Friday, April 2, 2010

Chechnya: Who checkmates whom?

Monday’s terror attacks in Moscow and Wednesday’s police station blast in Dagestan show that Russia’s problems in the North Caucasus are far from over. It may lead to the third Chechen war. For it was a similar bombing campaign in 1999 that prompted the then Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to send troops again to Chechnya and launch the second Chechen war.

This time around, the war in Chechnya may assume cold-war characteristics also.

It was only a year ago, on April 15, 2009 to be precise, that Russia claimed its war in Chechnya had ended. In fact, Chechnya had been witnessing the absence of war since 2007, the year in which the present Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, took office. Ramzan was the son of Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel who fought Russian troops in the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996. When the second Chechen war broke out in 1999, the senior Kadyrov, who was the chief mufti (priest) of Ichkeria — the name the Chechen rebels and nationalists want their republic to be known as — defected. The rebels were furious, but Russia saw a leader in him and made him the president of the autonomous Chechen republic in 2003. A year later, he was killed in a bomb blast at a football stadium in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, while he was receiving the salute of the Chechen security forces at a World War II memorial parade. After a power vacuum, his son Ramzan Kadyrov, who was leading a notorious pro-Russian militia, became the president or Moscow’s hit-man in Grozny in 2007. Ever since, Kadyrov has been ruling Chechnya, albeit with a raze-and-reward policy. He develops villages where people praise his government while his terror visits areas sympathetic towards the rebels, who have now withdrawn to mountainous areas in the neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia, two Muslim-majority regions, like Chechnya, within the Russian Federation. There are allegations of war crimes. Amnesty International Chief Irene Khan says they include indiscriminate killings, excessive use of force, deaths in custody, torture and ill-treatment in custody, alleged unlawful killings, arbitrary detentions, secret detention, abductions, enforced disappearances, threats to human rights activists, the targeting of relatives of suspected fighters, and the forced evictions of internally displaced people.

Both Moscow and Grozny do not allow human rights groups or foreign journalists to visit any of the trouble spots in the North Caucasus.

The war began with Chechnya’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1991 in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union which comprised 15 states. Chechnya was not a state within the union but a region within Russia. However, Chechnya existed as an independent entity till Peter the Great’s Russia annexed it in 1870. Ever since, Chechens have been rebelling against Russia. During World War II, Josef Stalin evicted millions of Chechens and sent them to Central Asia because of their support for Germany. One million Chechens died during the transfer.

Moscow which did not object to the independence declarations of other states in the Soviet Union, opposed Chechnya’s declaration. For, Chechnya is an important — perhaps the most important — cog in Russia’s strategic wheel.

When rebellion brewed in Chechnya, Moscow sent troops to restore its authority, triggering the first Chechen war which ended in a humiliating defeat for the Russians in 1996. However, Moscow sent troops again to Chechnya in 1999 in response to a series of bombs that went off in Moscow. The rebels claim that the blasts were the handiwork of Russia’s intelligence services and were aimed at sparking the second Chechen war.

Monday’s twin suicide blasts in which some 39 people died is deplorable. True, there was worldwide condemnation of the attacks. But under the veneer of the condemnations lies a vicious truth — that oil-rich Chechnya is the outpost of a cold war between Moscow and Washington. Countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia play a major role in this new cold war. The US and all these countries stand to benefit if Chechnya is freed.

It would be no understatement to say that Chechnya is Russia’s lifeline. It is through a network of pipelines passing through Chechnya that Russia sends its gas and oil to Europe. It is through these pipelines that Caspian states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan export part of their oil and gas to Europe. 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 what the US neocons are probably aiming at. It is all about power politics.

Oil and minerals account for 70 percent of Russia’s foreign exchange earnings. The earnings include revenue from oil transfers through Chechen pipelines. If oil-rich-and-pipeline-carrying Chechnya is cut off from the federation, Russia will not be able to arm-twist neighbouring Ukraine, a pro-West country that depends on Russian oil. Russia regularly uses gas supplies that go through Chechnya as a weapon to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the European Union. Moscow has also hinted at a military invasion if Ukraine joins NATO.

Besides the oil weapon, Russia also maintains its Black Sea Fleet at Ukraine’s Sevastopol base — a facility Ukraine was forced to grant to Russia. As a result, there is no love lost between the two countries. During the 2008 Georgia war, Russia accused Ukraine of supplying weapons to Tbilisi and ever since relations remained strained.

Moscow suspects Ukraine and Georgia with help from the United States and Britain fuel the rebellion in Chechnya.

In September last year Chechen leader Kadyrov, whom the rebels ridicule as Kafir-ov, meaning one who rejects God, told Reuters he had good reason to believe that the US and Britain were covertly aiding the Chechen rebels.

“We are fighting US and British special services in the mountains,” he said and named a slain rebel leader identified as Rizvan Chitigov as a CIA agent.

“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.”

Adding another twist to the intrigue-ridden politics of the region is the new thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations. Pro-Moscow analysts suspect that the protocol which Turkey and Armenia signed last year was aimed at luring the impoverished Armenia away from Russia, because it is through Armenia that the West seeks to lay a shorter and safer oil and gas pipeline route from the Caspian Sea oil fields. Already the West has built two pipelines from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. But Georgia, overlooking Russia, is vulnerable to Moscow’s threats. Therefore, the West believes Armenia, which shares no border with Russia, is a better bet.

Another western ally, Saudi Arabia, is also in the picture. It is believed that Saudi-based Chechen dissidents continue to fund the rebellion. Kadyrov says there is a Saudi agenda in the Chechen war and accuses the rebels of trying to promote Wahhabism, the Saudi version of Islam in the Caucasus.

The Moscow blasts may have shocked the Russians or woken them up from a sense of complacency. But for the people in the North Caucasus, blasts and violence are a daily occurrence. Yesterday, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, a.k.a Dokka Abu Usman, claimed responsibility for the attacks saying they were in retaliation for the February 11 massacre of people in a village called Arshty.

Umarov, whose 20,000-odd followers call him the Emir of the Caucasus, said “he treats with a grin” all those accusations of terrorism, including those made by politicians and journalists, because none of them accused Putin of the massacre of civilians in Arshty.

Vowing more retaliation, he warned the people of Russia that they would no more “idly watch the war in the Caucasus on their TV sets, watch it quietly, with no reaction to excesses and crimes committed by their gangs, which are being sent to the Caucasus under the leadership of Putin”.

With Russian strongman Putin vowing to scrape the rebels from the bottom of the sewers, Chechnya is likely to see more war. It seems the saying one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter has not lost its meaning altogether in the age of war on terror.