AVOID MUSLIM CHECHNYA
Women without headscarves targeted in Muslim Chechnya
Aug 20 (Reuters) - Many women in Russia's volatile Chechnya region said on
Friday they had been harassed and some physically harmed by bands of men for not
wearing headscarves during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Against the backdrop of a spreading Islamist insurgency, many fear that growing interest in radical Islam could fuel separatism in the volatile North Caucasus, where the Kremlin watches uneasily as sharia law eclipses Russian.
Residents and witnesses told Reuters that bearded men in traditional Islamic dress have been roaming the streets both on foot and in cars since Ramadan started on Aug. 11, demanding bare-headed women wear a headscarf.
"Two men came up to me, one furiously fingering a prayer bead, and said it wasn't pretty to have a bare head during Ramadan," 38-year old Markha Atabayeva told Reuters in the Chechen capital Grozny. "They instilled such fear in me".
Atabayeva was one of at least a dozen women who told of harassment or attacks. One of the women's assailants told Reuters "hundreds" of women had been warned.
Atabayeva said earlier she had seen a group of men with automatic rifles taunting women for not wearing headscarves.
A woman in her mid-30s said she was punched in the face by a man in Islamic dress after refusing to put on a headscarf he had given her.
The men's action follows a radical order earlier this week from Chechnya's spiritual leader to shut all cafes during the month of Ramadan [ID:nLDE67H17B], as well as paintball attacks on bareheaded women in June.
A number of other women described this week how men in cars threatened them with violence if they did not cover up. While some women carry headscarves in their bags, those without were encouraged to go home immediately.
The action targeting women highlights tension over efforts by Chechnya's firebrand Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to enforce Islamic rules that can violate Russia's constitution.
One of the assailants, who described himself as an "activist", told Reuters: "We are trying to warn women of their possible sins before God".
"We do this through force, fighting and battles," he said on condition of anonymity, adding that hundreds of Chechen women had been "warned" since the start of Ramadan.
Another assailant said they were working under orders from Chechnya's Centre for Spiritual-Moral Education, which Kadyrov set up 18 months ago.
Critics say that in return for keeping a shaky peace in Chechnya, site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s, Kadyrov is allowed to impose his vision of Islam.
Kadyrov's spokesman declined to comment on the action against women failing to wear headscarves. Alcohol is all but banned in Chechnya and women must wear headscarves in state buildings. Polygamy is encouraged by authorities.
Analysts say the gradual encroachment of Islamic sharia law in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, where rebels are fighting to create a pan-Caucasus state governed by sharia law, deals a major blow to Kremlin efforts to control the region.
Regions and territories: Chechnya
The southern Russian republic of Chechnya is surrounded on nearly all sides by Russian territory but also shares with neighboring Georgia a remote border high in the Caucasus mountains.
Rich in oil, its economy and infrastructure are now in ruins after years of war between local separatists and Russian forces, combined with armed banditry and organized crime.
Chechnya has been a thorn in Russia's mountainous southern border for nearly two centuries. The Russians finally overcame the resistance of Imam Shamil in 1859, claiming the Caucasus region for the empire after a long and bloody campaign that caught the imagination of many 19th Century Russian writers from Lermontov to Tolstoy.
The Chechens had to wait for more than 60 years before they briefly escaped Russian dominion again in the chaos following the October revolution.
However, that period of independence was short-lived and by 1922 the republic had been forced back into the Russian fold.
World War II and the Nazi invasion presented another glimpse of freedom from Moscow's rule. When the war ended, Stalin sought vengeance. He accused the Chechens of collaborating. Their punishment was mass deportation to Siberia and Central Asia. They were allowed to return only in 1957 when Khrushchev was in power in the Kremlin.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former senior officer in the Soviet air force, declared independence from Russia. Yeltsin responded by sending a few hundred Interior Ministry servicemen to the republic. They were met at the airport by Chechen fighters and sent back home on buses, the first in a series of humiliations for Moscow.
This was followed by three years during which armed groups gained an increasing hold on Chechnya and Dudayev became more outspoken in his defiance of Moscow where the leadership argued over how to handle the situation.
In 1994 Russia sent its forces in a very poorly planned bid to bring the rebellious region back to heel. Early promises of a quick victory were soon silent as the Chechens put up fierce resistance to the Russian assault and the death toll mounted.
Amid growing public outcry over rising losses in the Russian army, Moscow withdrew its forces under a 1996 peace agreement brokered by Aleksandr Lebed, then Yeltsin's security chief. The deal gave Chechnya substantial autonomy but not full independence. The Chechen chief of staff, General Aslan Maskhadov, was elected president.
However, Chechnya had been reduced to ruins by the war and Russia failed to invest in reconstruction. General Maskhadov could not control brutal warlords who grew rich by organized crime and kidnapping. Many victims were murdered by their captors.
In August 1999, Chechen fighters crossed into the neighboring Russian Republic of Dagestan to support a declaration by an Islamic body based there of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya. This body also called on all Muslims to take up arms against Russia in a holy war. By now Vladimir Putin was Russian prime minister and Moscow was fast and firm in its reaction. Within a couple of weeks the rebellion was over.
1991 USSR collapses, Dzhokhar Dudayev elected president, declares independence
1994 Russia sends forces to crush independence movement
1996 Khasavyurt accords bring ceasefire but not independence
1997 Aslan Maskhadov elected president
1999 Russia blames Chechnya for wave of bombings, sends troops back
2003 Referendum approves new constitution giving Chechnya more autonomy but enshrining its position within Russian Federation. Akhmad Kadyrov elected president
2004 President Kadyrov killed in bomb blast. Kremlin-backed Alu Alkhanov elected to succeed him.
2005 March - Separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov said to have been killed during operation by Russian forces
The late summer of the same year saw several explosions in Russia in which hundreds died. The Russian authorities did not hesitate to blame the Chechens.
Mr. Putin sent the army back to subdue the republic by force in a second brutal campaign which, despite Russian claims of victory, has yet to reach a conclusion.
Western criticism of Russian tactics and human rights violations in Chechnya was all but silenced following the 11 September attacks on the US. Russia has since portrayed the Chechens as part of the global terror network and uses this to vindicate its methods.
The Kremlin called a controversial referendum in March 2003 which approved a new constitution giving Chechnya more autonomy but stipulating that it remained firmly a part of Russia.
Moscow ruled out participation by the armed opposition and there were widespread concerns that the republic was still far too unstable to ensure that the outcome of such a referendum would have genuine validity. Russia's hopes that it would lead to a peaceful resolution have yet to be realized.
Moscow perceives the killing of fugitive rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005 as an important step in the right direction. It had accused him of masterminding many acts of violence in Chechnya and beyond. Others point to Mr. Maskhadov's repeated condemnation of attacks on civilians targets and fear that the violence will continue.
· Status: Republic within Russian Federation
· Population: Approximately 1 million
· Capital: Grozny
· Major languages: Chechen, Russian
· Major religions: Islam, Christianity
· Natural resources: Oil
President Alu Alkhanov
Alu Alkhanov was sworn in as president amid tight security in October 2004 following the assassination of his predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov, some months previously.
The Kremlin had made clear its backing for Mr. Alkhanov who took nearly three quarters of the vote. Mr. Alkhanov's main rival had been barred from standing on a technicality. Only a handful of observers monitored the elections whose authenticity was queried by human rights activists amongst others. Chechen separatists declared the vote to have been a farce.
Mr. Alkhanov, 47 at the time of his election, became Chechen interior minister in April 2003 after a long career in the police. Regarded as loyal to Moscow throughout, he was decorated for his courage in resisting separatist forces storming Groznyy in 1996. He left Chechnya when Aslan Maskhadov became president, returning only after the Russian army had done so in 1999.
He calls on Chechens to resist extremism and pledges to encourage the values of peaceful democracy. He promises to accelerate economic restoration, insisting that oil revenue should remain in Chechnya, an idea controversial in Russian oil circles. He also wants tax concessions for the republic, backing the creation of a free economic zone.
Mr. Alkhanov is married with three children. He works in the knowledge that his life is in danger. Three of his four predecessors in the job have been assassinated.
Separatist leader: Abdul-Khalim Saydullayev
Muslim cleric Abdul-Khalim Saydullayev was named as successor to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov when the latter was killed in an operation by Russian special forces in March 2005.
Mr. Maskhadov had decreed that, in the event of his death, presidential powers should pass to Mr Saydullayev who has pledged to continue the fight for independence from Russia. Mr. Saydullayev, thought to be in his 30's when he succeeded Mr. Maskhadov, previously led the Chechen rebel government's Sharia law court.
Chechnya presents a formidable challenge to the media outlets operating there and journalists attempting to cover events on the ground. Media freedom groups have accused Moscow of trying to muzzle independent coverage of the Chechen conflict. They say journalists who investigate alleged abuses by federal forces in Chechnya are persecuted.
One highly-publicized case was that of Andrei Babitsky, a reporter working for the US-backed Radio Free Europe, whose reporting of the Chechen war was said to have angered the Kremlin. Mr. Babitsky was arrested in Grozny in 2000 and later convicted by a Russian court for using false travel documents.
Russian TV and radio stations are said to be available across much of the republic. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported in 2004 that these included Channel One, RTV, NTV, Ren TV and Centre TV. Chechnya's own state-run radio service resumed broadcasts in November 2001.
Several pro-rebel websites spread a different view of events in the republic to the world. They include Kavkaz Tsentr, which has had a nomadic presence on the internet as its various hosts have been urged by Moscow to close the site.
Reports on the extent and influence of rebel-run media vary. In late 2002 Kavkaz Tsentr noted that several newspapers and magazines were being published and that a radio station was on the air with daily broadcasts. Russian forces say they have closed hundreds of "underground" printing houses in the republic and destroyed "militant" broadcasting facilities.
Foreign broadcasters also target Chechnya. The US government-funded station Radio Liberty beams programmes in the Chechen and Russian languages into the republic. Moscow has expressed concerns about the broadcasts and has accused Radio Liberty of editorial "one-sidedness".
Russian TV reported in 2003 that Chechnya had eight official newspapers, three of them with republic-wide circulation.
A Spreading War
A bloody gun battle spotlights the bitter mix of resentment and Islamic extremism bubbling in the Caucasus.
By Kevin O'Flynn and Anna Nemtsova
Oct. 24, 2005 issue - They came early in the morning. More than a hundred, and perhaps as many as 500 armed men attacking the quiet Russian town of Nalchik in the shadow of Europe's highest mountain. A bloody battle over the next 36 hours saw dozens dead and left Kremlin policy in the turbulent region in tatters. Yet another of the poor, volatile republics spread across the North Caucasus had been hit by an event of extreme violence and shocking brutality, and yet again the culprits were Islamic militants. Their numbers are growing, says Alexei Malashenko at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "They can appear and attack anywhere."
The war in Chechnya is spreading. Until recently, neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria seemed exempt from the region's turmoil. Its capital, Nalchik, is a stopping point for tourists on their way to climb 5,642-meter Mount Elbrus; residents went about their lives, largely unperturbed by terrorism. But last week, like an army, the militants attacked. Their targets were government offices—headquarters of the security services, police stations, the Interior Ministry and the airport. Fighting closed down the city as President Vladimir Putin gave orders to kill anyone resisting arrest or trying to escape while Russian forces moved in.
For much of Thursday, Nalchik was a war zone. Commuters blundered into gunfire in the town center. Militants commandeered a tractor to break into a gun shop, fittingly named Arsenal. Smoke plumed from office buildings as police hunkered on the ground from flying bullets. By Friday afternoon, according to official figures, 92 of the attackers were dead, along with 12 civilians and 24 law-enforcement officials.
Putin praised his forces for fighting off the insurgents—and was quick to show himself in command. But there was criticism, even so. "The fact that more than 100 rebels converged and attacked the city in broad daylight is clearly an intelligence failure," says Simon Saradzhyan, director of research at the Eurasian Security Studies Center in Moscow. The security forces' quick response was encouraging, he added, but suggested that in itself is not enough. "We must also have a system of prevention and interdiction," lest there be more such incidents.
That seems almost inevitable. One by one, the republics of the North Caucasus have been hit by a whirlwind of violence from Islamic extremists. Last week's events came just over a year after Chechen militants seized a school in Beslan, in neighboring northern Ossetia, ending in the deaths of 331 hostages. Nearby Dagestan, a jigsaw republic with dozens of nationalities and increasing clan tension, has seen almost daily shootings. The attack on Nalchik most resembled the assault on the Ingushetian capital of Nazran in June last year, when more than a hundred militants led by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, the man who organized the Beslan attack, entered the town and killed 70 law-enforcement officials.
This time, particularly in contrast to Beslan, the militants appeared to avoid killing civilians. According to some accounts, terrorists instructed passersby to —get out of the way and said they were interested only in killing police. It remains unclear who organized the assault. Witnesses say there were Chechens and Arabs among the attackers; many reportedly wore long beards, the hallmark of Islamic jihadists. But most appear to have been Kabardins. A Chechen rebel Web site claimed the attack was the work of Yarmuk, the local branch of a regional network of militants called the Caucasus Front. In any event, the operation appears to be the first major maneuver of the new Chechen rebel leader and cleric Abdul-Khalim Saydullayev, who has vowed to spread the war throughout the region and create an Islamic caliphate.
Clearly, Moscow has been mishandling an explosive situation. Beset by poverty and ethnic strife, the North Caucasus has long been fertile ground for religious extremism. But government oppression—and corruption—has exacerbated problems. Kabardino-Balkaria is a perfect example. The republic is poverty-stricken and divided ethnically, with minority Balkars filling the ranks of militant groups. Muslim Balkars were deported in 1943 because of Soviet suspicions that they would rebel and aid the Nazis during the war. When they returned, they found themselves a minority among native Kabardins, also mainly Muslim, and immigrant Russians. Tensions have been kept in check under the rule of an autocratic strongman appointed by the Kremlin and determined to crush all political and religious opposition. In 2004, most of the mosques in the republic were closed, save for those run by clerics favored by the state—and even there, prayers are in Russian. Hundreds of Islamic activists have been arrested, often accused of terrorism. Meanwhile, ordinary Muslims in Nalchik and other cities complain of harassment by Russian authorities, whether it's young women wearing the traditional higab or students studying Arabic or the Qur'an.
It's unclear to what extent, if any, angry local activists participated in last week's attack. Authorities have accused a Muslim cleric named Mussa Mukozhoyev, the self-proclaimed emir of the Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria and founder of an underground Islamic group called Jamaat, who is currently in hiding. Yet Mukozhoyev is widely known to be a moderate. "We are not fools. We don't want to bring the Chechen war into our homes," he told NEWSWEEK last year. But even then, he explained, it was becoming harder and harder to hold back extremists intent on jihad against the Russians they considered to be their oppressors. Those radicals went on to form Yarmuk, according to Akhmed Yarlykapov at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, which launched a series of smaller attacks on police and other symbols of government in Nalchik in 2004.
Despite last week's explosion, experts say that the radicalization of Kabardino-Balkaria and other republics could still be reversed if some autonomy were allowed. "Putin needs to address the root causes of extremism," says Saradzhyan. "These are not just poverty and unemployment among the youth. It is, foremost, resentment over the oppression of political and religious freedoms." If he doesn't, the attack on Nalchik will not be the last.
Chechen Rebels Radicalize
Institute for War and Peace Recording
The death of Aslan Maskhadov, the moderate leader of the Chechen separatists, one year ago has proved a turning point for the rebel movement — though perhaps not in the way the Russian intelligence services intended when they announced that they had killed him.
The removal of Maskhadov, elected president in 1997 and killed on March 8, 2005, meant that the leading role passed to the radicals led by Russia’s most wanted man, Shamil Basayev. No major moderate figure has taken up Maskhadov’s mantle or has called for dialogue with the Russians.
Maskhadov’s successor as rebel president, Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, is officially working with Basayev and has announced the creation of a “Caucasus Front” that stretches beyond Chechnya to the rest of the North Caucasus.
In February, Sadulayev reorganized his government, giving it a more radical complexion. In a rebuff to moderate envoys working in Europe, he called on all officials working abroad to return home and stripped Umar Khambiev of his post as presidential representative abroad. Another envoy Akhmed Zakayev, now resident in Britain, was demoted from his job as deputy prime minister, leaving him as merely culture minister.
The most eye-catching move was the appointment of the rebel movement’s exiled ideologist, Movladi Udugov, as head of the newly-created “National Information Service for the State Defense Committee”.
“Udugov’s appointment to a high position while Akhmed Zakayev retains only the post of minister means just one thing: the radicals have won a victory,” said Chechen political analyst Murad Nashkhoyev. “However, it is Moscow itself that has untied the Chechen radicals’ hands by killing Maskhadov, the elected president, and rejecting negotiations with its opponents.”
The rebel commanders of the Nineties grouped around Maskhadov had Soviet backgrounds and little knowledge of Islam. They have been replaced by a new generation who talk about jihad and feel closer to the Islamic world than to Europe.
The thinking of these new-style rebels is typified by Ansar, a 40-year-old Grozny resident who fought on the anti-Moscow side in both the first and second Chechen conflicts.
“Chechnya cannot be independent if the whole of the North Caucasus is not independent,” said Ansar. “Otherwise, Moscow will simply crush us economically and politically, if not through war, which is what it’s currently trying to do with Georgia. I think Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, Shamil Basayev, Doku Umarov and all the other current leaders have come to understand this truth.”
A 23-year-old young man who said he is a member of a guerrilla group active in Grozny told IWPR, “Russia is engaged in real terror not only against Muslims in Chechnya, but also against them in the whole of the North Caucasus. The same thing’s really going on everywhere: Muslims are being killed, detained under various invented pretexts, tortured, maimed, and humiliated. Men are afraid of growing beards because they can be accused of being Wahhabis [Islamic radicals], with all the consequences that can entail. Women are afraid of wearing headscarves for the same reason.
”This is why a jihad is necessary, first and foremost the jihad of the sword — not only in Chechnya, but throughout the North Caucasus.“
This young man, who gave his first name as Islam, was critical of Maskhadov’s pro-western stance. Although he recognized that the late Chechen leader was ”a very courageous man“, he said, ”We should admit that he made a lot of mistakes. He relied on assistance from Europe and the West. He believed they would help to stop this massacre in Chechnya. He thought everything could be resolved through political negotiations. Time has shown that he was badly mistaken.“
The policy of spreading the war to the rest of the North Caucasus was dramatized by last October’s attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in which dozens of people died.
In January, Basayev gave an interview, published on separatist websites, in which he said that Sadulayev planned to hold a big ”majlis“ or assembly in spring 2006 to unify the Chechen fighters. Basayev also said he ”intends to cross the river Volga“ in summer.
”Shamil Basayev’s threats to ’cross the Volga’ can be interpreted with some irony — but they cannot be ignored, as there are effectively no reliable data on the number of guns held by him and other field commanders,“ commented Anatoly Petrov, who works with the Military Commandant’s Office for Chechnya. ”Most of the gunmen usually sit quietly at home, waiting for orders. They aren’t running around in the mountains, as people generally believe.
“It is quite likely that the leaders of the bandit groups want to carry out a few large diversionary and terrorist attacks this summer in order to make themselves heard again. The situation in Chechnya itself is under control. Therefore, in my opinion, the gunmen will try to do something in one of the North Caucasus republics, say Karachai-Cherkessia or Adygeia.”
Petrov said that the insurgents still enjoy support amongst the Chechen population “not only amongst young people who basically have nothing to do in a republic destroyed by war, but even among religious figures, and quite possibly among officials too”.
He cited an instance in which a Muslim cleric in the south-eastern Vedeno region who nominally supported the pro-Moscow government in Grozny was accused of aiding the rebels. In another case, a deputy to the mufti, or chief Muslim cleric, in Chechnya was dismissed after attending the funeral of rebel fighter Hussein Chersiev, killed in Ingushetia.
There are varying figures for the number of active fighters still operating in Chechnya. In January, Russian general Oleg Khotin put the number at 750, while pro-Moscow Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov said there were just 250.
Despite a reduced level of violence, and assertions by Moscow that it has the situation “fully under control”, there is still fighting going on in Chechnya — with some indications that it may flare up again with the start of spring. On March 3, a battle took place near the village of Serzhen-Yurt and locals reported seeing at least four military helicopters firing rockets into the forest. Residents of mountain villages say there has been an increase in artillery fire in their regions.
The young fighter Islam speaks with confidence about the future. “We are fated to victory,” he said with a confident stare from unblinking eyes. “Because we have the two best choices — victory or paradise. Both are good for us. We will either eject the Russian aggressors from Chechnya and the entire Caucasus, or we will become shahids on the path of Allah and go to paradise. There is no third option.”