My original impetus for writing this article was a review by Oliver Bullough of the memoirs of the exiled ex-foreign minister of Chechnya, Ilyas Akhmadov, posted on Opendemocracy.org on the 21st of March. I personally have a lot of respect for Bullough for writing about the history and current predicament of the Circassians which he did in the first part of his latest book “Let our Fame be Great: journeys among the defiant People of the Caucasus,” one of the few Western writers to do so. Unfortunately, the rest of his book is about the Chechens, a topic which has already been done to death in Caucasiology, especially in the West. Although I can understand the pull the conflict in Chechnya has on outsiders, and Westerners in particular for a variety of reasons, I really wish that more Caucasus writers will focus on issues different from those which have already dominated headlines about the region for the last twenty years or so.
Now, I have to confess to not having read the memoirs that Bullough is referring to in his piece, but judging from his review, it’s the classic tale of a promising movement failing miserably, and those involved blaming everyone for it except themselves. However, Bullough introduces an interesting argument when he compares the memoirs of the Chechen foreign minister which memoirs written by members of the Polish, Ukrainian and Georgian independence movements in the inter-war years, before these areas again came under Soviet power and influence after WWII. It seems that these movements had a lot in common to explain their failue, for instance frequent infighting between different factions in the movement, the lack of dependable foreign allies, and also being tarnished by the unsavoury ideologies and political views at the time (Fascism springs to mind in the case of Ukraine during the inter war years, and Islamism in the case of post-Soviet Chechnya). Bullough remarks on the depressing reading which these memoirs provide, but he still has a small sweetener ready for the Chechens: just as the Polish, Ukrainian and Georgian independence movements failed in the past, but still managed to achieve their independence from the Russian and Soviet Empires eventually, so will the Chechens ultimately prevail to achieve their independence from the Russian Federation.
I can think of a lot of reasons why this argument does not hold water. First and foremost this is grounded in how the international system of states works. For instance, while Poland, Ukraine and Georgia have a history of modern statehood that predates Soviet occupation, Chechnya does not. Chechnya was also lower in the administrative hierarchy during Soviet times, being a mere Autonomous Republic within Russia, whereas Georgia and Ukraine were full Union Republics with the right of secession from the Union. When the multinational states of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union started to break up towards the end of the 1980s, the decision was taken to only extend international recognition to the subjects of those federations which where at the top of the hierarchy, creating a legal vacuum where units lower in the hierarchy, even if they achieved de facto independence, could not receive widespread diplomatic recognition and become full members of the international community. This created a whole range of “quasi-states” in the wake of the Soviet and Yugoslav collapse, including Kosovo and Chechnya but also Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh and Transdnistria, which have consequently had a hard time achieving “real” statehood.
However, even such “quasi-states” would need tangible outside diplomatic, economic and military backing in order to make their “independence” a reality, and in this case Chechnya is out of luck. In the Balkans, Kosovo’s bid for independence was backed by the US and most European states, while in the post Soviet space Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdnistria and Karabakh (through Armenia) receive Russian backing. So far, no other states (except Georgia, briefly in the mid-1990s) have been willing to challenge the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation by giving recognition to an independent Chechen state, much less committing the necessary military means to make Chechen independence a reality, risking war with a nuclear armed Russia in the process. While admittedly inefficient and decrepit, Russia is still an entity with vastly greater economic, diplomatic and military power than Chechnya, something which a Chechen independence movement, barring substantial military foreign intervention, has no hope of defeating alone.
Lastly, there is the issue of Islamic extremism and the extent to which it has tarnished the Chechen bid for independence. The independence movement in Chechnya started out as a secular nationalist movement under president Dzhokhar Dudayev in the early 90s, but was gradually sidelined by Islamic extremist such as Shamil Basayev towards the end of the decade. Under the current circumstances with the “War on Terror” still being in focus in the West, and the rest of the world also being very wary of Islamic terrorism, there is little chance that the rebels in Chechnya will get the foreign support that they need to reach their goals.
The Islamists in the North Caucuasus also do not pay much heed to the idea of the nation state and nationalism, but seek to establish a multinational Emirate based on a strict Salafi (or Wahabbi) interpretation of Islam. This is singularly incompatible with the wish of the Chechen people to have their own independent state. To sum it up, the obstacles to Chechen independence are indeed much greater than Bullough might realise. Although the benefit of presenting long term predictions is that at some distant point in the future, you might turn out to be right, I don’t see Chechen independence as being an even remotely likely possibility in the foreseeable future.