Russia Wags the Dog in Chechnya

Category: World Affairs Views: 915

That the Caucasus region and Russia have been at odds for centuries is clear. That Russian oppression of Caucasus Muslim has been widespread is also clear. That some Muslims wish to establish Islamic rule in the region is clear as well.

But the fact of the matter is that at its most practical level, the current conflict in Chechnya and Daghestan is much more than a centuries old story of oppression. It is much more than the forces of Islam struggling for Muslim rule. It is very much a fight over Russian internal political power and the future of big business influence on the Russian political process. The reality of this conflict is that certain elements in Russia's ruling class need an excuse and a scapegoat to further their self-aggrandizement.

Let's read the roadmap.

In August, Boris Yeltsin sacked his Prime Minister Yuri Stepashin along with the rest of his government. Stepashin was a hardcore Yeltsin loyalist, so the move came as quite a surprise. But with Yeltsin's track record of political bungling, the sacking makes more sense.

At the time Yeltsin was under considerable pressure in the Kremlin because of Russia's ailing economy and its seemingly imminent fracturing along ethnic lines. Succumbing to the pressure, he brought in Vladimir Putin. Kremlin watchers at the time interpreted the move as a bid by Yeltsin to put a tougher Prime Minister in place who would be more capable of handling Yeltsin's opposition and more firm in managing ongoing criticism of Yeltsin's handling of independence minded regions in the Caucasus.

Yeltsin announced that Putin would be left to much of his own discretion with reference to nation's affairs. This probably suited Yeltsin quite well, as he has rarely been intimately involved in the day-to-day affairs of state in Russia.

Putin, an ex-KGB agent, is however quite an opportunist with power schemes of his own. With Yeltsin's term of office as President expiring next year, Putin is seen as a contender for the position. He knows this and he has taken full advantage of his newfound discretion to position himself prominently in the eyes of the Russian people.

But the plot thickens.

Russia is probably the worst example of what can happen when corruption seeps into the very fabric of a political system. Russia today is largely run by powerful monopolists/oligarchists. These moguls of business are attached to political camps of their choice, and they play an elaborate game of chess, positioning themselves and their political surrogates. The crisis in the Caucasus has become part of the terrain in this tit for tat contest.

The main player of interest is business magnate Boris Berezovsky. With his hands in everything from oil to the media, Berezovsky has benefited greatly from his warm relations with those individuals that make up the sphere of influence around Boris Yeltsin. He even footed the bill for Yeltsin's second book, and according to a March 22 article, secured a $3 million advance for Yeltsin which was subsequently deposited in a Barclays Bank account in London, accruing a handsome $16,000/month in interest.

Berezovsky's money also sits indirectly behind attempts at foiling the political aspirations of former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov and his coalition partner, Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, both of which stand in opposition to the backers of Boris Yeltsin. Adding complexity to the equation, is the fact that Putin is a staunch rival of Primakov and both will likely vie for the Presidency in the coming year. Logically, one might think that such rivalries would put Putin in the camp of Berezovsky, Yeltsin and his backers. But Putin has other designs.

It is widely thought that Putin was behind the recent freezing of Berezovsky's Swiss assets, amounting to $66 million US. On the surface this might seem a foolish move on Putin's part. But considering that he needs both the Yeltin and Primakov camps out of the way for him to have a clearer shot at the presidency, it makes more sense.

Add a Putin-orchestrated military campaign in Chechnya, and the recipe is just right for a "wag the dog" scenario in which he not only plays opponents off one another, but rallies public sentiment around a bonfire of nationalist fervor over "Russian boys" laying down their lives for Mother Russia.

Sheer diabolical genius.

One look at Putin gives him away. He's just a little too stylish for the old school of Russian politicians. He sports turtlenecks and smart looking blazers. He always has his face in a TV camera. And he even went so far as to travel to Chechnya to "assess" the situation. Pressing palms with beleaguered Chechens and arranging "Town Hall" style meetings with community leaders, Putin is campaigning and campaigning hard. And considering that there are the all-important Parliamentary elections coming up in December, Chechnya provides the perfect coup de grace to his bid for political hegemony.

It's working. Some estimates have Putin's approval rating up 35 percent since the beginning of the most recent hostilities in Chechnya. He also is said to now rank as the third most popular politician in Russia.

With such an intricate web of backstabbing and political jockeying going on in Russia, Shamil Basayev, commander of resistance forces in Chechnya, becomes one of the more believable sources in the current conflict. In a Jane's Defense Weekly interview, Basayev told Jane's correspondent Tomas Valasek that his incursion into Daghestan came as a result of an unprovoked attacks on Daghestani villages, namely Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi. Given Putin's zeal in pursuing military confrontation in Chechnya, serious questions arise concerning the initiation of this escalation in conflict.

But the bottom line remain the same: Innocent Muslims are dying while the world remains silent. The problem is, if the world speaks up, to whom shall it direct its cries? Putin? Yeltsin? The Duma? The industrialists?

It's one big mess. And at the current pace, it seems the Muslims of the Caucasus, caught in the middle of other people's plans, will have to throw off the yoke of oppression themselves.

Ali Asadullah is the Editor of

  Category: World Affairs
Views: 915
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