Friday, November 23, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Umarov’s Declaration Puts Chechen Spokesmen Abroad at Risk

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 23 -- Chechen militant leader Dokku Umarov’s recent declaration that the Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria no longer exists but instead is simply part of a “Caucasus Emirate” may not have much affect in the North Caucasus, but it puts the future status of pro-independence Chechen spokesmen in the West very much at risk.
That is because, as Murad Kardanov argued in the Prague-based Caucasus Times yesterday, Umarov’s self-proclaimed emirate as an obviously Islamist project is certain to find its place on the lists various Western governments maintain of terrorist organizations they are committed to oppose (
At the very least, such a redefinition of the Chechen issue could isolate Chechen spokesmen in the West even if they are totally opposed to Umarov’s move. And that in turn could make the governments of the countries where they now live less willing to tolerate their activities or even their continued presence on their territories.
That danger helps to explain the angry reaction of Akhmed Zakayev, the former Chechen foreign minister now living in London. A defender of the secular nationalist tradition of Dzhokar Dudayev and Arslan Maskhadov, Zakayev suggested that Moscow had orchestrated Umarov’s declaration to weaken and divide pro-independence Chechens.
Many analysts will be inclined to dismiss Zakayev’s comment as over the top, but the way in which some Moscow media outlets have dealt with this issue suggests that Russian policies and FSB officers more directly were involved in Umarov’s declaration and that the Kremlin is prepared to exploit it in precisely the way Zakayev indicated.
As might be expected, the media trail on this point is somewhat convoluted. Yesterday, Britain’s “Guardian” newspaper featured an article by Tom Parfitt entitled “The Battle for the Soul of Chechnya” about Ramzan Kadyrov’s promotion of Sufism as a means of fighting the Wahhabism of the Chechen rebels.
Moscow’s Inopress prepared a translation, which was then posted on the website of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Politics ( And today it has already attracted the attention of commentators at a variety of other media outlets.
The most detailed is on the site. Not only did it reprise the “Guardian” article, albeit eliminating its conclusion that the struggle in Chechnya is not over, but the site’s editors included a statement by a religious advisor to Umarov and a comment by a Moscow political scientist (
The former, Anzor Astemirov, who is head of the Supreme Shariat Court for the radicals, provides a glimpse into the thinking of the religious radicals on whom Umarov now apparently relies. In a long and rambling discourse, the radical Islamist judge makes three key points, all of which he claims justify what Umarov has done.
First, he says, efforts by former Chechen leaders to win Western support have failed, and the Chechens now recognize that they can count only on themselves, on some Muslim countries, and on Allah. Consequently, it is best for them to proclaim that the Chechens are engaged in a jihad and not simply a struggle for national self-determination.
Second, Astemirov continues, thanks to the growing power of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechens as a community of the faithful are no longer threatened. His regime is filled with former militants, and all Chechens can thus be confident that they will be able to act as Muslims. Thus, they must broaden the struggle before they can deepen it.
And third, he concludes, the Chechens need to take this step in order to force Moscow’s hand and destroy the image it has sought to present to the Muslim world as a friend of Islam. That is a lie, Astemirov argues, and by raising the flag of jihad, Umarov can advertise this fact.
In addition to these arguments, the shariat judge recounts that Umarov did not come up with his declaration independently but instead elaborated it on the basis of ideas worked out by the Council of Caucasus Ulema (Elders), who include Muslims with a foot in both the pro- and anti-Moscow camps and thus subject to Moscow’s influence.
But it is the comments of Ruslan Saidov, a political scientist, that are the most instructive as to the involvement of Moscow in Umarov’s statement and the calculations of the top Russian leadership concerning not only the Chechen opposition but also the ostensibly pro-Moscow Kadyrov government.
Umarov’s declaration, Saidov says, has the effect of “simplifying to the extreme the choice before the West concerning Chechnya: either its leades can support the ‘Caucasus Emirate,’ a branch of Al-Qaeda, or they can back the Chechen national leader, President Ramzan Kadyrov.”
The West’s answer on this point is obvious, he said, and it will lead to a further isolation of the Chechen diaspora and all those who have backed the idea of an independent Chechnya-Ichkeria. That would be enough reason for the Russian authorities to welcome or even to promote the issuing of such a declaration.
But just as Astemirov argued, so too Saidov suggests that this declaration will not work entirely in Moscow’s favor either in Chechnya itself -- where it will simply increase Kadyrov’s ability to act on his own and in ways many in Moscow do not like -- or in the Muslim world -- where Moscow has hoped to gain from the decline in American influence.
And the Russian political scientist in addition argues that whatever Moscow may have gained in foreign affairs by exploiting if not in fact creating this declaration, it almost certainly will lose far more at home, given the kind of damage that such a radical Islamist group may inflict even if it is ultimately defeated.
Saidov then concludes with what he says are two questions for the Kremlin: “Why are FSB agents participating in the creation of a terrorist, radical-Islamist ‘Caucasus Emirate’?” and “Can the existence of a branch of Al-Qaeda on the territory that Russia considers its own really be in the interests of the Russian Federation?”

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