Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Islamic Pledge Splits Chechen Rebels

Exiled parliamentarians say they are stripping militant leader of his powers after he proclaimed himself emir.
A split has opened up in the scattered Chechen separatist leadership after rebel leader Dokka Umarov declared himself “Emir of the Caucasian front”, provoking a furious response from exiled Chechen politicians who say such Islamist rhetoric undermines their cause.

On November 6, members of the “parliament of Ichkeria” – the name separatists give the unrecognised Chechen republic which functioned between 1996 and 1999 before the second Russian military intervention — issued a decree saying that Umarov had exceeded his powers and was being stripped of his office, and that all authority now devolved to the parliament until new elections are held.

Six days later, a pro-Umarov website ran a video entitled “Of Heroes and Hypocrites” which mocked Ichkeria’s London-based “foreign minister” Akhmed Zakayev, who had denounced the creation of an emirate on the grounds that it hurt the pro-independence movement.

Neither group has any real political power. Government in Grozny now resides with the pro-Moscow Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, who has recruited many former rebel fighters into his security forces and claims that the pro-independence movement is finished.

Umarov is believed to be operating from hideouts in the mountains of Chechnya, while Zakayev and most members of the Ichkerian parliament are in exile.

The two rebel factions wage war on one another largely via two websites, and

The latest row amongst the rebels first broke out in October when Umarov said in a statement sent to Radio Liberty that he was abolishing all existing territorial entities in the North Caucasus and setting up a Caucasian Emirate headed by himself.

“I, the Emir of the Mujaheds of the Caucasus, am the only lawful authority on all territories where there are Mujaheds who have sworn allegiance to me as the leader of the Jihad,” Umarov said in his statement.

“I reject and outlaw all the names which the unbelievers use to divide Muslims. I outlaw the ethnic, colonial territorial zones named ‘North Caucasian republics’. We repudiate these names and appellations. The time has come for us to make our intentions and words match our deeds.”

Umarov said he was at war not only with Russia but with all countries he said were hostile to Islam. “Our enemy is not only Russia, but America, England and Israel - all those who wage war against Islam and the Muslims,” he said.

Because of its timing, many called the statement a “birthday present” for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Zakayev delivered a furious response, calling the move a “provocation” that played into the hands of hardliners in Moscow.

“I categorically condemn Dokka Umarov’s statement, which relegates the Chechen people’s lawful struggle for independence to the ranks of so-called international terrorism – this has nothing in common with the interests of the Chechen people or with Islamic values,” he said.

Umarov, 43, was a guerrilla commander who became the rebels’ president in June 2006, following the killing of his predecessor, Islamic theologian Abdul-Khalim Saidulayev. His declaration of an emirate represents a break from his predecessors, all of whom said they were engaged in a war of liberation against the Russians, rather than a religious jihad.

Some analysts say the row is further undermining an already weakened resistance movement.

“To be frank, the current Chechen resistance reminds me strongly of the émigré White Russians in the 1920s,” historian and political analyst Murad Nashkhoyev told IWPR. “Most of them were abroad and addressing appeals to the Russian people to stand up to the Bolshevik terror. All kinds of unions and assemblies of officers were set up. But they lacked unity, and in the end that was their downfall. A similar situation is emerging in the ranks of the Chechen armed resistance.”

Some Chechens with radical views supported Umarov’s announcement. “Of course one can condemn Dokka Umarov for this move,” said a student. “You can call him a shortsighted and incompetent politician. But there’s another side to the coin. What else was he supposed to do when the whole world has turned its back on Chechnya?

“No one [in the West] has spoken about Chechnya for several years. That’s because Putin has swamped the West with cheap oil and gas, in exchange for a freehand to act in Chechnya. That’s how it is. Basically the West is pushing the leadership of the Chechen armed resistance into the arms of the Islamist radicals.”

Many other Chechens sympathetic to independence, and who lost relatives in the two military campaigns, were angered by Umarov’s statement.

“My elder son, who served with [first Chechen president] Jokhar Dudayev’s guards, was killed in a battle with the Russians in Grozny in the winter of 1995,” Satsita Mazhayeva, 59, who lives in Grozny, told IWPR. “My two other sons were killed during the current war [that started in 1999]. My sons were not fighting for an emirate or a caliphate; they fought for the independence of their motherland, for the chance to live freely in the land of their ancestors.”

Some suggest that Umarov has fallen under the influence of exiled Islamic ideologue Movladi Udugov, a former Chechen information minister now believed to be living in the Middle East.

“As someone who once worked in the Ichkerian government’s apparatus, I can say who’s behind all this,” said Grozny resident Visita. “It’s Movladi Udugov and [Umarov’s] brother Isa. They used to be obsessed by the concept of an Islamic system.”

Visita said that Udugov was a provocateur who was earning his “thirty pieces of silver” for promoting a cause that would mean the cause of Chechen independence was classed as Islamic terrorism.

“The Chechen people don’t need new enemies. We need friends. We have only one enemy – the criminal regime reigning in the Kremlin, founded on the blood and suffering of the people of Chechnya. Attempts to deflect the Chechens’ national struggle for freedom into religious wars will not do us any good.”

Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a regular IWPR contributor in Chechnya.

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