[size=24]Mideast Watch: Chechnya and Russian policy
By Mark N. Katz
United Press International
Published August 15, 2005
The Russian Foreign Ministry's virulent criticism of ABC News for broadcasting an interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev indicates how important the war in Chechnya is for Moscow's foreign policy.
Even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Moscow claimed the Chechen rebellion was part and parcel of the worldwide radical Islamic revolutionary movement. Chechen rebels, though, run the spectrum from secular nationalists who seek independence for Chechnya alone, to radical Islamists who do indeed have close ties with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and similar groups. By identifying all Chechen rebels as being closely tied to the broader Islamic revolutionary movement, Moscow has sought to minimize sympathy for the Chechen cause and criticism of Russian actions against it both in the West and in the Muslim world.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and President Vladimir Putin's firm expression of support for the Bush administration's "war on terrorism," the U.S. government has muted its criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya, and has declared various Chechen leaders and groups to be terrorists. By contrast, the French government continued to be more critical of Moscow's Chechen policies (especially the violation of human rights there) even at the height of Moscow's cooperation with Paris and Berlin in seeking to avert a U.S.-led military intervention against Iraq.
Despite the variation in how Western governments view Chechnya, there is also an important degree of uniformity among them. No Western government has been willing to give Moscow what it wants most: give approval for the Russian intervention in Chechnya. On the other hand, no Western government is doing what Moscow fears most either: provide assistance to the Chechen rebels.
The same cannot be said, in Moscow's view, about some countries in the Muslim world. Russian officials have often blamed the continuation of the Chechen rebellion on funding from Muslim countries -- especially Saudi Arabia. Prior to 9/11, these complaints fell on largely deaf ears in the West. With the uproar that developed after 9/11 over 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudi citizens (along with bin Laden and many of his closest collaborators) and over Saudi charities providing massive funds that ended up in the hands of Islamic terrorists, there was suddenly much greater sympathy for Russian concerns on this issue, especially in Washington.
From 9/11 to the end of 2002, Putin himself seemed as if he were trying to worsen Saudi-American relations by publicly reminding President Bush that this was the country from which most of the 9/11 hijackers came from, and by accusing Riyadh of funding terrorism. But in 2003, Moscow began to woo Riyadh in pursuit of, among other goals, Saudi support for Russian membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. While Putin's stated justification for seeking this membership was so that Russia's 20 million Muslims could be represented in the bloc, Moscow's real aim in doing so was to mute criticism from Muslim governments over Russian policy in Chechnya.
At the September 2003 Saudi-Russian summit meeting, though, the Saudi foreign minister indicated Russia might only gain observer status in the OIC. A Russian news account of the summit meeting reported that Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah told Putin that "fulfilling Moscow's wish would be difficult because...the situation in Chechnya remains unresolved, in Riyadh's opinion."
Chechnya also appears to have an impact on Moscow's broader Middle East policy. Russian intervention in Chechnya has not become as much of a cause celebre within the Muslim world as has U.S. support for Israel or even Soviet intervention in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Moscow hopes to keep it this way by frequently expressing its sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause, even though Russia has developed close ties to Israel in recent years. The message Moscow hopes to convey to the Muslim world is that the Chechen cause is not at all the equivalent of the Palestinian cause. In order to do this, Moscow sees keeping Chechen rebels such as Basayev off the airwaves for fear that he will gain a media following like Osama bin Laden or the late Yasser Arafat.
Whatever the success or failure of Moscow's efforts to curtail sympathy and support for the Chechen cause either in the West or in the Muslim world, Moscow has clearly failed to convince the Chechen people of its benign intentions toward them. Until it does, the war will go on -- whether Basayev appears on the evening news or not.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.
World Peace Herald