We are still stunned here about events in Beslan. The best report about the hostage taking is this extremely frightening story in the Washington Post. According to the people the Post interviewed, there were no “Arabs” at the scene, just Basaev’s Chechen jihadists. However, given the grotesque and largescale nature of the seizure of the school and the segregation of the hostages, it is hard to tell whether the Russian claim is correct or not.
LI has been rather stunned, too, by the ignorance or indifference shown in the American response to Beslan. For example: one of the blogs we go to daily, Crooked Timber, is made up of some of the Internet’s best and brightest academic bloggers, yet in the two comments they have posted so far, it is as if no background knowledge about Chechnya whatsoever has penetrated to this group – and, by inference, outside of the small circle that has been concerned with the inhumane and sinister war that has devastated Chechnya since 1995. The CT post on the school begins with a point that is simply nonsense … “the hideous events in Beslan are the property of the people who lived there” … as if victimage was a sort of intellectual property right – and proceeds to make two points that seem particularly ill judged:
“2) Should we expect, going forward, that all other conflicts involving Muslims on one side will be similarly compromised, and what should policy-makers do differently because of this?
3) What the hell has gone wrong with the particular strain of Islam which apparently tells people it’s OK to kill children, and what can be done about it?”
LI isn’t sure what ‘strain’ is being talked about. And as for what the hell has gone wrong, that is a long story of Western complacency about the destruction of Chechnya as well as a story about how the circle around Yeltsin protected itself from prosecution for its massive thievery and abuses of power, with the complicity of the Clinton administration and the EU. It is a story about the roots of Putin’s own power, and a story about the covert cooperation between the Russian security forces and the guerrillas around Basaev in the nineties, who wished to drive a wedge into Chechen society.
Perhaps the idea of the Moslem strain CT mentions relates vaguely to the significant differences between, on the one hand, the Wahabi faction – or vakhabi -- which has penetrated into the Chechen struggle via Basaev and various foreign fighters, and the dominant form of Islam in Chechnya, the Sufi brotherhoods, who have developed a form of resistance to the Russians that goes back two hundred years. For the Sufis, it is ridiculous to talk about jihad. The vakhabi faction is vehemently opposed to the cult of saints, to Sufi ritual, and to the theology of Sufism in general. There have been clashes between the two groups. LI, no expert on Chechnya, has at least been to the library in the last two or three years and read up on the topic in two or three books. One would think that among the CT collective, somebody would know something about Chechnya. Apparently not.
The vakhabis are supported by two factors. One is that the Russian government has used them on the principle of divide and conquer. Thus, in the late nineties, the circle around Yeltsin kept an odd connection going to Basaev. Berezhovsky, the ignominious oligarch, was the point man. He was definitely involved in some manner that has yet to be cleared up with Basaev’s incursion into Daghestan – the formal cause of the second Chechen war. The vakhabis have also received massive financial support from the usual suspect – Saudi Arabia.
This is one summing up of the religious aspect of the Chechen conflict (one that, in LI’s opinion, gives far too much intellectual leeway to the assumption of the generosity of Russian intentions) by four scholars at the William R. Nelson Institute at James Madison University:
Thus, Vakhabites challenged the official Chechen leadership (President Maskhadov and its supporters) and posed a serious threat to the foundations of the Chechen society. As a result, official Grozny was becoming more and more critical of vakhabism in its statements and declarations. However, Maskhadov took no decisive action, as he feared that would exacerbate the situation in the republic. Confrontation between traditionalists and radicals resulted in violence several times; for instance, as noted above, Vakhabites clashed with Sufi Muslims in May, 1998 in Gudermes and Urus-Martan and then again in Gudermes in July, 1998 (approximately 50 people were killed that day). Fearing that fundamentalists will destabilize the situation in the republic and attempt to rebel against Grozny, Maskhadov declared the state of emergency, dissolved and disarmed the Shariat Guards and Islamic regiment, and ordered to exile the well-known warlord Khattab, a mercenary from Jordan who allegedly cooperated with radicals. On July 23, 1998 there was an attempt in Grozny to assassinate Maskhadov, an attempt probably organized by Vakhabites. Observers from Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya itself agreed that at that point the republic was on the brink of civil war.
Despite their relatively strong positions, Vakhabites were not able to assert their influence throughout the republic, much less impose their ideology in its entire territory. However, they went ahead with their plans to occupy neighboring Russian regions and invaded Daghestan in August, 1999. Although members of Sufi brotherhoods may have participated in the invasion as well, the idea and its implementation are blamed by the Russian government and the local population primarily on Vakhabites. Subsequent investigations and the fact that the officials Grozny from the very beginning announced that they did not have anything to do with the events in Daghestan and condemned the aggression further convinced Moscow that fundamentalists had started their jihad and the situation in Chechnya was out of control. Vakhabites were perceived as a major threat to peace and stability in the Northern Caucasus and the territorial integrity of the Federation. The invasion of Daghestan and the Vakhabites' plans to wage a holy war against Russia until the creation of a "purely" Islamic state in its southern territories were the top reasons that prompted the federal government to start a military operation in Chechnya immediately after the defeat of those who attacked Daghestan.
As the federal troops advanced into Chechnya, however, they had to fight not only Islamic extremists but also the members of Sufi brotherhoods who, like in 1994-1996, Russian control for various reasons opposed. Unlike fundamentalists, Sufi Muslims do not fight for a religious cause and tend to have more reasonable positions on issues. Moreover, their dissatisfaction with the situation in the republic in the 1996-1999 period encouraged them to cooperate in a number of cases with the Russians. As a result, many of the Sufi communities engaged in negotiations with the federal representatives and avoided armed conflict. Some of them openly supported the military operation and organized volunteer troops to fight against both Sufi and Vakhabite rebels on the Russian side.”
We think that the “some” fighting on the Russian side were definitely in minority. The Russian occupation, which has seen the planned destruction of major Chechen cities, massacres of Chechen men, and the routinization of kidnapping by the Russian army, has alienated the vast mass of Chechens.
As for Basaev, the Jamestown Newsletter, which is a very good source for information about Chechnya, has published an interview with a French journalist, Sophie Shihab, who is very conversant with the situation in Chechnya.
“On Berezovsky’s responsibility for the outbreak of the second war: “It has never been proved, but it has also never been disproved – and the evidence for it is considerable…The offensive [of Basaev’s forces into Dagestan] provided the pretext for renewing the war. Very soon the rumor circulated that Basaev was financed by the Russian warmongers, headed by Berezovsky….There is a whole pile of evidence suggesting the common responsibility of Berezovsky and the FSB…for the attacks in Russia in August and September of 1999, which precipitated the war and the election of Putin. Thus were created bonds between them, but also hatred. Their lines [i.e., Putin’s and Berezovsky’s] diverged in December 1999, when Berezovsky, conscious that the generals around Putin had taken the initiative away from him, announced that he favored negotiations with the most radical Chechens. But even in exile Berezovsky has kept major financial interests, and thus political power, within Russia. And his impunity on the subject of Chechnya, like Putin’s, remains complete.”
LI hopes that this post isn’t taken to excuse what happened in Beslan. Our point is, rather, that what happened in Beslan has causes that go to the heart of the legitimacy of Putin’s government. There is a demonic synergy between Basaev’s terrorists and Putin’s FSB. Many of Putin’s more curious actions, which have been attributed to his desire for power – his war on Berezovsky, for instance, and on the other oligarchs – can be explained as compulsive acts of disguising by a man who legitimized his power with a massive lie, precipitating an at first popular war against a suspect people. Putin, like Claudius, the King of Denmark, believes, evidently, that arms provide the kind of authority that covers all crime, and that he can drown his guilt in other people's blood. But such rulers are always beset with ghosts. Beslan, the planes that were downed, the black widows blowing themselves up in stadiums and subways, the siege at the theatre, all are the unending results of that primal crime.
We’ve pushed this point over and over again in various posts we’ve written about Chechnya. For those who are interested, look up our posts starting at October 17, 2003.