The Islamic Threat

Friday, October 30, 1998

In mid-January of this year, then deputy prime minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, who oversaw nationality and regional affairs for the Russian government, flatly stated that the Russian Federation had wasted the time that had elapsed since the accords of August 1996, which had put an end to the bloody Russo-Chechen war. Abdulatipov warned that, if there were further delays in restoring the Chechen economic and social infrastructure, then “in one year [extremist Salman] Raduev will come to power in Grozny.” This prediction could be accurate.

How has the Russian leadership “wasted” the year and a half that has passed since the cessation of hostilities? On May 12, 1997, the day the peace treaty was signed by the Russian and Chechen presidents, two high-level agreements were also signed concerning economic cooperation. On the basis of these two accords, another forty-three agreements were subsequently drafted and signed. The Russians have generally failed to implement these forty-three agreements.

President Yeltsin bore witness to the chaotic state of fiscal transfers during his August 1997 meeting with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in Moscow (no meetings between the two have been held since). Yeltsin noted that $138 million had been earmarked for Chechnya but then added, with some bewilderment, that $117 million of that amount had simply disappeared. “The devil only knows where this money is going!” he exclaimed.

The reason Russia needs to honor the numerous economic agreements that it has signed with Chechnya, Abdulatipov and others believe, is the political and social volatility of the Chechen Republic and the possibility that disorder there could destabilize the neighboring autonomous republic of Dagestan. As one Russian official said earlier this year, Chechnya is “emerging with difficulty from a condition of war: 100 percent of its youth are unemployed; as are 80 percent of the male population as a whole, and they possess 90,000 guns.” Unemployed Chechen males, living in a devastated country, become easy prey for radical demagogues.

Especially threatening for the political stability of both Chechnya and adjacent Dagestan are two extremist field commanders: Emir Khattab, a native of Jordan who fought with the Chechens during the recent war, and Salman Raduev, who led an infamous hostage-taking raid on the town of Kizlyar in Dagestan in January 1996. Khattab is a leading figure within the growing Wahhabi Muslim movement in both Chechnya and Dagestan. In December 1997, he conducted a raid on the Dagestani settlement of Buinaksk.

Because of the Wahhabi movement’s pan-Islamic emphasis (it reportedly seeks to unite all Muslims of the North Caucasus region into a single political entity), it is seen as exceptionally dangerous by the Russian, Chechen, and Dagestani authorities.

Even more worrisome has been the rapid rise of Salman Raduev, who is known within Chechnya as the “Chechen Zhirinovsky.” Raduev appeals to citizens of Chechnya unhappy over Russia’s poor track record in honoring the signed economic accords and has been reaching out to the 100,000 Chechen-Akkins who live in the Khasavyurt region of Dagestan, on the border with Chechnya. Many Chechen-Akkins are said to regard themselves as Chechen, not Russian, citizens.

Raduev also serves as the elected general secretary of the “Caucasus Home” forum, which claims to represent thirteen republics and peoples of the Caucasus region. Raduev’s message, in the February 26 edition of Izvestiya, is a simple one: “As long as Russia does not recognize our independence, it is our enemy. And one attempts to destroy an enemy.” He has openly discussed the assassination of leading Russian officials.

Emir Khattab, a native of Jordan, leads the Wahhabi movement, which seeks to unite all Muslims in the region into a single entity.

I began this article by citing former deputy prime minister Abdulatipov’s prediction, made in January of this year, that Raduev could quite plausibly be in power in a year. He could indeed. Consider what happened last February. The then Chechen acting prime minister, Shamil Basaev, attempted to bring Raduev to heel by convoking a large congress of veterans of the recent war with Russia. Addressing the ten thousand veterans who had gathered in a Grozny sports stadium, Basaev contended that Raduev should be required to face trial for claiming credit for the February 9 attempted assassination of Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze. Then Raduev spoke. The veterans gave him a prolonged ovation, making it impossible for Basaev to have Raduev arrested.

In November 1997, President Yeltsin, apparently waking to the reality of looming political dangers in both Chechnya and Dagestan, created a State Commission on Questions of Stabilizing the Situation in Chechnya and on its Development, to be chaired by Abdulatipov. Yeltsin also issued a highly unusual order: The prime minister, all deputy prime ministers, all ministers, and all department heads were to travel to Chechnya and personally acquaint themselves with the situation. Last January, Deputy Prime Ministers Oleg Sysuev and Viktor Khylstun; Irina Khakamada, chairwoman of the State Committee for the Support of Small Business; Minister of Culture Nataliya Dementeva; and the head of the Federal Roads Service, Vitaly Antyukhov, all visited Grozny.

Despite the visit of this small armada of Russian ministers (which has not, to my knowledge, been followed by other such armadas), too much time may already have been lost. Russia’s control over Chechnya and even over the geopolitically key republic of Dagestan, with its invaluable Caspian Sea coastline, is already in question.