An Interview with Chechen Representative to the U.S., Lyoma Usmanov
Pausing from his doodles on the back side of a promotional flyer, Lyoma Usmanov, the de facto Chechen representative in the United States, grows serious and traces a circle in an unmarked corner of the page. Filling in three-quarters of the circle with cross-hatching, he explains what is in store for Russia, should it continue its bloody campaign against the civilian population of Chechnya.
"Let's imagine Russia took over this territory," says Usmanov. "[The Chechens] will let people leave to the territory under control of the Russians. At the same time ... they will use small groups and wage this war, if necessary, several years more. They will never let Russia keep Chechnya."
While this sounds every bit like a threat, it is not. It's promise, a promise consistent with the independent-minded, freedom loving character of the Chechen people, who have for the past 300 years, wrangled with Russia in a quest for self-determination.
But Usmanov is no typical warrior; at least not like those currently fighting Russian forces in Chechnya. A mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, he defies the stereotypes of Chechens concocted in the Russian media which portray his people as terrorists and extremists. If anything, Usmanov is the voice crying out in the wilderness, begging to be heard on the plight of his people.
Given full mandate from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Usmanov is on tour, telling the story of the Chechen struggle to anyone that would listen. But this is no ordinary struggle and therefore Usmanov has to walk a very fine line on issues loaded with media spin and political subterfuge.
Atop the list of these issues are the claims by Russia that it is fighting terrorism and "Islamic extremism" on its own soil. At the center of these claims is Shamil Basayev, the now legendary rebel fighter. Usmanov however, is quick to clarify Russia's role in creating a skewed perception of Basayev and the origins of the current conflict. "Russia did a good job to demonize him (Basayev)," says Usmanov. "They used his activity ... That's what the Russians used as a pretext."
The activity of which Usmanov speaks is the now infamous series of incursions Basayev made into Daghestan in August 1999. But not even these actions are as clear-cut as one might think. According to Usmanov, Basayev's first move into Daghestani territory was unsolicited while the second was provoked. "There is a big difference between the first invasion into Daghestan and the second one," says Usmanov. "In the first invasion there was no provocation ... On the second one, I think we should agree with Shamil Basayev's explanation."
That explanation came in an October 28 Boston Globe Op/Ed piece in which Basayev explained that the truth is yet to be told about his activity in Daghestan. And indeed, Usmanov confirms that Russia provoked the second incursions as part of plan to escalate tensions in the region. "Basayev played his own game," says Usmanov. "I don't think he's corrupt, he's not serving Moscow ... He thought he was sufficiently smart and more clever than the Russians and could [outmaneuver] them. But the Russian government [outmaneuvered] him."
The Chechen government did not support or endorse Basayev's activity. But without supplies and with Chechnya's infrastructure demolished, the government had no means to curb his activity. Says Usmanov, "Some people even say Basayev has much more power in terms of weapons, even maybe financial support, than President Maskhadov."
The consequences of Basayev's miscalculation have been devastating for Chechnya, with some 200,000 Chechens displaced and over 4000 dead at the hands of the Russians. One might think then, that a serious rift would exist between the Maskhadov government and Shamil Basayev. But it is interesting to note Usmanov's understanding of Basayev's actions: "The situation in Chechnya is very, very complicated; it's a devastated country after the previous war and some people had to do something. For many people it was a good [idea] to help Daghestan to liberate from Russia and then to make one big state, Chechnya and Daghestan. And this is a good idea, by the way, in terms of [getting] independence in the region. Even somehow I can support, myself, this idea. But it's an idea that is maybe good for the future; to have for the whole North Caucasus, some kind of confederation for small nations."
The crux of any disagreement that may exist, then, rests on the methodology behind bringing independence and cooperation to the region. For the Maskhadov government, that means a pluralistic, democratic process. "This idea could only work in terms of democracy ... to use some kind of Western European cooperation," says Usmanov. And according to him, the Maskhadov government was making progress towards that end.
Usmanov points emphatically to the fact that prior to August 1999, Russia was moving towards granting Chechnya its independence. "The Russian President Boris Yeltsin, had agreed to sign for Chechen independence," says Usmanov. "But the people who surround Yeltsin didn't let him. This means that today he doesn't control Russia. Today, Russian military people have a very influential political role in Russia."
"I talked with [Maskhadov] a number of times, face to face, in Washington, DC about how to build Chechnya, what we have to do," says Usmanov. "The people need peace. This is our main, our first and our one purpose at this point. Independence is not our goal at this time. Of course ... I want independence for Chechnya very much, but I want first of all to save the Chechen population."
But this will be difficult in a country where corruption reigns supreme and political backstabbing is the order of the day. Currently the quest for political hegemony seems to favor Vladimir Putin, whose popularity has skyrocketed as a result of the Chechen campaign. Usmanov uses strong language in describing Putin and his role in the oppression of the Chechen people: "Putin is a war criminal. I do hope he will, sooner or later, be submitted before international court."
At present though, Putin continues to press Russian troops deeper into Chechnya. But Usmanov points out that the Chechen strategy has now changed. "It's impossible to defend cities and villages," he says. "The main purpose is to save the population."
To this end, Usmanov sees a coming paradigm in which the Chechen soldiers could capitulate control of the cities, even Grozny, in order to save civilians from indiscriminate bombings. The next step, however would be a long guerilla war in which "Russian troops will never have any peace, any stability in this kind of occupation regime in Chechnya."
But Usmanov is no warmonger and he is clear on the circumstances in which he feels armed struggle is appropriate. "Today is the eve of the third millennium and this means in political terms that the world has changed deeply," says Usmanov. "You can't just wage jihad like people did in August 1999 in Daghestan. They have no right. They did it without permission of local Muslims."
However with reference to the current situation in Chechnya, Usmanov's opinion is different. "In Chechnya at this times we are very close to declaring jihad," he says. "It is very close. I am also very close to considering it jihad."
In the meantime, Usmanov remains a diplomat, and as such he has a message for the American people, American Muslims in particular: "Can you imagine just for one day not having electricity, gas or anything? [The Chechens] are drinking water from rainpools. You can judge yourself if there is any humanitarian catastrophe."
So what does Usmanov want to achieve in America? More than just fundraising. He explains that while money is always helpful, it is not sufficient for this, situation: "We need as a population support from Americans. And American Muslims, as a part of the American people, have more responsibility to convince, to explain, to be a mediator between the suffering Chechens and the great American people. It's not enough ... to feel support from American Muslims; we are already feeling that. We need support from the whole American people."
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com
Topics: Chechen Republic, Russia