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How West Misreports Conflict in Caucasus

© Sputnik / Igor Mikhalev / Go to the photo bankChechen militants and Russian soldiers near graves of the fallen
Chechen militants and Russian soldiers near graves of the fallen - Sputnik International
In the midst of the United States’ seemingly endless “War on Terror”, the jihadi terrorist movement that for more than a decade has been waging war on Russia in the Caucasus, is spared all criticism.

Commemorating the First Chechen War in Pictures - Sputnik International
Commemorating the First Chechen War in Pictures
LONDON, December 13 (Sputnik) — The latest jihadi attack on the Chechen capital Grozny once again illustrates a dark truth. Namely that in the midst of the United States’ seemingly endless “War on Terror” one jihadi terrorist movement is spared all criticism. This is the one which for more than a decade has been waging war on Russia in the Caucasus.

This is clearly shown by the way the Western media reported the attack. Though it received scant attention, the reports of the incident that were provided studiously avoided referring to the perpetrators as either “jihadis” or “terrorists”. Instead they were called such things as “militants”, “separatists” or even just “Chechens” — the last especially outrageous given that their intended targets were Chechens.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that it is because this particular jihadi movement, unlike all the rest, targets Russia. That this is the only thing that differentiates this jihadi movement from the others is unimportant. The mere fact it opposes Russia is apparently enough.

That this is indeed a terrorist jihadi movement no different from the others requires some explanation and a brief discussion of the recent history of the Caucasus.

Firstly, it should be said clearly that the jihadi movement in the Caucasus is a product of the political crisis that arose in Russia at the fall of the USSR in 1991. It is fashionable in the west to claim that it is something else and dates back to earlier times. Recently a number of books and articles have appeared that purport to trace its origins all the way back to the wars the Russian Empire fought in the 19th century in the Caucasus. According to this view, the jihadi movement is merely the latest manifestation of the struggle of the Muslim people of the Caucasus against Russia that began in the early 19th century. The Chechens in particular are supposed to be engaged in a centuries old struggle for liberation against Russia and their recent history is in inevitably described in these terms.

The Chechen Interior Ministry troops during a counter-terrorism operation at the Press House in Grozny. - Sputnik International
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A brief survey of the actual history of the Caucasus, and of Chechnya in particular, shows that this view of Caucasian history is quite simply wrong.

In the 19th century the Russian Empire did fight a long war in the Caucasus against some, though not all, the Muslim people there. This war is the subject of Russian literary works by Tolstoy and Lermontov amongst others. Russia was eventually victorious in this war, fully pacifying the Caucasus by the 1860s. In the process the Russians and the Caucasians who fought each other acquired considerable knowledge and respect for each other. The Caucasian leader Shamil was, for example, treated with great respect by the Russians following his capture and was even allowed by them to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca — honorable treatment of a brave enemy unknown and probably incomprehensible to the West today.

Following the 1860s, the Caucasus basically became a peaceful and stable region of the Russian Empire. During the period of the Revolution, the region witnessed considerable instability, but then this was true of the Russian Empire as a whole. Once the USSR became consolidated the history of the peoples of the Caucasus became part of the general history of the USSR. Thus whilst there was considerable opposition in the Caucasus to collectivization this was true of the USSR as a whole.

Claims made of a continuous history of Chechen hostility to Russia and Russians tend to center on events during the Second World War. Stalin’s government accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Germans and as a form of collective punishment deported the entire Chechen nation from their homes.

This episode has been seized on by certain Western scholars and journalists looking for proof of the supposed age-old enmity that supposedly exists between the Chechen people and Russia. Recently a number of books have appeared in the west which purport to describe the conflict between the Chechens and the Russians during the Second World War and the rebellion the Soviet authorities are supposed to have faced in the Caucasus.

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There is no doubt that some people in the Caucasus did try to take advantage of the exceptionally difficult situation in which the USSR found itself to try to achieve their own goals though what these were precisely it is not always easy to say. The same however was true in other parts of the USSR as well. The Caucasus was not the only region of the USSR were the Germans found collaborators. As the story of the Vlasov army shows, there were collaborators even among Russians. That some people tried to take advantage of a difficult situation does not mean that the majority did or even wanted to.

Those best qualified to know the true situation, the Soviet government, exonerated the Chechens in the 1950s and allowed them to return to their homes. In view of this it seems perverse for Western writers to say today that Stalin's allegations against the Chechens were true after all. It is a bizarre, and to my knowledge unique, case of westerners endorsing allegations Stalin made which subsequent Soviet and Russian governments have rejected.

The deportation for the Chechen people was for them a traumatic experience. This should not obscure the fact that the subsequent period following their return from the 1950s to the final end of the USSR was in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus a period of peace and prosperity. In view of this, it is unsurprising that in the referendum held in March 1991 the Muslim people of the northern Caucasus voted overwhelmingly to support the continuation of the USSR. Chechens throughout this period were full Soviet citizens and many made the most of the opportunities this offered them. Two well-known examples are Dzhokar Dudayev, who became a Major General in the Soviet Air Force, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who eventually rose to become chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation in the early Yeltsin era.

Gems of Chechnya: Brick by Brick,  a Mountainous Republic Rebuilds and Hopes Return - Sputnik International
Gems of Chechnya: Brick by Brick, Mountainous Republic Rebuilds and Hopes Return
The crisis that convulsed the Caucasus and Chechnya in particular in 1991 cannot therefore be explained as part of some great historic conflict between Chechens and Russians. Rather it is better understood as part of the general crisis that affected the whole of the USSR at that time.

In Chechnya, the weakening of state authority opened the way for a violent armed coup by the followers of Dzokhar Dudayev. Significantly Dudayev’s movement had not previously sought secession from the USSR. Rather its demands were for Chechnya to be accepted as a sovereign Republic of the USSR alongside the three other Caucasian republics, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In the aftermath of the failed August coup attempt in Moscow in 1991, Dudayev and his followers seized the opportunity to launch a coup of their own in Grozny. The coup was carried out with considerable violence and resulted in the murder of several of Dudayev’s opponents.

Whilst it is clear that Dudayev enjoyed some support in Chechnya, its extent is difficult to judge since he never submitted himself to any form of election process whilst he was in power. That most people in Chechnya did not support him appears to be confirmed by a referendum which he did hold shortly after he seized power. Turnout in that referendum was very low, perhaps as low as 20%. The region of Ingushetia, which had been united with Chechnya, refused to accept Dudayev’s authority and seceded, accepting the authority of the central government in Moscow. Today it is a separate republic within the Russian Federation.

As time passed, Dudayev ran into increasing opposition in Chechnya itself and by 1994 he faced rebellion. The conflict became violent and the central government in Moscow became involved, leading to the First Chechen War over the course of which Dudayev himself was killed. Federal troops were withdrawn following a peace agreement in 1996 which however enabled some of Dudayev’s former associates to seize power.

Thereafter, between 1996 and 1999 Chechnya was basically left to itself. A presidential election took place during this period, whose fairness and legitimacy, predictably enough, was recognized by western governments and NGOs. However, in the conditions that existed in Chechnya at this time, it would have been impossible for a pro-Russian candidate to stand in such an election so it is wrong to accept it as offering a true picture of opinion there. All one can say about this election is that it was conducted in conditions of great instability and that it resulted in the election of Mashkhadov, the more moderate figure of the two put forward, the other being the violent jihadi extremist, Shamil Basayev.

Head of Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov - Sputnik International
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What is indisputable is that over the period of its self-declared independence, first under Dudayev from 1992 to 1994, and then from 1996 to 1999, Chechnya became heavily infiltrated by Islamic militants some of them with links to what became Al Qaeda. As time passed these groups became increasingly dominant and by 1999 were effectively in control. Following several years of growing gangsterism, frequently punctuated with mass kidnappings and ransom demands of people from southern Russia, in 1999 these militant jihadis launched an invasion of the neighboring republic of Dagestan and a series of bomb attacks on apartment buildings in Moscow. By this point their agenda was no longer independence for Chechnya but an Islamist war against Russia.

This war has been fought with relentless ferocity ever since. Using the same methods as other Al Qaeda affiliated jihadi groups, indiscriminate attacks have been launched against the Russian civilian population, including horrifying terrorist outrages such as the Nord-Ost Theatre siege and the massacre of schoolchildren at Beslan.

These actions have in turn provoked the central government in Moscow to reassert control, which by and large it has successfully done. In doing so there is little doubt that the central government has had the support of the great majority of the local people. The fact that the jihadi movement in the Caucasus has been first contained and then largely defeated is proof of this. Without such support this would not have been possible.

As of today, the jihadi insurgency in the Caucasus is the only jihadi insurgency that has been successfully contained and largely defeated. This is an important fact about it that neither the western media nor western governments have ever acknowledged.

Indeed the account of the conflict given here, though it is the correct one, is not the one the western media and western governments have given. In particular the insurgency Russia has been fighting in the Caucasus since the 1990s, and in particular since 1999, is an Islamic jihadi insurgency is a fact which in the West has never acknowledged. The independent US scholar Gordon Hahn (whose views about the conflict are by no means identical to the ones given here) has complained prolifically about this. His complaints on this point have however gone largely unnoticed.

This in itself is bad enough. However what is much worse is the way the western media and to some extent western governments have sought to turn the facts of the conflict on their head by blaming the worst atrocities of the conflict not on the perpetrators but on their victims.

This has been true throughout the conflict. It was already true for example during the period of Chechnya's self-declared independence from 1996 to 1999. The terrorist outrages involving kidnappings and ransom demands that took place during this period were reported with indifference in the west provided they were directed at the Russian civilian population. Only when westerners were kidnapped did interest briefly flicker. The Russian film 'Voyna' (2002) — a film in part about the kidnapping by Chechens of two Britons — captures this attitude perfectly.

The situation however becomes even more grotesque when jihadi terrorism against Russians becomes so extreme that they simply cannot be ignored.

In this file photo taken Monday, June 23, 2014, fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. - Sputnik International
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If one takes what were possibly the four most egregious acts of terrorism committed against Russian targets by Caucasian jihadi terrorists — the mass kidnapping at Budennyovsk, the Moscow apartment bombings, the Nord-Ost Theatre siege and the Beslan massacre — what one notices from western media coverage in each case is (1) a reluctance to condemn the action and to call it by the simple and accurate word “terrorism” (2) reporting that always seeks to “explain” the action in terms of the demonstrably false historical narrative of Russian-Caucasian interaction discussed here and (3) an attempt to blame the Russian authorities for what happened.
The most extreme example of (3) is the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. Though jihadi leaders admitted their responsibility for the bombings at the time when they happened, and though every one of those responsible for the bombings has been identified, with several captured, put on trial and convicted of the crime, the western media and even some western governments continue to indulge in the theory that the Russian authorities were in some way responsible. Though nothing that could remotely be called evidence has ever been produced to support this fantastic — indeed outrageous — theory, it continues to be endlessly repeated, with a seemingly unending series of books and articles published that purport to “prove” it true. This at the same time as western authorities and media show no such tolerance for the claims of the US’s government’s involvement in the terrorist attacks on the United States that took place on September 9th 2001.

However, if claims of Russian involvement in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings are the most extreme example of this practice, it is also present in all the other cases cited. Thus the anti-terrorist action that saved most of the hostages in the Nord-Ost theatre siege (and which would certainly have been praised if it had taken place in similar circumstances in the West) is routinely condemned for its alleged “ruthlessness”, whilst the Russian authorities were alternatively criticized for failing to prevent the mass kidnapping at Budennyovsk and for failing to surrender to the terrorists’ demands at Beslan. In all cases the conduct of the Russian security forces comes in for particular criticism and even mockery, with no attempt ever made to relate their actual conduct to the extremely difficult conditions they have had to face on each occasion.

If the activities of the jihadis in the Caucasus have stirred little outrage in the West, the same emphatically has not been true of the steps taken by the Russian authorities to combat them. Always and invariably, these have been the subject of ferocious condemnation.

This tends to reach fever pitch whenever it appears that the Russian security forces look like they might win. This was particularly so over the course of 1999. Western media coverage of the conflict that year went from confident though as it turned out groundless predictions that the Russian security forces would lose to a furious campaign of denunciation of the Russian security forces and of the Russian political leadership when it became increasingly obvious that on the contrary they were going to win. I can still remember watching a Channel 4 'Despatches' program on British television in the winter of that year in which the reporter seemed unable to control his anger as he reeled off a seemingly unending list of war crimes he alleged with no evidence the Russian military had committed. The actual context of the conflict that year, the bombings in the Moscow apartments and the jihadi attack on Dagestan, were not mentioned.

The same biased reporting has continued ever since. The western media still refuses to call the Caucasian jihadis terrorists — something it unhesitatingly calls all Muslim jihadi movements everywhere else. Even more absurdly, it still refuses even to admit that they are jihadis even though they themselves make no secret of the fact. Whilst Western governments act purposefully to close down all other jihadi terrorist websites operating from their territories, the Caucasian jihadi website the Kavkaz Centre continues in Finland unimpeded.

Such as is the tolerance extended to Caucasian terrorists in the West that when the Russian authorities attempted to alert the US authorities to the dangers posed by the Tsarnaev brothers their warnings were ignored. Subsequently, their attacks in the US were rightly condemned as terrorism. By contrast the latest jihadi attack on Grozny is not.

Meanwhile, whilst the West continues to indulge the Caucasian jihadi movement so long as it confines its attacks on Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the present government of Chechnya, who has sided with Russia, comes in for relentless criticism for opposing them.

At least five policemen have died and several were injured in the course of a special operation against militants in the Chechen capital Grozny - Sputnik International
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Wild allegations of Kadyrov’s involvement in various murders and human rights abuses are thrown around with abandon without so much as a scintilla of proof. He continues to be routinely accused in the West of responsibility for the murders of the two journalists Politkovskaya and Estemirova though the investigations into both murders have for any reasonable person conclusively established his complete innocence in both cases. The fact that his father was the victim of jihadi violence and that Chechnya’s economic and security situation has been transformed during the period when he has headed its government is hardly ever mentioned.

The size of the gap between western stories about Kadyrov and the actual reality was for me exposed perfectly by a US embassy cable leaked by the alternative media organisation Wikileaks. It contained a report of a party that Kadyrov and a US diplomat both attended. The diplomat’s report dripped with contempt for Kadyrov and was filled with innuendo both about the nature of the party and about Kadyrov’s behaviour during it. One had to read the report carefully to realize that in fact nothing that could be remotely called unseemly had actually happened or been done by anyone at the party, which seems in fact to have been a rather staid affair.

The last few years have shown a steady, though gradual, stabilisation of the security situation in the Caucasus. This last year was the most peaceful the region has known since the crisis year of 1991. As discussed, given the region’s complex history and geography, this would not have been possible without the support of its people.

The situation in the region however remains complex. Economic conditions are still difficult and unemployment is high. Though their activities are much diminished and most of their leaders have been killed, violent jihadis are still active there. The region needs a long period of peace and of sustained investment to overcome its problems. After all they have suffered its people deserve no less. Playing political games with their history and supporting, however indirectly, the terrorists who remain amongst them is not the way to help them achieve it.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Sputnik.

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