Fears of ISIS taking root in Chechnya may be overblown. Despite scattered incidents linked to radicals, Chechnya is mostly oriented toward Russia.
Pictured: President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. Photo: RIA Novosti
On Dec. 17 and 18, a group of gunmen attempted to launch attacks against police in the Chechen capital, Grozny. To neutralize them, the local authorities launched a counter-terrorism operation. Almost immediately, Chechen forces spread a rumor that a local cell of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) was involved in the assault. Ultimately, ISIS itself took responsibility for the attack in Grozny, according to the SITE Intelligence Group website.
That sequence of events might lead some to assume that Chechnya is once again a hotbed of separatism and radical ideology. However, a lot has changed since the Russian anti-separatist campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s. In contrast to the 1990s, events in today's Chechnya rarely make international headlines. The threat of an imminent Soviet collapse is no longer urgent. Yet, the state of affairs in the North Caucasus is still viewed through the lens of the potential risks for Russia and its foreign policy ambitions.
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This drives skepticism about Moscow’s involvement in the Syria conflict, which might put Russia’s interests at odds with the Muslim world. This is despite the fact that this very Muslim world is torn apart by internal conflicts no less divisive than those between the East and the West. Anyway, in the context of Russia’s campaign in Syria, Chechnya and North Caucasus are viewed as Achilles’ heel of Moscow. It’s worth pointing out that representatives of ISIS very often use this thesis in their propaganda materials.
In addition, social activists traditionally mention Chechnya in their reports as an arena for human right violations. Although the republic is not an outstanding example of democracy and does have certain problems with human rights, its gradual integration into the Russian space has been a very complicated process. Moreover, Chechnya’s leadership is acting in an environment of heightened security risks.
Anyway, it’s worth remembering that Chechnya is still the only post-Soviet breakaway republic that was returned back to Russian jurisdiction after it seceded from the federal center. And such a comeback was possible due to the local powers’ loyalty to the vision for a unified Russian state.
Every time Chechnya experiences different incidents (terror attacks, assaults on the republic’s security services, tough counter-terrorist responses, non-politically correct statements by the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov), the question arises: How is this part of the Russian North Caucasus stable today? Do Moscow and the Chechen elites have enough resources to keep the situation under control?
There is no definitive answer to those questions. In terms of whether or not Chechnya experiences armed incidents – the answer is quite obvious: The republic still has security risks.
In this context, the recent assault is not the first case. In October 2016 a young man attacked policemen in the Gudermes area. The attacker was previously detained attempting to go to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS in Syria.
In the same month in the same area during the assault, eight militants (including Ali Demilkhanov, who was on the national “most wanted” list) were terminated. One of the most famous North Caucasus field commanders today is the Chechen Aslan Byutukayev who pledged his alliance to the Islamic State. The U.S. and EU both put him on the sanctions list in summer 2016.
But there is another side of the story. The situation in Chechnya in 2016 cannot be analyzed using certain absolute indicators. In the same way, terrorist attacks and subversive actions in the republic do not give grounds for making far-reaching conclusions about its relative stability.
Apr. 16, 2009 might serve as a starting point. On that day the counter-terrorist regime was canceled in the entire republic. It was active a bit less than 10 years. Its cancellation had many meanings. Not only were 20,000 servicemen from Russia withdrawn from the republic, but also the limitations on movement of the Russian citizens living in Chechnya, both within the country and abroad, were cancelled.
The Grozny airport has been restored and has received the status of an international one. The republic itself has started to position itself as a safe and attractive place for tourists. Certainly, it is too early to talk about Chechnya as the “Caucasian Switzerland”. However, the republic has stopped to be seen in the minds of most Russian citizens as a war zone.
Today, a city break to Grozny is one of the most popular destinations among the resorts of the Caucasus Mineral Waters region, as well as in Mountain Elbrus and Dombai. Not so long ago, Grozny hosted an international soccer game under the aegis of FIFA, where the Russian national team played with the Romanians.
Moreover, the level of street crime in Grozny is among the lowest of all the republics of the North Caucasus. Chechen cities have been rebuilt and the quality of hotel accommodations is not worse than in Russia on average. Daily life is changing significantly as well. Several years ago, it was impossible to imagine a Chechen man becoming a waiter or a bellboy instead of a warrior. Today it is a reality.
As for the terrorist attacks, since April 2009 their frequency in Chechyna and elsewhere is decreasing. Since that time, Dagestan, Ingushetia and even Kabardino-Balkaria have had more incidents than Chechnya.
Thus, there has been a positive dynamic in some republics of the North Caucasus, which have generally reported fewer incidents and victims of terror attacks than in past years. In any case, the violent incidents, terrorist attacks and assaults as well as results of inadequate law enforcement could not be viewed as signs of a full-scale war about to break out.
Apparently, the Chechen model of stabilization has its own costs in the form of a strict managerial vertical and a cult of personality at the highest levels of the republic, in the form of Kadyrov. It should be noted, too, that Russian President Vladimir Putin can be considered part of this cult system – Grozny has an avenue named after Putin, while even Moscow and St. Petersburg do not.
Chechen authorities conduct policies without taking into account public opinion, and they are not willing to accept any criticism. But they are not acting in a vacuum. Rather, they are trying to integrate the region, which has experienced two armed campaigns and multiple cleavages (both along anti- and pro-Russian lines, and within different Muslim groups).
Today, terrorist attacks in Chechnya and in the entire North Caucasus are conducted not with the purpose to separate a region and create a new nation state in it, but to fight for the idea of “pure Islam.” At the same time, secular nationalists are more or less loyal to the existing authority.
Judging by the propaganda materials of the North Caucasus jihadists, they are calling themselves not fighters for the Chechen nation state, but “mujahedine.” They see their struggle as a campaign against kafir (infidels) and munafiq (fake Muslims). In this context, their enemy is not just Putin or Kadyrov, but also Western states and Israel.
Therefore, it is impossible to view Chechnya as a safe haven. It still holds considerable risks and challenges. But at the same time, it is incorrect to argue that nothing has changed over the last 25 years. The threat of secession has decreased, while a new generation of politicians, managers, intellectuals oriented towards Russia has appeared.
On the other hand, the high expenses of the authoritarian modernization model, combined with a lack of flexibility to react to the changing reality, pose another challenge. However, anti-terrorist operations based only on swift enforcement actions and a thin veneer of positive publicity will have far less impact than serious social changes that fundamentally change prospects for the future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.