Robert Bruce WARE

Robert Bruce Ware, Associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (U.S.A.)


In Chechnia, a previously intractable conflict is slowly yielding to an emergent social order. Difficulties continue to result from 1) historical animosities between Chechens and Russians, 2) Chechen social structure and culture, 3) corruption of local officials, 4) corruption and ineffectiveness of the Russian military, 5) current political situations in Chechnia, in Russia, in Georgia, and around the world, 6) outside intervention and funding, and 7) widespread misunderstanding of the complexities of the situation in the Northern Caucasus. Finally, due to the severity of problems that occurred during Chechnias period of de facto independence from August 1996 to October 1999, and due to related issues in the current geopolitical climate, an independent Chechnia is, at the present stage, neither a realistic nor an attractive option. Yet, for many in Chechnia, the prospect of Russian citizenship is also unattractive. These difficulties make a near-term negotiated settlement of the conflict in Chechnia unlikely.

However, the time is ripe for a change in the current situation because 1) all sides in the conflict are under increasing pressure for a breakthrough; 2) a new, more pragmatic group of Chechen elites is gradually emerging; 3) increasingly local Chechen leaders and officials are prepared to take responsibility for their immediate situations; 4) geopolitical pressures make the stalemate in Chechnia less tolerable; and 5) there is growing international understanding of the regions problems.

Because these trends are developing gradually beneath the surface, observers should resist the temptation to characterize the current situation as a stalemate. A new order is slowly emerging in Chechnia, and will develop primarily in response to changing patterns of economic flow. Militant activity will slowly decrease with the decline of Islamist and other international funding. At the same time, increased competition for funds from Moscow is shaping new patterns of interaction among emergent Chechen elites.

In particular, Islamists, nationalists, militants, criminals, and others with a stake in the perpetuation of disorder will continue their resort to violent means intended to disrupt the development of social order, and especially to prevent the consolidation of new patterns of economic flow from which they are excluded. Incidents of violence are likely to become more extreme as the militants grow more desperate. A lengthy, tumultuous, and inevitably frustrating transition period will be punctuated by violent incidents, even as scope and scale of violence gradually decreases overall.

While a near-term negotiated settlement of the conflict is particularly unlikely due to political situations in Russia and in Chechnia, the most realistic hopes for mediation might involve regional leaders, especially those in neighboring Islamic republics. Multiple local mediators might make diverse contacts on the Chechen side. This would be an advantage since many Chechen warlords will have to be approached individually, due to the endemic fragmentation of militant forces.

Why Is a Settlement in Chechnia Difficult?

The historical animosities and deep grievances between the peoples of Chechnia and Russia are well known. Among other things, they result from remarkably brutal conflicts in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; from Stalins brutal deportation of Chechen, and other Caucasian, peoples in 1944; from the 1994-1996 war in Chechnia, in which brutalities were committed by both sides; crimes against Russian citizens by Chechen gangs, especially from 1996 to 1999; and brutalities committed by both sides during the present conflict. Animosities of this severity would make conflict resolution difficult in any setting, but in the Caucasus they are exacerbated by vendetta traditions that perpetuate and capitalize upon grievances.

However, historical animosities alone are insufficient to explain recent conflicts between Chechens and Russians. Other Caucasian groups with similar histories of grievance have not recently been involved in violent struggles with the Russian Federation. There is little support for separatism amongst Daghestanis, for example, who fought as fiercely as Chechens against Russian expansion in the early nineteenth century, or amongst the Ingush and other North Caucasian peoples who were deported along with the Chechens in 1944. Why is Chechnia the exception?

In order to account for Chechen exceptionalism it is necessary to consider Chechen culture and social structure. Chechen society is organized around a seven-level kinship structure that begins with the nuclear family, or dozal, runs through the extended family, or dja, and culminates with the kam, consisting the entire Chechen people. However, the predominant Chechen social organization is the teip, or clan, characterized by its remarkable cohesion and group loyalty. Members of a teip will not betray each other and will sacrifice mightily for the group. The strong ties of the teip extend far back into time and are not diminished by spatial separation. No matter how far apart they may reside, Chechens maintain their teip connections. While inter-tribal village relations may play an important role, the teip remains the preeminent social structure.

In 1995, all Chechens were united as a kam in their common struggle with Russia. However, in the course of the war and during subsequent years, Chechen military and social structures gradually reverted to their tribal foundations. A member of one teip is reluctant to place himself under a commander from another teip, and conversely all Chechen field commanders became aldermen of their teips. In a society hopelessly fragmented by clan loyalties, rivalries among competing warlords became the dominant feature of Chechen politics. After the war this peculiarity became the major obstacle for the formation of authoritative political institutions. Since only Islam transcended the teips religious appeals intensified with the entrenchment of kin-based political factions. Rival leaders made increasingly radical Islamist appeals, and accepted international Islamist support, in an effort to attract attention and acquire authority. The adoption of the Sharia Islamic legal system became an inevitability.

This fragmentation of Chechen society made it impossible for Aslan Maskhadov to assert control following his election as president in February 1997. In 1998 and 1999, his government grew increasingly dependent upon members of his own teip. During that period, President Maskhadov could have been overthrown by a warlord from another teip. However, his successor would have proven equally unable to build a unified Chechen state. Except in the most acute crisis, Chechens are reluctant to accept leadership from any teip other than their own, and each teip remains a rival of the others. Chechens function as a kam only in the face of a clear external threat, and have otherwise found it difficult to unite. Chechen culture essentially lacks a tradition of a supra-familial political organization. Hence, after August 1996, when Chechnia was faced with the responsibility for organizing an authoritative political structure, the result, instead, was a catastrophic social implosion that engulfed all of Chechnia and spread instability throughout the surrounding region, culminating in the current war.

In compensation for this absence of political organization, many Chechens had recourse to three expedients, all of which proved disastrous. First, many Chechens found comfort in their national mythology, drawing upon a proud tradition of independence that extends over millennia. In their ferocious resistance to Russian imperial forces in the early nineteenth century Chechens united with their Daghestani neighbors under the legendary Imam Shamil, who was himself a Daghestani Avar. The enduring legacy of the struggle was an heroic mythology that served as inspiration for, and drew further intensification from, the 1994-1996 conflict. After 1996, Chechens liked to say that a Chechen fighter was worth one Russian tank or a hundred Russian soldiers. Yet this warrior mythology was self-destructive particularly because it was self-perpetuating.

As a principal feature of Chechen self-conception, Islam also served as an expedient through which many Chechens sought to address the deficiencies of their political organization. Sufi brotherhoods, which were the organizational basis of Imam Shamils nineteenth century resistance, have emerged as a principled force for education, moderation and tolerance in neighboring Daghestan. Yet their role in Chechnia was complicated not only by warrior mythology and clan-based membership, but by an ideological intensification that occurred after 1996 as competing clan leaders staged appeals to Islam in order to acquire political legitimacy. It was complicated, thirdly, by the introduction of Wahhabi Islamist extremism, which spread rapidly, in Daghestan initially, and then in Chechnia, with the help of supporters in the Persian Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is not simply the case that Wahhabism, and more tangible influences from the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, have interfered with Chechen unity, but also that traditional inter-teip cleavages, and more recent political rivalries, found expedience in political Islam. Competing groups made Islamic appeals as a means of legitimizing their claims vis-à-vis one another. This expedient was crucial in so far as these same cleavages prevented the Maskhadov regime from establishing the traditional foundations of political legitimacy: law and order, economic stability and growth, and reliable public services. Due to the entrenched nature of Chechen kinship structure, inter-clan political legitimacy can only be established through appeals that are external to Chechnia in one form or another: Prior to August 1996 and after September 1999, the appeal for Chechen unity was framed transcendently in opposition to Russia. Between September 1996 and October 1999 that same appeal was framed transcendently in terms of political Islam. The latter is an import, no less than the former. Wahhabism is spiritually alien to the Northern Caucasus.

The fragmentation of Chechen society is connected with the corruption of local officials, which has interfered, and which will continue to interfere, with opportunities for economic development and the distribution of humanitarian aid. Local corruption is exacerbated by corresponding culture of corruption at multiple levels of Russian political and military organizations. Prospects for a settlement are substantially diminished by widespread profiteering, sometimes involving collusion between Russian troops and Chechen militants with regard to exchange of weapons, alcohol, drugs, prisoners, and petroleum products. The war in Chechnia is now the basis for established regional economic patterns that mitigate against its resolution. It has become the only immediate source of financial gain for many young men in Chechnia. At the same time, the corruption and incompetence of the Russian military has made a travesty of legal and human rights accruing to the people of Chechnia, as well as to the Russian servicemen themselves.

Yet if the Russian military were to depart tomorrow, Chechnia would become the scene of a civil war no less brutal than the present war. Events of the past decade have only served to intensify acrimonious, often violent, competition among Chechen groups. There is no one in Chechnia in any position to guarantee any agreement that might be achieved. Hence, there is no one in Chechnia with whom one could conclusively and authoritatively negotiate toward a comprehensive resolution of the conflict.

Even if there were a serious partner on the Chechen side it would be politically difficult for Russias President Putin to embark upon substantive negotiations. President Vladimir Putin rose to power on the strength of his aggressive prosecution of the Chechen war. While his support is now much broader and deeper, and while support for the war has declined among many Russian voters, Putins hard-line stance remains popular with many of his core supporters. These problems are further complicated by the dramatic failure of the previous political settlement that Russia negotiated with Chechen representatives at Khasaviurt in August 1996.

Due to fears about aggression from both Russia and Chechnia, due to the complicated roles that both Russians and Chechens have played in its own separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and due to the inherent weakness of its own political structure, Georgia has failed to play a constructive role in the Chechen conflict, and, at least up to the fall of 2002, has played a counterproductive role.

Equally counterproductive have been the roles of governments, organizations, and individuals around the world who have used the conflict in Chechnia to advance their own political agendas. At times these agendas have been Islamist, at times anti-Islamic, at times anti-Russian, at times nationalistic, at times connected to the competitive exploitation of Caspian resources, at times connected with opportunities for personal advancement and gain. By far the worst of this has been outside funding for the militant cause.

All of this has resulted from, and contributed to, widespread misunderstanding of regional complexities. Many western media outlets, for example, have played a counterproductive role by promoting a simplistic and imbalanced view of the conflict. Governments and organizations influenced by such views have taken an imbalanced approach toward Moscow, which has succeeded only in undercutting moderate Russian officials and strengthening the hand of Russian hard-liners. At the same time, such actors have encouraged uncompromising attitudes among some Chechens by failing to call upon them to accept their fair share of responsibility for the conflict, and for its resolution. They have thereby encouraged unrealistic hopes for Western intervention in support of Chechen independence.

At the present stage, Chechen independence is unrealistic due to the severity of problems that occurred during Chechnias period of de facto independence from August 1996 to October 1999. During those years, Islamists and criminal, clan-based gangs took advantage of the political chaos within Chechnia to spread instability throughout the region. The result was massive human rights abuses. In addition to widespread property crime, thousands of people were kidnapped and transported to Chechnia where they were sold and used as slaves, or tortured and mutilated, sometimes on videotape, for purposes of extorting exorbitant ransoms from their families and friends. From January 1996 through September 1999, neighboring Daghestan was invaded on three occasions by Chechnia-based militants, resulting in hundreds of deaths and more than 32,000 IDPs. During the same period, cross-border raids from Chechnia were almost a daily occurrence in Daghestan. It is likely that such activities will resume if Chechnia regains independence at any time in the near future. My survey research shows that the overwhelming majority of Daghestanis fear Chechnia and look to the Russian Federation for assistance in times of crisis.1

Yet, for many in Chechnia, the prospect of Russian citizenship is also unattractive. Abuses and atrocities regularly committed by Russian troops against locals deprived of legal redress make it progressively less appealing. Russia has a moral obligation to protect its citizens. It must protect Chechens from abuse by Russian troops, and it must protect other citizens in the region from abuse by groups based in Chechnia.

It is unfortunately the case that wars often occur when cultures need to change, and it does not yet appear that there has been substantive adaptation on either side of this conflict. As a result of all of these difficulties, a near-term, comprehensive, negotiated settlement is an unlikely prospect. Nevertheless, there is now an opportunity for important changes.

Why Is the Situation in Chechnia Ripe for Change?

All sides in the conflict face growing pressure for a breakthrough. Since 11 September, 2001, international funding for Chechen militants has been reduced, while their Georgian sanctuaries have been eliminated. During the previous Chechen war, militants committed terrorist acts in times of desperation, as, for example, Shamil Bassaevs June 1995 raid upon Budennovsk, and Salman Raduevs January 1996 raid upon Kizliar. The flagrantly counterproductive Nord-Ost hostage crisis in October 2002, and recent suicide bombings in Chechnia suggest a period of similar desperation.

These desperate incidents are also connected to recent pressures upon international Islamist groups to demonstrate, to supporters and opponents alike, that they are still vital forces. Clearly, there has been international Islamist support, perhaps provocation, for at least some of these incidents.

Conversely, pressures that they face in their international struggle with Islamist extremism renders both Russian and Western leaders increasingly anxious to seek some conclusion of the Chechen conflict compatible with Western values.

At the same time, President Putin faces other pressures to end the war. Russian public support for the war has been declining overall. While it is likely to spike in response to terrorist incidents, and while there are likely to be more terrorist incidents, it is also likely to continue its evaporation over the longer term. As President Putins personal political agenda has broadened and deepened, the stalemate in Chechnia can only appear as a drain on precious resources. Moreover, as President Putin increasingly commits himself to partnership with the West he becomes increasingly vulnerable to Western pressures for a settlement.

In view of these mounting pressures upon President Putin, it is not surprising that he is currently placing greater pressures upon the Chechen population by closing, or threatening to close, refugee camps, by accepting the closure of the OSCE office in Chechnia, and by conducting a constitutional referendum.

The Constitutional Referendum in Chechnia2

The upcoming constitutional referendum in Chechnia could be an important step toward a settlement of the conflict if the constitution clearly facilitated adequate Chechen autonomy, and if the referendum avoided violent incident while providing a conclusive result. Further steps to maximize Chechen autonomy are likely to minimize future conflicts, and are therefore in Russias interest. Future conflicts may also be minimized by providing Chechen opposition figures with opportunities to participate in the subsequent political administration whenever possible. Russian officials should take steps to ensure the legitimacy of the referendum by a) providing for participation by Chechen IDPs, especially in neighboring republics; b) limiting participation by federal military personnel; and c) avoiding irregularities in the vote. Recognizing genuine security concerns, it remains in Russias interest to accept impartial, independent observers during the referendum. However, none of this is likely to transpire.

The referendum is likely to be marred by violence beforehand and contention afterwards. Western critics will find adequate reason to claim that the referendum was illegitimate and inconclusive. Another barrage of anti-Russian rhetoric will further undercut Russian moderates, renew the determination of Russian hard-liners, and limit opportunities for genuinely constructive Western influence.

Western critics, however, will be missing the crucial point. The short-term consequences of the referendum are relatively insignificant. Over the next five to ten years, a new Chechen social order will slowly crystallize, and new Chechen elites will gradually emerge, around new patterns of economic flow that will develop with the establishment of the new administration, and the consequent expansion of federal subsidies for Chechen reconstruction and economic development. Subsequent budgetary transfers and humanitarian aid will follow patterns of top-down economic flow that will crystallize around the new administration and gradually consolidate its authority.

Progressively, the crystallization of this new order will marginalize Chechen radicals, and promote Chechen pragmatists and moderates. Hence, the consolidation of this new order may be the best hope for long-term stability in Chechnia. It would be preferable for the new Chechen administration to genuinely reflect the interests and needs of all of the people of Chechnia, but Moscow shows signs of understanding that the patterns of economic flow that follow the establishment of any new administration thereafter will shape the development of new interests and needs in the republic. It appears that Moscow may be literally banking on this long-term outcome.

Nevertheless, the precise formation of these patterns will be difficult for anyone to anticipate or control since they will be subject to the ubiquity of corruption. Indeed, current regional economic patterns favor the perpetuation of the war. Both in and out of the region, so many have learned to profit from the war, whether economically or politically, that there seems little genuine will to end it. All of this will tend to moderate the economic leverage that Moscow, or anyone else, might apply toward the stabilization of Chechen society.

The political and economic consolidation of any new administration will also be hampered by fundamental complications in Chechen social structure. Many Chechens are likely to have difficulty offering their full allegiance and support to a leader from another Chechen teip, or clan, due to their sense of fidelity to their own teips. Hence, any Chechen who comes to power in Chechnia will sooner or later be forced to seek administrative support from members of his own teip. Yet the Chechen people are very unlikely to accept the hegemony of members of a single teip. Gradually, members of the other teips will unite against any teip that is perceived to hold power. A similar trajectory of events helped to undermine the administration of President Aslan Maskhadov after his election in 1997. By 1999 many of those with genuine influence in the Maskhadov administration were members of Mr. Maskhadovs Alleroy teip. For these reasons, the goal of Chechen self-administration, however desirable, is fraught with difficulties of a fundamental nature. The same fundamental problems, anchored in Chechen social structure, are likely to be encountered in any movement toward Chechen self-administration, whether initiated by Chechens, by Russians, by international mediators, or by any combination thereof.

Akhmad Kadyrov heads the current administration in Chechnia with Russian federal support, and some local observers interpret the new constitution of Chechnia as having been prepared with Mr. Kadyrov in view. Perhaps for this reason the constitution accords substantial power to the office of the president. This means that many Chechens outside of Mr. Kadyrovs Benoy teip are likely vote against the constitution for reasons that may have more to do with rivalries inherent in Chechnias ancient social structure than with the specific articles of the constitution or the procedures of the referendum. However, outside observers who are not sensitive to teip rivalries are likely to spuriously interpret such votes as a rejection of Russian authority.

Nevertheless, there are two reasons why the constitution is unlikely to be rejected soundly. First, many Chechens will endorse the constitution, whether or not they agree with its particulars, simply because they are exhausted by the conflict and yearn for stability on almost any terms. Second, the referendum is likely to become a vehicle for electoral fraud committed either by Russian officials, or by current Chechen administrators, or both. Regardless of how the Chechen people vote the outcome of the referendum is likely to favor, or at least not substantially to undermine, Mr. Kadyrovs interests. Ironically, it is conceivable that anti-Kadyrov electoral tendencies of the teip system may partially offset pro-constitutional electoral fraud, but it will be difficult to acquire useful data along these lines.

Little harm could be done by international election monitors, if impartial monitors could be identified, and if Moscow could be persuaded to accept them. But it is also likely that monitors would do little good. It is most likely that monitors would identify some electoral irregularities, but that they also would be unable to determine their frequency and extent. Of course it is possible that electoral fraud might be as flagrant as it was in Daghestans last two federal presidential elections. However, this seems unlikely due to opportunities for falsification that are presented by the October census.

In October 2002, the Russian census found 1,088,000 residents of Chechnia. This appears to be an unrealistic enumeration of Chechen residents, though it may come closer to approximating the total number of Chechen nationals in all locations. Census procedures permitted one member of a family to record the names of all family members, including those at a distance. Realistically, the number of Chechen residents should be less than 650,000 and perhaps closer to 550,000. Hence, the size of the current electorate inside Chechnia probably falls between 250,000 and 350,000. However, officials, who currently are compiling voter lists for the referendum, have announced in the Russian media that they anticipate an electorate of approximately 530,000 people. Therefore, it appears that electoral officials may have an opportunity to include as many as two or three hundred thousand falsified ballots. Together with ballots cast by Russian troops, ballots cast by genuine supporters of the constitution or Mr. Kadyrov, and ballots cast by people who are simply exhausted by the war, this appears likely to guarantee the results of the referendum. A similar combination of technique and tendencies is likely to favor Mr. Kadyrov, or some similar candidate, in the subsequent presidential election. All of this will increase the chances for Mr. Kadyrovs assassination, which will also tend toward inverse variance with Russian troop strength in the republic.

After the referendum, as more people gradually return to Chechnia, terrorist acts will become easier to engineer, and more deadly in their execution. So long as terrorist acts continue it will be difficult to eliminate brutal federal searches and mass detentions, known as zachistki. Indeed, since zachistki tend to mobilize village populations to take up arms against Russian troops, militants may already be seeking the perpetuation of zachistki as a means of recruitment. The cycle of injustice, abuse, and retribution will probably continue for some time to come. Therefore, in order to minimize contact with locals, Russian troops should be strictly garrisoned, and brought forward only at moments of crisis.

The significance of the March referendum will not be the short-term legitimacy of the new administration, but a step in the long-term transition of economic patterns from those that perpetuate the war to those that will, one day in the distant future, underwrite stability.

Multiple Local Mediators

However desirable it may be, it remains nonetheless unlikely that there will be a near-term, comprehensive, negotiated settlement for the conflict in Chechnia. The gradualist strategy for achieving social stability, which involves the establishment of a local administration as a conduit for budgetary subsidies, will be hampered by corruption, punctuated by violence, and will, at best, require several years to show any appreciable results. Because of Moscows insistence on the domesticity of the conflict, because of the international political climate, because of the harsh realities of the region, and because of errors that they made in their previous approach to the conflict, no international organization is in a position to mediate the conflict.

Feasible near-term opportunities for movement toward a resolution of the conflict must involve regional leaders, especially those in Muslim North Caucasian republics. The political settlement that ended the previous conflict in Chechnia was brokered by Daghestani mediators and signed in the Daghestani city of Khasaviurt. In view of the disastrous failure of that settlement, the subsequent suffering in Daghestan, and the strong anti-Chechen sentiments in Daghestan today, it is clear that neither Daghestani leaders would wish to play a role in any future settlement, nor their supporters would permit them to do so. Still there are other Muslim republics in the Northern Caucasus, and their leaders may provide the best hope for mediation.

Multiple local mediators might make multiple contacts on the Chechen side. This would be an advantage since many Chechen warlords will have to be approached individually, due to the chronic fragmentation of militant forces. In some cases Moscow may have to consider separate concessions, but, for the most part, offers of amnesty may be the key since the tide appears to have turned irrevocably in Moscows favor, and militant forces now find themselves under extreme pressure.

1 See: R. Ware, E. Kisriev, W. Patzelt, U. Roericht, Russia and Chechnia from a Daghestani Perspective, Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 4, December 2002; Political Islam in Daghestan, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 55, No. 2, March 2003; Stability in the Caucasus: The Perspective from Daghestan, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 50, No. 2, March/April 2003.
2 This paper was written prior to the Constitutional Referendum in Chechnia of 23 March, 2003.

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