The Chechen peace agreement of August 1996 left the question of Ichkeria’s political status to be resolved within five years. This diplomatic fudge was differently interpreted by the various parties involved. Aleksandr Lebed,Boris Yeltsin’s special envoy to Chechenya, repeatedly asserted that the question needed no discussion because Russia’s territorial integrity was not subject to negotiation. Aslan Maskhadov, then the Chechen chief-of-staff, who had led the Chechen negotiating, saw things rather differently: "Chechenya does not need to secede," he said, "because Chechenya has never been part of Russia."
At the time, both sides were happy to ignore the differences in order to end the conflict. But it was clear that the Russians were unlikely to let the agreement last for the full five years without acting to strengthen their position before the question came up again. The fact that they should now try to re-establish at least partial control over their former colony should, therefore, surprise no one. The full scope of the operation remains to be seen. It seems more likely that Moscow hopes to cut the northern part of the country off from the mountainous south, where the mujahideen have always prospered during their centuries of operations against Russian rule, than that they hope to occupy the whole country; but it is not inconceivable that they would make all the same mistakes again. If that happens, the Chechens are probably in for another long and bloody struggle to go with those they have already suffered at Russian hands.
The question is why, if some sort of Russian action could be expected before the five-year period ran out, the Chechens were not better prepared. Some Muslims have suggested that the Chechen experience follows the common Muslim pattern of ‘winning the war, then losing the peace’. There are certainly similarities with the situation in Afghanistan, particularly in the evident differences between different mujahideen leaders and their followers, and their reluctance to cede full authority to the government of Aslan Maskhadov.
However, this is not as great a problem as some have suggested. Maskhadov has been accused by other Chechen leaders of weakness in his dealings with the Russians, and of wanting to establish a western-style secular state rather than an Islamic state. This reflects the debates about the nature of state and society all over the Muslim world. Maskhadov is a Russian-educated former Red Army officer who is used to working within a rigid, authoritarian state system. Other mujahideen leaders are more traditional in their outlook, committed to Islam and seeing Maskhadov as one among many community elders. These different perspectives inevitably led to political problems when the Chechens established a government, culminating in the opposition’s setting-up an unofficial ‘mekh khhel’ (shura council) in February this year and threatening to depose Maskhadov. However, reluctant to destabilise the country, and aware of the constant threat from Russia, the opposition had the maturity to stop short of a direct confrontation, even though Maskhadov proved intransigent. The Russians must hope that the Chechens are weakened by these differences; it is just as likely, however, that fighting the common Russian enemy will held draw the Chechens closer together.
As important as internal factors has been the reluctance of other Muslim countries to support Ichkeria - not one has formally recognised it. The pro-western Muslim regimes are unable to go against the west’s position, while the Islamic governments in Iran and Sudan have perhaps been too involved with the challenges of trying to establish Islamic social order in their own countries and surviving in a hostile international environment. From the former the lack of support is inevitable; from the latter it is disappointing but perhaps understandable.
In fact, it was inevitable that the Chechens would have to fight again for their freedom, because the Russians, defeated locally, remain part of a dominant and aggressive western civilization. Only when the balance of power is changed at the global level, by the establishment of powerful and united Islamic states in the Muslim heartlands, and thus a dominant Islamic presence in international affairs, will it be possible for conflicts like that of Chechenya, and other Islamic movements on the frontiers of Islam, to be finally and justly resolved.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999