he Kremlin has launched the latest phase in its four-year-old plan to “tame Chechnya.” Having killed almost a quarter of the Chechen people and driven nearly half of the remaining into exile, the Russian leadership is preparing a presidential election designed to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to a regime made exclusively of Moscow’s minions.
The program, presented as a “chechenization” of the conflict, started last March with a constitutional referendum. Preoccupied with the war in Iraq, the international community paid little attention to the exercise, which produced the usual 99.99-percent approval for the text proposed by Moscow. Needless to say, the text that deprives the Chechens of many of the basic rights that they had enjoyed, at least on paper, throughout the Soviet era, including the right to self determination.
Now the conventional wisdom is that Moscow is holding a presidential election to legitimize the rule of Ahmad Qadyrov the former mufti of Chechnya who has been Russia’s front man in Grozny for the past two years. Although presenting himself as “man of God”, Qadyrov, has raised a private army that has already established a record of murder, rape, and plunder in the parts of the country controlled by the Russian army. Backed by a group of Russian businessmen and a string of other shady characters, Qadyrov is spending big money trying to buy friends and, ultimately, votes. With a Kalashnikov in one hand and a copy of the Koran in another, Qadyrov looks like a living caricature of the Chechens as drawn by Russian imperialists in the 19th century.
There is, however, no guarantee that Russian President Vladimir Putin will want to keep the mufti-turned-politician in Grozny for another four years.
Putin is trying to use the presidential election as a means of dividing the Chechen people so that, busy fighting one another, they would have no time to pursue their dream of self determination.
The first division started over four years ago when a group of ambitious adventurers, led by Shamil Bashaev, and backed by Arab money and “volunteers,” took up arms against the democratic government of President Aslan Mashhadov. Now the Russian are trying to divide the Chechens on the basis of religion as well. Branding all their opponents as Wahhabis, the Russians hope to mobilize the traditional Sufi fraternities who have dominated Chechnya since it converted to Islam in the 16th century.
Applying the divide-and-rule doctrine, Moscow is encouraging — and in some cases financing — the candidacy of several clan chiefs and Sufi pirs in the hope of preventing the emergence of any big bloc of Chechen voters. By the latest count there are 12 candidates, a number that could increase before the applications close this week.
Moscow may well be planning to drop Qadyrov, who is so unpopular that he can hardly venture out of his palace in Grozny without Russian bodyguards. In his place, Moscow may wish to see someone like Hussein Jabrailov, whose family owns a chain of hotels in the Russian capital. Another possible successor to Qadyrov is Aslan Aslankhanov, who has been Chechnya’s representative in the Russian parliament, the Duma, and a member of Putin’s United Russia party. Finally, Putin may wish to see Malik Saidallahyev, one of the richest businessmen in Moscow, as the next president of Chechnya.
The electoral show organised by Moscow is partly based on the hope that the United States and its allies, occupied with the global war against terror, will look the other way as Russian colonial rule is re-imposed on Chechnya. But this sham election is unlikely to bring peace to Chechnya. The candidates already in the field are hardly able to venture out without an escort of Russian tanks and helicopter gunship.
Chechnya’s legitimate President Mashahadov is not expected to put his stamp of approval on a fraudulent election in which a few thousand armed men will cast ballots for half a million dead or exiled Chechens. The absence of international observers, who were present when Mashhadov was elected, will deprive the exercise of real legitimacy.
While there can be no democracy without elections, it is perfectly possible to have elections without democracy. This was the case throughout the Soviet era and is the case in Russian-occupied Chechnya today.
Some Europeans and Americans have been hoodwinked into seeing the Chechen conflict through Moscow’s eyes. They see the Chechens as a nation of hard line Wahhabists bent on winning independence through violence and terror.
A majority of Chehens, however, belong to the Malekite school of Sunni Islam and have a strong Sufi tradition that dates back to the early stages of Islamicization in the region. Nor do most Chechens want a complete break from Russia. They know that, landlocked as their country is, they cannot survive as a self-contained enclave in the Caucasus. All they want is the implementation of the accords signed by Mashahdov and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin more than five years ago.
The Russian federation is a mosaic of over 100 small, medium, and big nations. There are the Tatars, the Bashkir, the Udmurt, the Koumi, the Chuvache, the Morve, the Mari, the Yaqut, the Nenet, the Premen, the Ossete, the Ingush, the Daghestani, the Charkess, the Koriak, the Kalmuk, and many more.
Most of these minority nationalities are Muslims. And almost all have succeeded in working out a modus vivendi within the Russian federation. So, why should Chechnya be the exception?
The answer is that Putin has turned the crushing of Chechnya into a matter of personal honor. He believes that he would win a second presidential term only if he offers the head of Chechnya on a silver platter. On a number of occasions he has said that the war in Chechnya has become “a personal matter” for him.
There is no doubt that Russia must be allowed to play a leading role in international politics. But this should not come at the expense of a small and brave nation that is asking for nothing more than is enjoyed by so many other constituent nations of the federation.
The U.S. and the European Union, along with the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), must stop the forthcoming election farce in Chechnya and, instead, offer a forum for talks between Moscow and the true representatives of the Chechen people to seek a peaceful solution to this savage war.
— Amir Taheri is an Iranian expert on Middle Eastern affairs and an NRO contributor. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.