Maskhadov are problems of a different kind than winning a war and defeating one of the largest armies in Europe. It involves the most difficult challenge a military commander can make, that of transitioning from war to building a civil society. Together with Sheikh Hisham I spoke at great length with the Chechen President Maskhadov at his private residence, sometimes late into the night, about this issue and the enormous humanitarian problems facing his country. I found Maskhadov to be a unique person who will listen to all sides and is constantly looking for a compromise. For this reason his advisers refer to him as the ‘kompromist.’ This aspect of his personality was clearly evident when Maskhadov discussed his decision to declare shariat law.

    The President explained that the pressure from Chechniia’s religious leaders was immense. Many Chechens believe that the Koran offers the only clear-cut solution to restoring civil order in Chechniia. President Maskhadov noted that for a war-ravaged country this is perhaps the only law that all Chechens will respect. But even then, Maskhadov indicated that he would reluctantly carry out his decision to implement shariat law. Later during our visit President Maskhadov announced that he would take a step back toward shariat law and would let the people vote on whether their country should adopt shariat law. President Maskhadov assured us that even if Chechniia would adopt shariat law, there would not be any public beheadings or executions.

    Off all the things I learned during my trip to Chechniia, perhaps the greatest insight that I came away with is the degree of pressure being exerted on the Chechen President by the Wahhabis in Chechniia. Their influence and power is placing an inordinate amount of pressure on the President that he frankly admitted is causing him significant domestic problems.

    In view of what I witnessed in Chechniia it is clearly evident that if neither Russia or the United States lends President Maskhadov at least some greater degree of humanitarian assistance, he may lose his grip on power and we will see Chechniia plunge and the rest of the northern Caucasus ascend into further chaos and turmoil. Undoubtedly Chechniia’s future will play a key role in deciding the future of the northern Caucasus. Instability in Chechniia is already affecting the stability of southern Russia, and it may soon affect the pro-western governments of Azerbaijan and Georgia that border it.

    During our visit it became quite visible that President Maskhadov is facing a major struggle against Islamic extremism that is already threatening the stability of his country. This subject has been mentioned with increased frequency in the Russian press and Wahhabism is clearly on the rise in the northern Caucasus. As in the case of many regions of the world where wars have created regional vacuums, countries influenced by the spread of Wahhabism, such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and to a certain extent Algeria, have greatly altered the regional dynamics of their neighbors and become ensued by a viscous cycle of violence against the West. From North Africa to Central Asia this brand of Islam is presenting a new challenge to the West that few people understand, nor comprehend.

    The frontlines of this war now reach into Central Asia and the Caucasus as the rise of the Taliban poses a major danger to the stability of Central Asia. During the days of the Cold War who would have imagined that the study of nationalities in Central Asia would perhaps one day be superseded by the need to understand the origins of Wahhabism. Certainly President Maskhadov and President Karimov of Uzbekistan are all keenly aware of the threat posed by this menace. I might add that while some specialists might suspect President Karimov’s notion of the Wahhabi threat, I can assure you that President Maskhadov would whole heartedly agreed with President Karimov that the Wahhabis are a real menace to society.

    Today Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia is being literally rebuilt from the ground up. In the span of 70 years Stalin and his successors virtually wiped out a whole class of Islamic clergy and a totally new Islamic clergy is reemerging. Unfortunately, the new leaders of Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia are not being trained in the madrassahs of Bukhara, but in the schools of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and Wahhabi schools in Saudi Arabia. In fact, one year of religious education there can produce a Chechen-trained Wahhabi mullah faster than Detroit can produce Chevy Blazers.

    Today this new class of Islamic clerics is proliferating in larger numbers and expanding the geopolitical reach of Wahhabism. In fact, it has now reached the very heartland of the Naqshbandi followers of Sufism where they themselves may soon become a minority. President Maskhadov understands this threat but lacks the funds to build new government controlled mosques. Two of the largest Chechen cities, Urus Martan and Gudermes, have now become the new bastions of Wahhabism and possess extravagant mosques that are being filled with Chechen converts to Wahhabism.

    In my opinion the spread of Wahhabism in the northern Caucasus represents a major national security threat to the interests of both Moscow and Washington. It is a threat that requires a vision and understanding of what has unfolded in the Sudan, and Afghanistan. When we understand the nature of what is being emerging in the northern Caucasus then we may be able to prevent this disease from spreading to other regions. Unfortunately for the United States it may take an event like Osama Bin Laden’s sudden refuge in Chechniia or Daghestan before American policymakers may be able to comprehend the growing importance of the northern Caucasus for U.S. its war on terrorism. If you think that it might be impossible for Bin Laden to emerge in Daghestan or Chechniia, just ask Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Last year the leader of the Nation of Islam slipped out of Moscow unnoticed and visited Daghestan without the knowledge of Mr. Stepashin. However, it is unlikely that President Maskhadov would ever allow Bin Laden to seek refuge in Chechniia and when we asked about this possibility he assured us that someone like Osama Bin Laden would never be allowed sanctuary in Chechniia.

    Still, for groups like the Wahhabis, the northern Caucasus represents a land of opportunity and their growing presence there is something that is truly a post-Soviet phenomenon. In a region where unemployment runs at approximately 80% , the people of not only Chechniia, but Ingushetia, Daghestan and Chechniia are all susceptible to the teachings of Islamic opportunists who offer religious training in some of the Arab world’s oldest capitals. With Russia’s economic problem worsening by the day, it is unlikely that any economic relief will come to Chechniia or the northern Caucasus any time soon in the near future..

Quo Vadis Chechniia?

    As far as the future of Chechniia there is no doubt in my mind that when the Khasavyurt accords expire in 2001, Chechniia will seek full-scale independence. Chechens already carry their passports and Chechen cars have freshly printed Chechen license plates. If the United States thought that it had problems in 1996 when it ignored Chechniia’s war for independence, Washington will truly have a major problem on its hands in 2001 when Chechniia’s declaration of independence reverberates throughout the northern Caucasus. This event will truly have significant repercussions for the Tatars, Ingushetians, Baskhirs, and Kalymkhs who make up the other Islamic regions of the Russian Federation. Yet it is inconceivable to think that Russia will be capable of subduing Chechniia any time soon. This leaves us to consider what will happen if Maskhadov survives and builds a viable state. In the worst case example Russia either has the option of pursuing the pragmatic course charted by Prime Minister Primakov, which on the one hand builds a new basis of understanding with Chechniia, or the Russian leadership can try to isolate the Chechen Republic from the rest of the region and allow the Wahhabis to strengthen their presence in the Caucasus.

    As we contemplate these options and the continuous rash of kidnappings in Chechniia we cannot forget that it is an election year in Russia and Chechniia will in all likelihood remain a volatile political issue in Russia’s domestic politics. I would like to add that the government of Chechniia has no excuses for what happened along a deserted roadside in December 1998. The deaths of three Britons and one New Zealander continue to offer more questions than answers. Perhaps President Maskhadov will one-day be able to provide the west with an answer for what happened, but then again his problems of building a nation are so immense that he has no time or resources to deal with the immense range of problems that confront his country. These days his biggest concern may be none than worrying about how to deliver American grain to his people so that they will survive the next winter.


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