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Anarchists and the Second Chechen War

Situation in Northern Caucasus and Libertarian reaction

 This article was published in Avtonom #30 in December 2008,  whole issue is available in PDF format  here. English translation was originally published in Abolishing the Borders from Below #35.


It is of little doubt that the total failure of any attempts to oppose the Second Chechen War was the most bitter defeat of the Russian anarchist movement during the past decade. A feeling of total powerlesness in front of the brutal realities of the Chechenyan meat-grinder was pressing so heavily on the imagination of anti-authoritarians during the first half of the decade, that the movement was onlyable to recovere slightly when the intensity of the war gradually calmed down. 


One may say, that the Second Chechen war started the 26th of August 1999, when the air force of the Russian Federation bombed Grozny and other parts of Ichkeria, and ended the 31st of October 2007, when pro-separatist websites published the announcement of Dokku Umarov, that the Ichkerian Republic had been dissolved and replaced by the Caucasus Emirate. Of course, the war still goes on and various armed attacks take place on an almost weekly basis, but the goal of the rebels is no longer the national independence of Ichkeria, but the formation of a theocratic state that would unite the whole North Caucasus. The Chechen nationalist resistance was marginalized, and in practice is no longer a  significant force. This war may be seen as a continuation of the general «North-Caucasian War», which began with the attack by Islamist fighters on Dagestan the 7th of August 1999, although, even before there had been significant islamist attacks, such as the attack by emir Khattab against the 136th motorized batallion in Buynaksk the 22nd of December 1997. Islamists were never likely to be satisfied with the Khasyavyurt agreements of 1996. Islamism is fundamentally an anti-nationalist ideology, thus the formation of a nation state cannot be be the goal of islamists.

Thus, the coup of October 2007 means the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, therefore making now the time to make some summary of the anarchist success, or more exactly the lack of it, in the struggle against the imperialist war in the Northern Caucasus during last 8 years.





A libertarian take on islamism









If for liberal opponents of the war an Islamist victory over nationalists within the Chechen resistance was a reason to mourn, anarchists look upon this infighting as rather neutral observers. Anarchists were never up for picking the «lesser evil» between nationalists and Islamists, or between separatism and federalism, or between Bolshevism, fascism and capitalism or any other authoritarian ideology whatsoever. Anarchist communism is not about waiting for the «right conditions», however even though it cannot be realized  over night, neither can it be achieved  through any type of  state system. This of course does not mean that anarchists are for the Status Quo — there is always an alternative, decentralized, non-hierarchical scenario for the development of the social conflicts.

Obviously Islamist concepts in terms of sexual freedom and the position of women seem very backward, but one should also point out that in comparison with other authoritarian movements, Islamism also has its good sides. Islamism refuses any ideas on the superiority of one «nation» or «race» over another, and also proposes some limits on neoliberal capitalism, such as a ban on interest. It underlines the importance of social responsibility, although does not criticizing capitalism in those terms. In Lebanon and Palestine Islamists won the trust of the oppressed through social initiatives and a principled stance against corruption. In Chechnya, the support of international Islamists played a role, but the real key reason for the victory of the Islamists within the resistance were the common goals  of Islamists throughout the entire Northern Caucasus, which provided a chance to set up a wider movement crossingnational boundaries. Also in the context of a general collapse of the formerly developed society, Islam as a more archaic institution was providing some rudimentary social structure, just as it did in Afganistan in the 1990's and in Somalia today.

Currently praise and even conversion to Islam is a trendy phenomena among Western (and not only) leftists, and there are even modern attempts of synthesis between Islam and anarchism, but one should take them with a grain of salt. Islam is obviously not the equivalent of Islamism, the former is an ancient religion which allows for a wide spectrum of interpretations, and the latter is a modern ideology, far more restrictive. But Islam is the only religion,amongst the major world religions, founded by a politician, and these origins of Islam have given it a certain modern flavour in comparison with the others. That is, it is more fit for state governance than other ancient religions. If one day there will be an anti-authoritarian Islam besides  modern Islamism, there is little doubt that religious interpretations of the former will be vastly different from the interpretations of the latter.

However anarchists should also not regress to the level of demonizing Islamism. Islamism is no more dangerous, or more cruel than any other authoritarian ideology. Declarations such as «Islamism is fascism», which one can hear from sources as diverse as government authorities to certain anarchists, are just ridiculous. Obviously, modern Islam did not develop in a vacuum — it has been influenced by fascism, socialism and other Western ideologies. However, it is not a subcategory of any of them, but an ideology in its own right, and it accepts a wide range of different social structures, from the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia to the theoratic republic of Iran.

Islamism is not the same thing as Wahhabism. The main inspiration of all Islamists is modern Iran, which is not Wahhabist but Shiite. That is, Islamism is a modern ideology (or more exactly — many ideologies), which does not have an exact correspondence with any of the ancient branches of the religion. The Wahhabist movement, originatin 18th century Saudi Arabia, is certainly one of the sources of modern islamist thinking, but no less important is for example the tradition of the Moslem Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, and the teachings of its main ideologue Sayyid Qutb.

Thereis little doubt that we will often face Islamists in a common field of struggle as, in many regions of the former Soviet Union, they are the only force which can challenge the corrupt despotism of government officials. Under these circumstances it would be a grave mistake to present Islamists as a greater evil, since the reasons for thesupport Islamists have are obvious. It would also be a grave mistake to propose any kind of tactical cooperation with Islamists.  Notwithstanding their superficial criticism of capitalism, modern Islamism is not even feudalist, but an all-out bourgeois movement with some theocratical flavor. We will not be doing any better, if all-out corrupt heirs of the Soviet nomenclature in Middle-Asia or Northern Caucasus were to be replaced by Islamists. The history of the most recent 5000 years proves, that no religion can save a human being from tmoral degradation, which is the clear consequence of having any authority over another.



Who won the Second Chechen War?




I make a conscious decision to not label the Islamists of Northern Caucasus as Wahhabites , since that would be a simplification — for example Dokka Umarov considers himself a follower of Sufi Islam, traditional in Chechnya. However, the Wahhabist segment played a significant role in the conflict, as it was the factor which caused the split of Chechen society during the course of the Second War.

Akhmat Kadyrov was a significant factor in the success of the Federal forces. Kadyrov was the Chief Mufti of Ichkeria, defending the interests of the Sufi school, traditional in Chechnya, against expansion of Wahhabism. Starting with October 1998, several attempts were made on his life  in Chechnya, , after which there was no doubt left as to the fact that Wahhabite influence in Chechnya was incompatible with his life. Thus the federal forces got a very valuable ally, whereas Maskhadov and the rest of the «half-secular» authorities were trying to avoid any clear conflict with the IslamistsAfter the start of the Second War, Maskhadov and the national resistance could not refuse open cooperation with the Islamists, but this alliance was far more beneficial for the latter. The situation «between the lines of fire» was a big disanvantage for the national resistance, and thus its influence had already vanished long before Maskhadov was killed, on the 8th of March 2005. During his struggle underground, Maskhadov condemned the deeds of Basayev and other commanders of the Islamist resistance against peaceful people, however he did little to interfere — not that he really even could. It is unlikely that Maskhadov was in a position to sidetrack Basayev, and Basayev was also an useful scarecrow, which could be shown to the whole word: «If you are not going to negotiate with me, you will have to talk with him». 

For Kadyrov the elder, it was far easier to persuade field commanders to surrender than it was for the federal troops, as he washimself a living example of the opportunities switching sides would permit turncoats. Alu Alkhanov, the Chechen president to follow Kadyrov the elder, was the last representative of the original anti-Dudayev opposition of 1994 who heldany significiant position in Chechnya. Since Kadyrov the younger sidetracked Alkhanov, any leading positions in the republic have been promptly put in hands of former resistance fighters. Thus, Kadyrov the younger could move on with his goal to gain total hegemony in the republic, and start eliminating the influence of all federal forces inside the Republic. The bold and unpunished execution of the former commander of the «Mountaineer» detachment, Movdavi Baysarov, in the center of Moscow in 2006, and the expulsion of Sulim Yamadaev from the post of commander of the special battallion of the Ministry of Defence «Vostok» (East) in April of 2008 show, that Kadyrov is in a position to reach for this goal (after the first version of this article was published, Yamadayev was assasinated in Dubai — the police of the Emirates has issued an international search warrant on a number of Kadyrov's associates involved in the assasination, but obviously they have nothing to be worried about in Russia). Since Kadyrov's allies are also involved in the hostile and violent takeovers of companies controlled by Chechen businessmen outside of Chechnya, one may not describe the relation of Kadyrov the younger to federal authorities in 21st century terms, but rather it is something like the relation between a King and a Duke. The «Duke», that is Kadyrov the younger, is allowed to do whatever he likes in Chechnya, such as setting up private torture prisons on his own estates. The influence of federal authorities in Chechnya is even weaker than during Dudayev's time, as back then an opposition still existed which was capable of acting, and at times Dudayev was only in control of the capital of the republic. Chechen nationalists were refused formal sovereignity and independent foreign policies, but in exchange they received generous federal subsidies and an amount of authority  inside «their» republic, of which leaders of other subjects of Russian Federation can only dream about.

Today Chechnya is an extremely authoritarian republic, and it is impossible to estimate the real level of support that Kadyrov can claim. The fact that a number of influential field commanders are still hiding in the republic (or surrounding areas) shows, that the resistance has not completely lost its support. However there is no doubt that Kadyrov's politics, despite the many controversies, are supported by a substantial part of the population. First of all this is due to the improvement in living conditions, as well as a far better safety situation than during either of the periods of independence (1991-1994 and 1996-1999). But the support for Kadyrov the younger is also due to fact that he managed to prove that he is not a simple marionet, and that in a certain sense he is proceeding with his original nationalist project. Chechnya, is currently one of the most ethnically homogenous territories in Europe, and power (both civil and military) is completely in the hands of former national separatists. Everyone understands, that when the following cycle of weakening of the central state in Russia starts (which sooner or later will undoubtedly happen  — in 50, 100 or 200 years), there is no force which can hold Chechnya in Moscow's authority.

Obviously, for anarchists, all this intrigue is secondary — hostage taking and de-facto competition between the federal troops and the resistance, as to which of them manages to kill more of its hostages, is just a detail of the general bloody tragedy. 100 victims of the hostage taking in Dubrovka and 300 in Beslan are just a minor part of the general picture of tens of thousands of victims murdered and maimed. War is always an unprincipled and bloody business, and if sometimes one manages to set the rules of the game, it is only when following the rules is beneficial for all sides of the conflict. In the case of the second Chechen war however, neither side made such attempts, thus everyone bears responsibility for what happened.

In the end, what happened in Buynaksk, Volgodonsk, Moscow and Ryazan between the 31st of August and 22nd of September 1999 is also secondary. Yes, much is unclear with this history, expecially in regards to Ryazan, and in case we win at one point (and most likely only in that case) all of this will be investigated. But thus far the «alternative version» of the story remains unfinished, and I am certain that things would have developed the same way even without the explosions. Public opinion was not even close to stopping the First Chechen war, which halted only after the military success of the resistance. Thus in 1999 the state could easily have gone on with the war even without the explosions.

And in the end, who won? Obviously, nationalist turncoats won — they did not receive  formal independence, but their real power vastly exceeds the power of the average politician today, the latter's hands usually, being tied by a number of international agreements. There is also no doubt, that the federal athorities and Chekist (FSB operative) clique, which has conslidated all power in Russia to its hands in the past past 8 years, also won — they were forced to give all power within Chechnya to former nationalists, but now they no longer have to worry about the massive human toll of «maintaining the integrity of the country», and its consequence, a dissatisfied public. In a certain sense the Islamists also won — they have no chance to realise their political ambitions during the next decades, but they've gained a practical monopoly over the guerilla struggle in Russia. Amongst the various  warring fractions, only one has undoubtedly lost — that is the nationalist resistance. And what aboutthose who did not wage war? They are clearly on the loosing side — hundreds of thousands of physically and mentally crippled people will pass the trauma of war onto second and third generations.



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