Revenge fuels Chechen flames
Moscow's man won Chechnya's presidency Monday, but observers see no end to war of attrition.
GROZNY, RUSSIA — There are few starker reminders that Russia's war in Chechnya is burning on than the simple wooden cross jutting out of the ground by the road north of Grozny.
A soldier's green cap hangs from it, in remembrance.
The nearby ground is charred black, and strewn with the detritus of a Russian military vehicle destroyed by a rebel ambush or a mine.
The owner of this hat was not the first Russian soldier to die in Chechnya since the conquering Russian Empire began numerous military campaigns against the resistant Caucasus region at the end of the 18th century.
Nor is he or she likely to be the last. Close observers of Chechnya say that several factors are ensuring that this conflict will continue for decades, at a cost of more Russian and Chechen lives. Topping the list are the Chechen tradition of revenge and blood feuds, and the influx of extremist Islamic elements that has helped expand a separatist war to include jihad.
"Chechens have to stop basing their reaction on emotions, and look reality in the eyes," says Magomed Rasoul Mougoumayev, an Islamic leader of Chechens in the early 1990s, now in the neighboring Russian Caucasian republic of Dagestan. Rebel field commanders are "against putting an end to this war - they vow to fight to the last Chechen," he says. But "Moscow will not let them win, and they know that."
In a fresh sign of Moscow's grip on the state, the Kremlin's handpicked candidate was declared Chechnya's new president Monday. Akhmad Kadyrov won with 80 percent of the vote after his four chief rivals dropped out or were declared out of the running. Washington criticized the election, saying it failed to meet international standards. But Putin said the election "shows that people have hope - hope for a better life."
However, the ongoing second Chechen war, which began in late 1999, has bogged down federal forces in a brutal war of attrition, fueled by hard-heartedness and vengeful pride.
"The laws of revenge are key in Chechnya," says Gazimagomed Galbatsov, a historian and journalist with Dagestani state media. "During the first Chechen war [1994-1996], if a Russian soldier was wounded while killing a family, people came to the hospital to remember his face."
A powerful symbol for many Chechens of Moscow's enduring suspicion was the forced removal in 1944 by Joseph Stalin of every Chechen to exile in northern Kazakhstan. Chechens were allowed to return home in 1957; one-fifth of the half million deportees died in the first two years.
The first Chechen war humiliated Russia, and ended with Chechnya winning autonomy. But under legally elected president Aslan Maskhadov, lawlessness blossomed. Though no supporting evidence has ever surfaced, the Kremlin blamed Chechen rebels for three apartment bombings in the summer of 1999 that killed nearly 300 Russians. Federal forces invaded Chechnya that September, after a Chechen warlord launched two August incursions into Dagestan.
"It's very easy to make your career based on nationalism, but after so many years, Chechnya is being liquidated as a nation," says Mr. Galbatsov. "They blame the Russians, but the Russians say, 'You did it to yourselves.' The Chechens gave them enough reason."
Russian commanders have long been maddened by Chechen resistance. Among the most brutal was Alexei Yermolov, who declared in the early 19th century that "out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe" with Caucasians. "One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and thousands of Muslims from treason."
Today, Russian forces appear to have gained the upper hand - at least in daytime. But at checkpoints, thousands of Chechens have disappeared, hundreds of whom have turned up dead. Civilians have been brutalized for years by uncompromising "mop-up operations."
Still, despite a series of bombings this summer that left some 300 dead from here to Moscow, an uneasy status quo now reigns. Resistance formations are largely consigned to southern mountains. Russia loses a dozen troops or so a week, though the Kremlin first declared victory here in March 2000.
"At first [Russian troops] were quite intrusive, but they got used to us, and we got used to them," says Anya Soslanbekova, a Chechen matron who runs a kiosk in downtown Grozny.
"We were quite afraid [at first], but it is better than a year ago," says fellow kiosk owner Zainab Ahmedaeva. "We are sick and tired of disorder. We're sorry for the children - sometimes; we're still afraid to let them go out."
Despite those modest Russian gains, mutual animosities are being fed by the radicalization of many fighters. Experts estimate that some 1,000 Arab and other Islamist fighters may be in Chechnya, expressly in the name of holy war.
The growing number of adherents to Wahhabism, an uncompromising strain of Islam that rejects non-Muslims - its most extreme form is embraced by Al Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban - is no surprise to many in Russia, where religion was outlawed for two generations.
"Wahhabi terrorists and radicals use Islam as their theoretical base - they pluck out single lines from the Koran and interpret them as they like," says Sheikh Ismail Hazarat Shangareva, the Moscow-based head of the state-run Islamic Human Rights Center, and co-chair of the Council of Muftis of Russia,interviewed in Grozny.
"There are 20 million Muslims in Russia, and only 2,000 Wahhabis, but even that worries us," says Sheikh Shangareva, who wears green velvet robes with gold brocade, and a white turban. Influence has been strong from "outside" clerics, he says, and their students repeat the hard line "like a tape recorder playing in their ear."
That was not the way Islam was nurtured in the Caucasus, says Mufti Mougoumayev, who set up secret networks of Islamic schools in the 1950s.
"There was no Wahhabi influence, no extremism," says the clean-shaven Mougoumayev, speaking over hot tea at his modest home in Dagestan. "We wanted to keep [students] religious, to keep them from atheism."
But the Arabs who came later were not so moderate. "They didn't come for money," the aging mufti says. Instead, they left their wives and children, and "came to die for their religion."
Even then, Mougoumayev saw one boy of 15 in the rebel ranks, and suggested he should turn to Islamic studies, instead of war. "The boy stood up," the mufti recalls. "'I am not a child,' he said. 'My study is here.'"