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Chechens can rightly take pride in their long struggle for independence

Shameema Ismail

President Aslan Maskhadov of Ichkeria (formerly Chechenya), was greeted with much respect at a conference in Washington DC from August 7-10. The Chechen president had cause to be proud of his people’s valiant struggle against heavy odds. The conference was organised by the Naqshbandi Sufis who have a strong presence in the Caucasus region.

Ichkeria celebrated its second anniversary on August 31. The Caucasus Republic gained independence after 200 years of struggle against Russian occupation. The Chechens now have an Islamic State with Shari’ah laws.

To fully appreciate the legacy of two centuries of struggle, ultimately resulting in freedom of the Chechen people requires an historical overview of the North Caucasus region.

The first phase, 1783-1824, was the beginning of Russia’s systematic offensive against the North Caucasians. Disunited linguistically and socially they appeared doomed. However, Sheikh Mansur Ushurman, a Chechen Naqshbandi sheikh, managed to unite most of them - from Chechenya and North Dagestan to Kuban - and engage them in jihad against the Russians.

In 1785, Sheikh Mansur’s warriors encircled and completely annihilated an important Russian force on the bank of the Sunja River, the worst ever defeat inflicted on the armies of Catherine II, the Russian queen. At the time, the Naqahbandi Sufis did not have deep roots and the Russians crushed the resistance in 1791. Sheikh Mansur was captured and confined in Schlusselburg Prison where he died in 1793.

The Naqshbandis disappeared from the North Caucasus but its heir, the Murid movement, launched a more organized resistance. From 1791, Russian genocide campaigns led by generals such as Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov continued unabated. Ermolov had subjugated Dagestan and his arrogance made him confident of a twin success in Chechenya. He was cruel and brutal and he wanted to strike terror in the hearts of Chechens. He ordered families to be killed in their homes, surrounding villages and slaughtering its inhabitants - men, women and children. The captured women were sold as slaves or distributed among Russian officers.

‘The whole art of Russian government,’ wrote an Austrian diplomat ‘is in its use of violence.’ Ermolov was fired in 1827, but his devastating punitive expeditions only strengthened the Chechens. They joined the Sufi order which united and led them in their long struggle against Russia. During this time the Ottoman Empire, which was the seat of Muslim authority, did not intervene and it seemed that the North Caucasus region was once again doomed.

The next phase, from 1824-1922, was the time of the ghazawat, or Islamic military expeditions. During this period the North Caucasians underwent a radical change. The feudal system was replaced by clans and free peasant societies (uzden) and the tariqah (the sufi orders) provided a new ideology that became deeply implanted among the population. Unity based on the Shari’ah as opposed to the customary law of the adat, was created. Arab culture and language spread and the neighbouring Ingush people were reverted to Islam in the 1860s.

The Murid movement and Sheikh Shamil’s Imamate (1824-1859) brought the clannic mountain society to withstand fierce battles in 1877-8 and again in 1920-21. In 1922 the North Caucasus was finally subjugated and seemingly pacified. Sheikh Shamil was condemned to long years of dreary exile in Kalugu from 1859 onwards and denied permission to migrate to Makkah until old age.

Unlike others, the Chechen and Ingush people have proved quite resilient. They survived the second world war and their deportation to death camps during Stalin’s time. One of the reasons attributed to their survival in death camps was the strong organizational presence of the Sufi Tariqat in their ranks.

The final phase was from 1922-1996. In December 1994 despite its humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, the Russian army invaded Chechenya. The Afghans were aided by outside forces; unfortunately the Chechens had to fight alone. Their past experiences, however, strengthened them in the struggle to reject Russian rule and preserve their identity.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin imposed an economic blockade to thwart the Chechens’ bid for independence. Moscow supported an armed rebellion of former communists against the government in Chechenya. These forces were repeatedly beaten back and hundreds of Russian soldiers were captured. Now Moscow launched an open assault on Grozny, the Chechen capital. Russian defence minister Pavel Grachev, in his arrogance, like Ermolov in the last century, underestimated the perseverence and determination of the Chechens and boasted that all will be over in ‘two weeks.’

After 21 months of indiscriminate bombing of Chechen towns and villages, leaving 80,000 people - mostly civilians - dead, and at least half the people turned into refugees, the Russians fled. In a series of brilliantly planned operations, the Chechens comprising 5000 highly-trained men and 30,000 volunteers, demonstrated that they could defeat the 40,000-strong Russian army equipped with the most lethal weapons of warfare.

Like Sheikh Shamil before him, Chechen president Dzokhar Dudayev (1944-1996) refused to submit to Moscow. The Kermlin was forced to sign a treaty recognising Chechenya’s separate identity. Dudayev was adamant that the state of war must formally end and Russian troops withdraw from Chechenya but before these were realized, Dudayev was martyred in a Russian missile attack on April 21,1996. His final words as he lay dying were: ‘Do not give up the work begun. See it through to the end. Allah will give you victory.’

Following an interim government headed by Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev, fresh elections were held in Chechenya on January 27, 1997. Aslan Mashkadov, commander of Chechenya’s forces, was the clear winner.

The Khasavyurt agreement signed on August 31,1996, recognizes Ichkeria’s autonomous status but calls for a five-year delay in declaring independence in return for Moscow paying war reparations to rebuild Chechenya. Russia has not paid anything so far. Chechens estimate the damage to their infrastructure and economy to be more than $100 billion. This stalling is both political and economic. Russia wants to break Ichkeria’s will for independence, as it would serve as a catalyst for other non-Russian regions within the Russian federation.

Moscow is hoping to re-integrate Ichkeria into Russia by economic and other means. By withholding financial support, Ichkeria is prevented from starting its post-war reconstruction. It is also being destabilized by encouraging the Cossacks of the South Russian region to demand parts of Ichkeria.

It is surprising that the Russians have repeated the same mistakes for over 200 years. They have consistently underestimated the Chechens’ determination whose victory will remain both a symbol of Russia’s political and moral failure and a hope for other mujahideen globally.

This is a modern-day version of the story of David and Goliath.

Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 13

Jumada' al-Ula' 10, 14191998-09-01

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