At the Crossroads of Intense Propaganda Campaigns and Alleged Espionage, Who Can Be Sure How Deep the Much-Touted Rift in the Insurgency Goes and What It Means?
The assault on Chechnya’s Parliament by three gunmen on Tuesday is the second high-profile attack aimed at Ramzan Kadyrov in as many months. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, leaving the door open for intense media speculation about the schism in the North Caucasus insurgency. Many agree with Kadyrov that the brazen attack was masterminded by Khusein Gakayev, the leader of an insurgent splinter group. But with so few independent sources of information, all Tuesday’s raid really shows, is that Kadyrov is way wide of the mark when he claims to have brought peace to the republic.
Three gunmen stormed the Chechen Parliament on Tuesday morning killing six and leaving 17 wounded, in a major challenge to Ramzan Kadyrov’s claim that the restive Russian republic is under control. The first insurgent blew himself up in front of the building just before 9 a.m., as lawmakers were arriving at work. He was followed by two rebels who burst into the foyer spraying bullets from machine guns while shouting “Alahu Akbar.” Visiting lawmakers from Yekaterinburg hid on the top floor of the Parliament while a gunfight ensued between the rebels and security forces before both insurgents blew themselves up.
No group has claimed responsibility. The attack coincided with a visit to Grozny by Interior Minister and General of the Russian Army Rashid Nurgaliyev, who played down the significance of the suicide raid on Grozny’s Parliament. “Chechnya is safe and stable,” Vedomosti quoted Nurgaliyev as saying.
Body parts and hair samples were collected from the bloody battle scene and have been sent for analysis. Yesterday, one of the insurgents was identified as 22-year-old Muslim Chichkanov from Chechnya, the Caucasian Knot reported. The other two remain unidentified.
The apparent lack of information did not stop Kadyrov from quickly pointing the finger of blame at Chechen rebel fighter Gakayev and Chechen Emissary in London Akhmed Zakayev. Accusing them of coordinating the attack, Kadyrov called the latter an “alcoholic” who would be tracked down and killed in a blood feud vowed by the relatives of the deceased.
In an interview with Echo of Moscow radio Zakayev categorically denied involvement, condemned the attack on the Parliament and also said that he has had no contact with Gakayev. Last week Zakayev formally dissolved the Ichkerian government headed by him in exile, and publically transferred his (virtual) authority to Gakayev, who is now thought to be in charge of a splinter group of what is an increasingly opaque and muddled insurgency.
Gakayev, along with Chechen rebel leaders Aslambek Vadalov and Tarkhan Gaziyev, posted a video on the republic’s rebel Web site, Daymohk.org, renouncing their allegiance to Umarov. This comes after Umarov mysteriously stepped down as leader of the pan-Caucasian Islamic insurgency on the grounds of ill health, only to reverse his decision in a new video posted days later. Umarov, they said, was preoccupied with his aim of creating a pan-Caucasian Islamic caliphate and had lost sight of Chechnya’s separatist goals.
Umarov, for his part, claims that his initial resignation was “fabricated,” and blames the supposed schism in the insurgency on Mukhanad, an influential Arab militant in the North Caucasus, who he says has been spreading dissension. The picture that emerges is incoherent and further muddied by the Russian secret services’ vested interests in dividing the insurgency.
Nonetheless, Gakayev’s move has sparked intense media debate about whether his more ethno-national and separatist insurgency will appeal more to young disillusioned Chechens than the radical Islamism advocated by Doku Umarov since 2007. The Russian media squarely blames Tuesday’s raid on Gakayev, who is supposedly trying to impose his authority on the insurgency with a series of high-profile attacks, but some analysts are wary of simply accepting this version, even more so as it is being promoted by Kadyrov and the secret services.
“I just don’t understand these videos,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s secret services and the Caucasus. “We have only explanations provided by the Kommersant [news daily], and as far as I can see they have one source of information…I cannot understand why they have decided that this is another part of the insurgency. What’s the source? It’s the secret services and Kadyrov again.”
Not only is it impossible to pin down the shifting sands of the North Caucasus insurgency with the available sources, but it is also wrong to simply rule out Umarov as the insurgent heavyweight, even in Chechnya, warned Soldatov. When Umarov, who claimed responsibility for the Moscow metro bombings in March, dismissed Gakayev, Gaziyev and Vadalov on September 21, he was still flanked in the video post by influential rebel leaders (“emirs”) Abu Supyan, Khamzat and Islam. “The security services and Kadyrov have an interest in talking up this dispute and talking about Chechens who are not that close to Doku Umarov. To me it’s strange – Doku Umarov is still backed by Supyan and he is a very important guy – he is a Chechen. There are so many questions – but no answers,” said Soldatov.
No clear strategy
Tuesday’s attack really only confirms that the situation in Chechnya is not, as Kadyrov says, “peaceful and stable,” and has worsened since April 2009 when federal security forces officially ended the Russian counterterrorist regime. And Nurgaliyev’s “business as usual” nonchalance after the attack on the Parliament did little to stop the Russian media drawing precisely that conclusion. Yesterday’s Vedomosti editorial charges that Moscow has no “clear strategy” on dealing with the Caucasus beyond throwing money at it and estimates that 800 billion rubles ($26 billion) have been poured into the region in the last eight years.
There has been little success for the North Caucasus Federal District, formed in January this year and headed by Alexander Khloponin, an experienced business manager who it was hoped would lend his expertise to the troubled region. Some argue the lawlessness and the simmering tensions have spread beyond the most restive republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya to new members of the North Caucasus Federal District. A wave of crime and racial attacks have swept over the southern Stavropol Territory, ever since it was included in the new federal district, say Stavropol locals. A week-old online petition has already collected over 10,700 votes in favor of leaving the restive region.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who founded his political career on a platform to defeat separatism and terrorism in the region, announced on September 30 that he will head a new commission to oversee the volatile North Caucasus, RIA Novosti reported. Putin’s backing could improve the climate for investment in the region, but until widespread unemployment, particularly among the younger generations, endemic corruption and widespread human rights abuses are tackled head on, young men will simply continue to “go to the forest” and join the rebels. “Now we are seeing the second generation of insurgent fighters,” said Soldatov.
The Caucasian Knot reports that there have been 12 suicide bombings in the North Caucasus in the last ten months. Tuesday’s attack, which Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, described as a “slap in the face for Kadyrov,” is the second recent attack to combine guerrilla fighting with suicide bombings, echoing the August 29 attack on Tsenteroi, Kadyrov’s hometown, which left 19 dead.
Analysts doubt that the clock is ticking for regional head Kadyrov, but for a leader whose popularity in Moscow is based on the island of stability that he was supposed to turn Chechnya into, these high-profile attacks are a direct affront on the republic leader’s credentials.