Friday, April 19, 2013

A Quick Primer on Chechnya



This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 19 April 2013.

Chechnya is a region in the large isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas north of the Georgia and Armenia in the North Caucuses Mountains. It can be said to stand on the gate between east and west, with Russia to the north and Iran and Turkey only several hundred miles south. Most ethnic Chechens, by far the largest ethnic group, adhere to Sunni Islam. Ethnic Russians, mostly of transplanted Cossack origin, are predominantly Orthodox Christians. The region is also home to other smaller populations of eastern Caucuses peoples. Chechnya was part of the Ottoman Empire and then the Persian Empire until the early 19th century when it was ceded to Russia following their victory in the Russo-Persian War in 1813.

Chechnya has been host to conflict for centuries because of its strategic position between Russia and far eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire and the Middle or Near East. It sits atop the natural barrier of the Caucuses Mountains between two seas. Chechnya has been the site of many instances of brutal ethnic and religious oppression by the Ottomans, Persians, Russian Empire, the USSR, and the Russian Republic, as well as by regional separatist or independence leaders, in an effort to control or keep hold of the region. As a result, inhabitants are quite divided between political, ethnic, and religious allegiances. Roughly speaking, Chechnya has a history similar to regions such as Bosnia and Kosovo, which are subject to much the same tensions.

Chechnya has been fighting on-and-off for independence from Russia for over 200 years. It was briefly independent following the Russian Revolution in 1921. Following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1940, Chechnya again declared independence until Stalin re-established control in 1944, followed by a brutal purge and mass Siberian deportations. The years following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 were particularly violent as many Chechen groups fought again for independence from the Russian Republic, though the region has been under firm Russian control since 1999. However, this control has led some Chechen separatist groups to turn to terrorism.

Since 1999, Chechnya-linked groups have been involved in at least a dozen terror attacks, the majority of which have taken place in or been aimed at Russia. A Chechen group seized a grade school in Beslan, Russia in 2004, resulting in the deaths of 330 hostages, most of them children. In 2008, Chechen rebels took 130 hostages in a movie theatre in Moscow, all of whom died along with their captors following a botched rescue attempt by Russian security forces. In 2010, two female suicide bombers killed 39 in an attack at a train station near the Moscow headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency.

There is evidence that some Chechen separatist groups may have links to Al-Qaeda. Many ethnic Chechen fighters fought alongside the mujahedeen, including Osama Bin Laden, in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Chechens also fought alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan against the U.S. and Northern Alliance fighters in 2001. The Taliban government was one of the few in the world to recognize Chechen independence. Russia has claimed it holds direct evidence of links between Chechen rebels and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Many question this link and cite it as a ploy to ensure the west sees Chechen rebels as terrorists and the west elicits no resistance in return from Russia when it pursues its own terrorists elsewhere.

The U.S. government lists the Islamic Independent Peacekeeping Brigade as a source for funding for Islamist Chechan rebels and has ties to Al-Qaeda. America also lists the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment and Riyadus-Salikhin Brigade of Chechen Martyrs as terror groups.