“They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. As Mujahideen we are required not to permit that, using any methods that Allah allows us,” said Dokku Umarov, the self-styled ‘Emir of the Caucasus’.
That he was playing no games with his words became evident when two suicide bombs went off last week in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, close to the Caucasus as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month. More than 30 people died in the two blasts, one of which is said to have been carried out by a Chechen war widow in her mid-twenties.
Sochi, the world’s longest city, has an Islamic past. Stretching along the Black Sea coast on its west and the Caucasus mountains on its east, the 145 km long city was once inhabited by Muslim Chechens. But the angry tsar following his defeat and humiliation in the Crimean war in the mid-19th century ethnically cleansed the area. He forced almost all the Muslims in the area to move to the Ottoman Empire, which, together with France, Britain and Sardinia (today’s Italy) was one of his adversaries in the Crimean war.
Then again during World War II, the Chechens, angry that the Communists had gone back on their promise to give them independence, sympathized with Germany. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin hit back by ethnically cleansing more than half a million Chechens from Volgograd. More than 170,000 Chechens died on their way to Kazakhstan.
Decades later, when the Soviet Union crumbled, Chechnya like the other republics of the Communist empire sought independence. But Moscow did not want to part with Chechnya, because Russia’s key oil and gas pipelines to Europe passed through Chechnya, itself an oil rich region. It is through these pipelines that Caspian states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan export part of their oil and gas to Europe. Because of these pipelines, Russia is able to blackmail some of its oil-and gas dependent neighbors. If Chechnya is granted independence, Russia will lose its economic, political and strategic clout in its western and southern backyards despite its nuclear arsenal. This is why the US-led West tacitly supports the Chechen separatist struggle, in spite of the rebellion’s Islamic agenda.
Moscow’s ‘nyet’ to Chechens’ independence call has triggered two major wars in Chechnya or the Republic of Ichkeria as the Chechen nationalists call their region. The first Chechen war went on from December 1994 to August 1996. The then Russian president Boris Yeltsin came under international pressure to end the war because Russian soldiers committed rape, murder and other human rights violations. Yeltsin also came under domestic pressure because thousands of Russian soldiers were dying in the war.
Russia, on the verge of losing the war, agreed to a ceasefire and signed a peace treaty with Chechen rebel leaders. But by August 1999 the peace treaty was in tatters with the Chechen separatists invading neighbouring Dagestan, which was historically part of Chechnya. This led to the Second Chechen war.
The Russian forces, this time around, under the leadership of Prime Minister Putin, a former KGB agent and hardcore Russian nationalist, adopted a scorched-earth policy, using heavy weapons on civilian targets and virtually flattened Chechnya’s capital Grozny, which was under the control of the rebels. Of course, he prevented human rights groups and journalists from visiting the war zone.
After capturing Grozny, Putin installed a puppet regime. But the rebels moved into the North Caucasus mountains to continue a guerrilla war, which manifests itself in the form of bomb blasts in Moscow and elsewhere. Their attacks include the hostage crisis in Beslan in the Russian region of North Ossetia in 2004. The crisis ended in the deaths of some 384 people including schoolchildren after fighting broke out between the hostage takers and Russian soldiers. The blame game as to who killed whom continues to date. Another attack that reminded the world that there was a crisis in Chechnya was when in April last year, two US youths with Chechen background set off a pressure cooker bomb at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 280.
Putin’s Russia views the Chechen rebels or the ‘Islamic Emirate of Circassia’, as the Chechen rebel group calls itself as Moscow’s al-Qaeda.
Over the years, the resistance movement in Chechnya, where once the Naqshabandi Islamic Sufi tradition flourished as a spiritual and political force, has assumed a Wahhabi outlook. It is believed that the rebel movement is being controlled by the Saudi Arabian intelligence agency and that many Chechen dissidents who have found asylum in Saudi Arabia, have become a medium through which Saudi money reaches the rebels in the mountains.
In July last year, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is reported to have told Putin during a four-hour one-on-one meeting in the Russian president’s holiday home near Moscow that if Russia abandoned Syria, Saudi Arabia would persuade Chechen activists not to attack the Sochi Olympics. According to reports, an angry Putin, for whom Syria is a foreign policy success story, told the prince, if anything untoward happened at the Olympics, he would not hesitate to retaliate.
Whether the Volgograd bombings are an indication that Saudi Arabia has put its warning into action or not, Putin is unlikely to bow to pressure. His resolve to fight the Chechen rebellion will only increase with every bombing, just as his support for Syria increased after the Saudi warning. The Russian media are calling for an all-out attack on rebel positions and a crackdown on Wahhabi Islam. There are also concerns in Russia that many foreign Islamists who move across the world’s trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia also sneak into Chechnya, Dagestan and other region’s in Russia. Many also fear that there may be more attacks before the Games.
As the February Games near, the Chechen rebels have called for maximum force to prevent the Games from taking place but Putin has vowed to take all necessary measures to ensure that the winter Olympics, his pet project, are held without any incidents. Many see his sudden release of former oil tycoon and political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the two members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot as a move to santise the image of Russia ahead of the Games.
In his New Year address to the Russians, Putin vowed to “annihilate” the terrorists. “We will confidently, fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation,” he said.
And during his visit to blast-hit Volgograd, one of the venues for the Soccer World Cup in 2018, he said: “No matter what motivated the criminals, there can be no justification for crimes against civilians, particularly against women and children.”
Putin also wants to show by holding the Games successfully that he is in full control of Chechnya, whose capital Grozny is just 480 km away or a 12-hour drive from Sochi. On April 15, 2009, Russia claimed its war in Chechnya had officially ended. Since then Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s handpicked man, has rebuilt the war-ravaged region which enjoys some degree of political autonomy under Russia’s federal system, though he complains that 80 per cent of Chechnya’s oil income ends up in Moscow. However, neither Putin nor Kadyrov will allow visitors to the Games and journalists who come to cover them to take the short flight to Grozny and see the transformation. Chechnya remains a no-go zone for human rights groups and foreign journalists.
The Chechen crisis in a way resembles the Syrian crisis as far as the western political agenda is concerned. In both these crises, the West wants to help the rebels but is restrained by the rebels’ hardline Islamic agenda. Yet the West extends moral support and limited aid to the rebels in the two regions in its determination to oust or weaken Bashar al-Assad and Putin, whose opposition to the West’s global agenda has made many analysts wonder whether Russia has gone back to the Cold War era.
Russia is not unaware that the support Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West extend to the Chechen rebels is connected with the West’s global agenda and aimed at weakening the Putin regime. Moscow regularly accuses the West of fuelling the rebellion. Chechen leader Kadyrov, whom the rebels scoff as Kafir-ov, meaning one who rejects God, once told the Reuters news agency that the US and Britain were not only covertly aiding the Chechen rebels but also sending fighters to the region.
“The West is interested in separating the Caucasus from Russia. The Caucasus is a strategic frontier of Russia. Taking the Caucasus away from Russia will mean taking half of the country away from Russia. Now they are sending groups of foreigners to us. We are fighting US and British special services in the mountains,” Kadyrov said.
True, the Volgograd bombs ahead of the Sochi Games have brought the Chechen crisis into the world focus, just as last year’s Boston Marathon bomb had. But terrorism that kills innocent people is counterproductive to the Chechens’ independence struggle even if they claim that Russia commits far worse crimes in Chechnya, away from the eyes of the world media. Terrorism as a political language weakens the rebels’ cause. The Volgograd bombings also underscore the need for the both sides to come to the negotiating table and work out a deal acceptable to all. Otherwise, they will be allowing foreign intelligence agencies to play all kinds of manipulative games, notwithstanding the Winter Olympics and the 2018 Football World Cup.
This article first appeared in Daily Mirror, a leading newspaper of Sri Lanka. Click here to go to the original.