Trust, But Verify
by Stephen Schwartz
AMERICANS MAY ENJOY the spectacle of Russian president Vladimir Putin chowing down with President Bush in Crawford, Texas, and take comfort in the knowledge that the old standoff between two continent-sized foes has well and truly ended. But we still have reason for caution in dealing with Russia.
President Putin has striven to convince our leaders that the Russians have a special understanding of Islamic extremism. In making this case, Russians point to their conflict with the Chechens--those fractious, troublesome, Caucasian mountain folk, a few of whom reporters have detected in the ranks of Muslim volunteers fighting for the Taliban.
It is certainly true that Russia's relations with Muslims have been more intimate than ours, but they have not been benign. Russia has at least 20 million Muslims within its borders; and it has a long history of involvement with the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, now independent countries and our newfound allies. Since the days of the tsars, Moscow's role in the Islamic lands has been that of colonial conqueror, patron of geopolitical intrigue, and sometime architect of brutal repression. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in other words, was no anomaly; it was the latest in a long series of eastward ventures. And if there is a Muslim people whose experience with the Russians has been exceptionally bitter, it is the Chechens.
Islam came late to Chechnya, in the 18th century, imported from the south by Sufi missionaries. From the north, meanwhile, tsarist armies seeking to expand the Russian empire seized the area from Persia. The Caucasian Muslims, led by Sufis, continued to resist the Russians for years and defeated them in battle after battle. Although the area was eventually pacified, the Russians never forgot their humiliation. Almost a hundred years later, in 1944, Joseph Stalin, himself from the Caucasus but an intense Russian nationalist, worked revenge on the Chechens, deporting them en masse (low estimates of the number begin at 350,000) to the deserts of Kazakhstan.
This history helps explain the Chechens' restiveness under Russian rule. Beginning in the 1950s, the deportees were allowed to return to their homeland, but they remained outsiders in the eyes of Russians, who regarded them as "chyorny," or "blacks." And when communism began collapsing, the old conflict between Russians and Chechens reemerged, this time with a new pretext.
Moscow needed a cultural enemy, an "other" useful in mobilizing the masses behind the rulers at a time of economic chaos and profound uncertainty. In the past, the scapegoat had been the Jews, but attacking them was no longer possible. Muslims, especially Chechens, seemed to fill the bill. This, and this alone, explains the willingness of post-Communist leaders in Russia to commit blood and treasure--not to mention police provocation, disinformation, bribery, and the martyrdom of countless innocents--to wars in Chechnya. There is nothing Russia needs in Chechnya except a symbolic foe, a hereditary enemy to replace the Jews, Catholics, and Turks of the past.
Putin seems unable to walk away from this dance of death. Now, he is seeking to use the global anti-terror effort to gain American backing for Russia's continued occupation of Chechnya. And in this he is abetted by extremists from the Muslim world. Around 1996, agents of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi sect began flooding the Caucasus with preachers, money, and arms. Soon a man called Khattab, sometimes described as a Saudi and sometimes as a Jordanian, appeared on the scene, apparently an ally or agent of al Qaeda, sent from Afghanistan to try to do to Chechnya what Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were in the process of doing to that country.
The emergence of Wahhabism in the Caucasus split families and villages, as the ultrapuritans from Arabia agitated for adoption of sharia punishments, a ban on music, the covering of women, and above all the rejection of Sufism, the spiritual tradition that was the historic vessel of Caucasian resistance. This development fractured the Chechen national movement.
In 1999, Khattab and his Wahhabis launched incursions into neighboring Dagestan, which made resolution of the Chechen relationship with Russia ever more remote. In the past year, the Wahhabis have coldly assassinated many local Chechen leaders--low level state functionaries, Muslim clerics, and so on. The Russians disingenuously blame these killings on the anti-Wahhabi, pro-Western Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov. For their part, a great many Russians and Chechens believe Putin's secret police, the KGB in new uniforms, work hand in glove with the Wahhabis to undermine the mainstream Chechen leadership.
Putin does not come to us with clean hands in dealing with Muslims, and in our new effort to gain Muslim allies and supporters Americans can only harm our cause by appearing to sign off on the continued mistreatment of a small, isolated people. For the sake of American credibility, the Bush administration should keep a close watch on Russian mischief in the Caucasus and should protest every abuse. At the same time, it should dramatically improve our relationship with mainstream, traditional Chechens--who have repeatedly offered us their help in beating bin Laden, help that we have scorned only to our detriment.