Staunton, August 5 – Doku Umarov’s reversal of his announcement last week that he was handing over the leadership of the North Caucasus Emirate to Aslambek Vadalov calls attention to something Moscow has worked hard to obscure: many of the militants in the North Caucasus continue to be animated by ethno-nationalism rather than by Islamist radicalism.
Indeed, Akhmed Zakayev, the leader of Chechen nationalists in the emigration, told Reuters yesterday that he knew Vadalov “well” from their common struggle for an independent Chechnya, was in “regular contact” with him, and knew that Vadalov is “an ally in the moderate wing with no links to Islamist groups” (in.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-50606820100803).
To the extent that is true, it may help to explain why Umarov reversed himself yesterday. Indeed, Zakayev’s interview may have played a role on that. Indeed, Umarov’s radicalism, as Zakayev pointed out, “was used [by Moscow] to convince the West that Russia is facing the same problems there as in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world.”
If Vadalov in fact is animated more by Chechen nationalism than by Islamist radicalism, that would create a serious problem for Moscow because many human rights activists in the West have been far more supportive of Chechen nationalism, especially given Moscow’s and Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutality, than they have been regarding the Islamist movement there.
And consequently, Western groups that supported Chechen independence in the past or at least insisted that Moscow resolve the conflict there through negotiations are likely to be re-energized by the latest Umarov reversal precisely because it appears to confirm the continued importance of ethno-nationalism in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.
At the same time, Umarov’s change of heart may undermine any unity of Islamist elements there. According to Abdulla Ismatulov, the head of the SK Strategy Research Center, Umarov was forced into backtracking by the leaders of the Kabardino-Balkaria subdivision of the Emirate who appear to distrust Vadalov (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/172570/).
In addition, such Islamist elements among the militants, Ismatulov continued, “need Umarov as a brand which they can use to ask their sponsors” among radical Islamist groups abroad for funding. “No one knows the militant Vadalov,” he continued, but the current supporters of the Emirate “will give money to the well-known [Umarov].”
Another close observer of the North Caucasus, journalist Bakhtiar Akhmedkhanov suggests that Umarov may have acted as he did either because of differences of opinion among his backers or because “of an internal conflict in the Chechen segment of the resistance,” a segment that was unhappy with ideology and his attacks on the civilian population.
According to Akhmedkhanov, “Umarov never enjoyed popularity among the Ichkeria militants.” That is because, he continued, “for the peoples of the Caucasus, the national idea always was stronger than the religious one,” adding that he is “certain” that “the Emirate of the Caucasus is a product of the Russian special services and is fated to disintegrate.”
Not only do members of these services have a vested interest in promoting the notion that the entire North Caucasus resistance is Islamist in order to quiet Western criticism of Moscow’s policies there, but they are also interested in extending the conflict because it provides them with “uncontrolled access to resources” and gains them promotion in the organs.
Aleksey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center, put what is taking place in an even broader context. According to him, “the Chechen militants are disappointed in a commander who speaks [all the time] for a universal jihad” rather than for the achievement of their specific national goals.
“This is,” the Moscow expert says, “a little like what is taking place in Afghanistan. There too one can see this opposition between the universalists who call for struggle with the infidel in the entire world and the nationalists who are satisfied with the establishment of their own orders in their own countries.”