Islamist Rebels And The Volatile Story Of Chechnya

Chechnya is a small, mountainous region in the southwest of Russia that has been claiming independence since it was conquered in the 18th century.

Most of the population are ethnic Chechens and believers of Sunni Islam. However, the region has been part of Russia for more than 200 years.

In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya declared independence as a republic separate from Russia. Three years later, however, the Russian army invaded the region and 20-month war ensued, leaving over 100,000 dead, according to the BBC.

A peace pact was signed in 1996, but in late 1999 Russian troops returned at the behest of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The subsequent combat left the capital city Grozny flattened and chased separatist forces into hiding, from which they pursued guerilla warfare.

Map of Russia with Chechnya in red, Moscow in blue. Courtesy of TUBS via Wikimedia Commons. Modified by Curiousmatic.

Why the conflict is happening

Chechens and Russians have been fighting since the early 18th century, when Russian troops encountered Muslim tribes in the area as part of their conquest of the greater Caucasus region that Chechnya is part of, according to the Public Broadcast Service (PBS).

While imperial Russia’s superior military was victorious by the mid-18th century, a Chechen cleric declared holy war on the tsar and his army, resulting in a guerrilla war that would rage intermittently for a century.

A decades-long campaign was waged in the middle of the 19th century, which was successful until Russia’s loss in the Crimean War freed up troops that could suppress the rebellion, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

During the 20th century, Chechnya enjoyed a semi-autonomous status as a Soviet republic, which came to an end during World War II, when Stalin deported almost the entire population to Kazakhstan and Russia, claiming they were allied with the Nazis. They were not allowed back until 1953, and an estimated 200,000 Chechens died during exile, according to PBS.

The Soviet subsequently suppressed the Chechen practice of Islam, not allowing the rebuilding of many mosques until the late ‘70s, PBS says. Despite this, the region saw an uneasy calm until the collapse of the USSR.

Following this, the conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s saw a series of deadly terrorist attacks by Chechens, including bombings of public places, both remotely and through suicide bombers, as well as large-scale hostage taking, according to the Council on Foregin Relations.

What the different claims are

From the Chechen separatist perspective, the region is culturally unique, different both ethnically, religiously, and lingually from the Russians.

They also never agreed to be part of Russia until 2003, when a referendum recognizing federal control from Moscow was voted in. Western observers denounced the elections as unfair, according to The Telegraph.

Russia, however, sees the region as an integral part of their territory, as it has been since it was conquered – it’s no more or less legitimate than any other Russian imperial conquests.

Moscow also has interests in the region. It’s rich with oil, and losing Chechnya could mean a reduction of influence with neighboring Azerbaijan, which is also oil-rich, according to a paper written for the University of Colorado at Boulder.

What could happen

In 2009, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared the end of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya, formally ending Russia’s war in the region, according to the Guardian.

It’s now ruled by President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who is now a close ally to Putin. Since he became president in 2007, he has helped suppress separatism in the region, the BBC reports, often through violent means such as kidnapping, torture, and unlawful execution.

However, hardline rebels, some of which are seeking to establish a separate Islamist state, are still active, according to a report by Reuters.

While Russia has been stepping away from the conflict since 2009, it continues internally between rebels and the Kadyrov government.

Some Russians worry, however, that this “Chechenization” of the conflict has gone too far, giving Kadyrov the same level of power and independence that rebel leaders dreamed of, according to the Guardian.

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Ole Skaar