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

New Chechen Leader to Push Nationalist Agenda

Doku Umarov expected to try to curb radical Islamist influence over the rebel group.
The appointment of Doka Umarov as the new Chechen rebel leader may strengthen the nationalist faction of the separatist movement, which in recent years has been dominated by radical Islamists, analysts suggest.

In terms of strategy, this could consolidate the apparent move away from conducting murderous attacks on civilians - for so long the hallmark of extremist Muslim elements amongst the rebels - which has undermined the independence struggle by alienating the international community.

As vice-president of the Ichkeria, the name of the unrecognised Chechen Republic, Umarov, 40, was automatically elevated to the presidency of the entity following the assassination of the incumbent Abdul-Khalim Saidulayev, 39, last week.

Saidulayev, killed by forces loyal to the pro-Moscow Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, had taken over the reins of power after the assassination last year of the separatists’ long-standing leader Aslan Maskhadov.

According to the rebels’ website, Kavkaz Centre, Saidulayev’s successor is one of their most experienced political and military leaders. It notes that in the first Chechen war, he was honoured for his “courage and heroism”. He was subsequently promoted to brigadier-general in the separatist armed forces, before becoming head of the entity’s Security Council and assuming the vice-presidency in 2005.

The Kavkaz Centre says Umarov has lost a number of close family members in the Chechen conflict. Two of his brothers died in combat; while his father, wife and baby were abducted by Russians and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies.

The Russians and their local allies have sought to present the assassination of Saidulayev as a major blow to the separatists, but analysts say this assessment is rather wide of the mark. They point out that the rebels are accustomed to losing leaders regularly and have a seamless succession strategy in place - vice-presidents are effectively heir apparents - and, moreover, the movement is not held together by, or beholden to, powerful, authority figures.

“A leader’s death is always a huge emotional bereavement,” said Apti Bisultanov, Ichkeria’s former social security minister, now living in exile in Germany. “This won’t cardinally affect the situation in Chechen resistance ranks. The course of events has long been independent of individuals, irrespective of their personal qualities.”

While the rebels’ potency as a fighting force is unlikely to have been affected by the Saidulayev’s death, the means by which they seek to achieve their goal may well be.

By the end of the first Chechen war of 1994-96, the ranks of the separatists - who had first emerged as a broadly nationalist force - were dominated by radical Islamist fighters.

The election of Maskhadov, a moderate former Soviet officer, as president did little to curb the growth of Muslim radicalism, which was fuelled by the likes of Shamil Basayev. With Moscow reluctant to negotiate with Maskhadov, the Islamists’ hand was strengthened and extremist actions in the region grew in number, to the consternation of the nationalist faction, which felt they were undermining the independence cause.

The international community had some sympathy with the separatist struggle when it confined itself to battling Russian troops, but the spate of ruthless attacks on defenceless civilians provoked revulsion throughout the world and allowed Moscow to cast the rebels as little more than murderous gangsters.

Saidulayev, a nationalist and respected Muslim preacher, sought to find a middle way between the rebel group’s two factions, significantly securing an agreement from Basayev not to attack civilian targets – which he strictly adhered to, according to Bisultanov.

While Russia has linked Umarov with Basayev’s notorious attack on Beslan in 2004, some commentators have suggested the new president will seek to curb the Islamists’ influence over the separatist movement, as his predecessor sought to do.

“Doku Umarov represents an older generation of armed separatists, those who studied in Soviet institutes,” said Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Institute in Moscow. “He does not look like a fanatic. Given what he says and does, a Caucasian Islamic international would not be for him.

“This field commander is among those who are fighting for Chechen statehood. Saidulayev tried his best to manoeuvre between a strictly Islamic agenda and the rhetoric of the independence struggle, wheras Umarov has more than once expressed his preferences for the latter.”

In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last year, Umarov said that while radical Muslim fighters have their place, they no longer form separate units and fight alongside traditional Chechen Muslims and secular patriots. In the interview, he described himself as a traditionalist.

“Before the start of the first war in 1994, when the occupation began and I understood that war was inevitable, I came here as a patriot. I’m not even sure I knew how to pray properly then. It’s ridiculous to say I’m a Wahhabist or a radical Muslim,” he told RFE/RL, responding to Russian claims that he was an Islamic extremist.

Timur Aliev is a regular IWPR contributor.