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Islam Rises From Chechnya’s Ashes

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An Online Exclusive from the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue 

By Michael Zelenko

There is a new Grozny today. Nine years ago, the United Nations declared the capital of Chechnya “the most destroyed city in the world,” and given the situation on the ground that was scarcely hyperbole. A ruthless campaign to quell a separatist movement had gutted whole apartment buildings and neighborhoods, leaving their entrails strewn across abandoned Grozny streets. In large parts of the city, all vestiges of infrastructure had been erased, replaced with a lunar landscape of shell-blow craters. Explosions rocked the city and much of the nearby countryside on virtually a daily basis. The government headquarters was destroyed in a bombing that killed 70 people in December 2002. A hastily-built substitute was attacked six months later, adding three dozen names to a list of victims that would stretch over two wars and number in the hundreds of thousands.

Compare that with Grozny 2012. A construction boom has replaced destroyed avenues with tree-lined lanes, cafes, and pizza shops; cranes have replaced craters. “The previously flat skyline is taking on the taste of Dubai, with a clutch of soaring skyscrapers and one of the largest mosques on the continent,” writes Mark Mackinnon for The Globe and Daily Mail in the spring of 2012. Indeed, the baroquely ornate Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque—officially known as the “Heart of Chechnya” —stands in glaring contrast to the Grozny of ten years past. Meanwhile, attacks in Chechnya have dropped dramatically. President Kadyrov insists somewhat convincingly that only a handful of rebels remain, holed up in the region’s southern mountains.

How did a country in the throes of such chaos attain relative peace in a span of ten years? In her recent reportage for World Policy Journal, Judith Matloff suggests a two-part answer here, and in many other would-be separatist regions—autonomy and economic prosperity. In her piece “Basque-ing in Peace” for the fall 2012 issue of World Policy Journal, Matloff illustrates how this two-pronged approach has quelled separatist movements from Spain to Iraq to Nicaragua, effectively undermining the very root of insurrectionist movements. As Matloff writes, “Full employment and a full belly can go a long way towards defusing discontent.”

But recent alarming developments suggest that beyond marginalizing separatists, Chechnya’s autonomy from Russia is also conveniently veiling grave abuses and providing a carte blanche for radicalization.

Most secessionist movements—whether in Russia, Mexico, Turkey or China—share a similar profile—a geographically isolated homeland, strong threats to a cultural and social identity, and grievances that stretch back generations. Chechnya is the archetypal example. Spread across the Caucusus, the Chechens have been subjugated by Russians for hundreds of years. During the 1940s, Stalin was particularly cruel to the Chechens, accusing them of betrayal in World War II and sending the entire population on a forced exile to Siberia, costing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. Meanwhile, the practice of religion was outlawed in Chechnya, as it was in the rest of the Soviet Union.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia lost a war to keep Chechnya under its thumb in the mid-1990s. Humiliated, a resurgent Moscow opted for a different approach—embarking on the second Chechen War under Putin which officially took place between 1999 and 2000 but unofficially went on many years after that. Instead of Russians fighting Chechens, Moscow would employ Chechens to fight Chechens, thereby converting a separatist war into a de facto civil conflict. This process, known as Chechenization, worked astoundingly well. If peace was established—Moscow vowed—Chechnya would rule itself in almost any way it liked. Akhmad Kadyrov, then an insurgent leader, sensed a sea change and joined the Russian side in 1999, bringing a large number of fighters with him. As the war progressed, the brutal village “sweeps” that often left dozens dead or missing were increasingly carried out by Chechens, not Russians. Under Kadyrov’s command—with the assistance of Russian military forces—separatists were beaten back to the mountains. When a bomb strapped under his seat killed Akhmad Kadyrov, his son Ramzan took control, eventually being elected prime minister and president of Chechnya.

In return for quelling the separatist movement, the Kadyrov regime was granted free rein internally—the ‘autonomy’ component of Judith Matloff’s recipe for undermining separatists. Islam, so long suppressed here, was now heavily promoted. Not only was the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque commissioned, but Ramzan declared that under his rule, Chechnya would be “more Islamic than the Islamists.” In order to combat hold-out anti-Kadyrov rebels, Ramzan recently convened a conference of Islamic scholars who provided a state-sanctioned definition of jihad that dismissed the aims of the mountain fighters.

Meanwhile, the Russians have been providing the second ingredient so critical to quelling separatism: economic investment. When asked who financed the revival of Islam in Chechnya in an interview for The Daily Beast in October 2010, Kadyrov said:

“Me, my friends, people we know—we all put together money. Businessmen help. Moscow gives us some money for muftis’ salaries. This is necessary for Chechnya, as without Islamic teachers we would never have managed to bring order here. Our military units would never be able to win against terror without religion.”

A 2007 report indicated that apartment buildings were being renovated thanks to the federal government at no charge to residents or local governments. Infrastructure, schools, and hospitals were all constructed with Russian funds. Indeed, over 90 percent of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow’s coffers. This kind of intense financial support is absolutely necessary to the republic’s cohesion, Usman Rassukhanov, the republic’s finance ministry told the Russian news agency Izvestia, adding that there was no viable taxation base within Chechnya.

That people are living better today than they did 10 years is further proof that in one sense, the autonomy approach “is working quite well” here, says Matloff. “There’s a strong sense that people have control of their own destiny.” There’s little doubt the tactic has effectively created a safer and more stable Chechnya for many. In conversation, Emma Gilligan, author of Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War, says that economic stability “gives people a sense of security from day-to-day. Under no circumstance can we underestimate that effect after ten years of war.”

But at what expense has stability come to Chechnya? Certainly, advocates of human rights and free speech live in Grozny in constant fear. Gilligan says, “There are no means of judicial redress. Activists need to be rotated in and out because of safety concerns. People are concerned about speaking and giving information.” Memorial, the Moscow-based human rights organization documenting abuse in Chechnya, shuttered its Grozny office when one of its activists, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped and killed. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Memorial’s executive committee member Alexander Cherkasov said, “In her last reports, Natalya [Estemirova] gave information about how they burn down the houses of people thought to be relatives of militants or how they carry out public executions—unprecedented in the past 10 years in Chechnya—and other crimes.” Estemirova is just one in a list of human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists to lose their lives for documenting abuses in Chechnya. “If you’re a human rights activist, your life is in peril [in Chechnya],” says Matloff.

Meanwhile, as the country rushes to tie itself ever more closely to Islam, observers are becoming concerned with women’s new status in society. Gilligan says, “Women have no power or say about the direction of their society.” Indeed, President Kadyrov’s recent remarks suggest serious cause for alarm. In an article titled “Chechen Women in Mortal Fear as President Backs Islamic Honor Killings” for The Washington Times in the summer of 2012, Diana Markosian observes that dozens of women’s bodies have been found dumped in the streets of Grozny and surrounding forests. In response to the killings, President Kadyrov has publicly suggested that the women had “loose morals” and were rightfully shot by their male relatives. While some women are regularly kidnapped off streets and forced into marriage, by tradition, others are beaten within their homes with no recourse to the court of law, in contradiction to the Russian constitution.

Although Islamicization was an unofficial priority at the outset, in the last few years, the process has accelerated. Despite the Russian federation’s supposed separation of Church and State, Islam is now taught in all schools, where strict dress codes are enforced. By government decree, women must wear headscarves, long sleeves, and cover their knees in public and in government buildings. Gender segregation and polygamy are becoming commonplace. Those that don’t adhere to the laws suffer harassment, reports Human Rights Watch. “It’s tough for people who don’t observe Sharia law,” says Matloff. Emma Gilligan sums it up: “[The Russians] fought against radical extremists and they’ve ended up with extremism all their own.”

Whether these conditions will improve as the country matures is hard to forecast—the country is only now stabilizing after many years of war. But it’s clear that Kadyrov and Putin need each other now as much as ever. For Putin—facing unrest at home—a pacified Chechnya is critical. And with the Sochi Olympics located just 200 miles from Chechnya’s border fast approaching, peace in the region is a matter of national pride. Meanwhile for Kadyrov, Moscow’s pocketbook is a life-sustaining resource. Without the funds, says Emma Gilligan, “the Kadyrov regime would shatter.”

Under the veil of autonomy, Chechnya is re-emerging wealthy, bold, and self-assured. For now, a relative peace hangs over the polished avenues and cafes of Grozny—Matloff’s thesis of stability by way of self-rule and investment is holding. But dark and ominous questions blanket this once-shattered country: Who’s truly paying for the price of peace in Chechnya, and at what cost?

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Michael Zelenko is a World Policy Journal editorial assistant.

[Photo: Diana Markosian. To see more of Diana Markosian's Chechnya work for World Policy Journal, see our spring 2012 issue.]

(PDFs of World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGESubscribe to WPJ here)

 

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