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The Chechen Separatist Movement

Author: Elisabeth Smick
July 18, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The recent death of Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev is the latest in a series of losses of key figures for the Chechen resistance movement. The movement's self-styled president, Abdul-Khalim Sudalayev, was killed in June of this year. Although most experts agree that Basayev's death does not signal the end of the resistance, there is considerable doubt as to its future.

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Who was Shamil Basayev?

Known as Russia's most wanted man, Shamil Salmanovich Basayev was a leading Chechen field commander behind some of the most violent and high-profile attacks in the war for Chechen independence. The most notorious of these operations, the September 2004 siege of a school in Beslan, ended with over 300 people dead, many of them children. Attacks such as this one, and a mass hostage-taking in a Moscow theater in 2002, contributed to Basayev's reputation as a radical and uncompromising figure in the separatist movement. The United States officially designated him a terrorist in 2003.

Basayev's willingness to carry out large-scale terrorist operations, what he called "bringing war to the Russian people," made him a polarizing figure within the rebel organization. His notoriety attracted new fighters to the movement, particularly young men, and he worked closely with other separatist groups in neighboring areas of the North Caucasus. Though he was named vice president of the Chechen rebel movement in June 2006, Basayev was often at odds with its moderate figures, who saw his terrorist tactics as counterproductive and disagreed with some of his more radical Islamic positions. His incursion into the republic of Dagestan in 1999 undermined hope for a peaceful end to the conflict, and precipitated Moscow's re-entry into war.

Some say the fight was personal for Basayev: his wife and two children were among several family members killed by Russian bombs in 1995, and Basayev himself lost a leg to the fighting in 2000.

What does his death mean for the separatist movement?

Basayev's death is seen as a political boon for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian forces had been repeatedly frustrated by past failures to capture or kill the rebel commander, and reports of his death were positively received by the Russian public. "Basayev was the most feared and hated man in Russia, and knocking him off is like getting [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi," says Steven Sestanovich, CFR senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies.

The loss of Basayev is a serious blow to the Chechen separatist movement. Only one of the movement's key founding members remains in Chechnya, current rebel President Doku Umarov, and it is unclear who will fill the position Basayev occupied. "There are no other figures equal to him in stature, or in the breadth of the operations they undertook," says journalist Andrei Babitsky.

Who are the other key rebel leaders who have died?
  • Dzhokhar Dudayev. Dudayev was among the founding members of the Chechen rebel movement. A former Soviet air force officer, he was named president of the nascent group in 1991, and officially declared the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria independent from Russia. Dudayev was killed in 1996 by a Soviet missile that apparently honed in on his satellite phone.
  • Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov, who succeeded Dudayev as president, was killed by Russian forces in March 2005 just weeks after declaring a ceasefire and proposing unconditional talks with Russia to end the conflict. A former Soviet officer, he beat out the popular Basayev for the presidency in 1997. He was considered a moderate member of the separatist movement and condemned attacks on civilians. But what looked at first like a successful government with a chance for negotiating an end to the conflict disintegrated by 1998, when Maskhadov lost control of his more radical field commanders. Although the subsequent Russian invasion reunited the rebels, Moscow no longer saw Maskhadov as a viable negotiator.
  • Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. President for only 15 months before he was shot by pro-Russian forces in June 2006, Sadulayev is credited with widening the scope of conflict beyond Chechnya's borders. His policy was to create a network of field commanders in sectors throughout the North Caucasus who coordinated operations with the rebel leadership. Sadulayev was an experienced rebel commander who joined the movement at the time of the first Russian invasion in 1994. He was also a Muslim cleric, making religious shows for a separatist television station in the late 1990s.
  • Omar Ibn al-Khattab. A radical warlord with strong ties to Basayev, Khattab is thought to have been born near the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He joined the Chechen cause in 1995, and claimed to have fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is believed to have participated in armed Islamic movements in several parts of the former Soviet Union, and may have known Osama bin Laden. Khattab was killed by a poisoned letter, the work of Russian federal security agents in 2002.
Who is left?

Doku Umarov, the current president, is the only leading figure still alive in Chechnya. Umarov is an experienced guerilla commander who joined the Chechen separatists in 1994. He was born in April 1964 in a village in southern Chechnya, and has a degree from the construction faculty of the Oil Institute in Grozny, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In a statement made in June, reprinted on the website chechenpress.org, Umarov said a coalition of North Caucasus separatist movements was preparing to spread their fight further into Russia. However, he insisted their targets would be military, not civilian.

What separatist figures reside outside of Chechnya?
  • Movladi Udugov. It is not clear where former Chechen Information Minister Movladi Udugov is living, but he was most recently thought to be in the United Arab Emirates, according to journalist Andrei Babitsky. Although a skilled propagandist, Udugov is an unlikely candidate to lead the rebels today because he follows a particularly fundamentalist strain of Islam that is not shared by most Chechens. He rejects the proposition of an independent Chechen state in favor of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus.
  • Anzor Maskhadov. The son of former rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was most recently living in Azerbaijan. He has vowed to continue his father's work for Chechen independence, but shares his belief in a peaceful solution. He is seeking asylum for his family in Europe.
Are there other separatist leaders living the West?

Some Chechen separatists have settled in the West. Two of the most prominent members are:

  • Akhmed Zakayev. Zakayev has become an important representative of the Chechen separatists on the international scene and was granted asylum by England in 2003. He maintains close ties to the rebels, acting as foreign minister from his home in London. Zakayev was a theater actor in the Soviet Union before he joined the first Chechen war of independence.
  • Ilyas Akhmadov. The separatist foreign minister under Maskhadov, Akhmadov now lives in the United States where he was granted asylum in 2004.

The asylum issue has been a somewhat prickly subject in relations with Russia, which regards the rebels as terrorists. "This used to be more of an irritant than it is now, but it still allows Russian officials and journalists to complain of double standards," says CFR Fellow Sestanovich. "The U.S. and U.K. governments have made a point of trying to ascertain that the Chechens granted asylum have not been involved in terrorism."

What is the status of the separatist movement today?

Although the Chechen movement seems to be fading, many experts say it is far from dead. Basayev's death may mean the end of large-scale terrorist attacks, but this could improve the separatists' image, and pave the way for renewed international involvement in the region.

Russia's difficulties in Chechnya have also spread to neighboring areas of the North Caucasus, says Elizabeth Fuller, an expert on the region with RFE/RL in Prague. "You can't talk anymore about the purely Chechen separatist movement," says Fuller. "The volume of the spillover is such that it's now a North Caucasus problem, not purely a Chechen problem." This may reinvigorate the Chechen movement, increasing the number of fighters drawn to the cause and widening the scope of the conflict.

Fuller also talks about a "generational change" among Chechen fighters. "You have a whole new group of young commanders, and we have no idea who they are or what sort of people they are."

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