On 7 August 1999, caravans of well-armed and bearded men, wearing camouflage fatigues and Islamic skullcaps or headbands, crossed from Chechnya into the mountains of Daghestan. They were led by the two most famous field commanders of the recent Chechen war of independence—Shamil Basayev and Khattab. Basayev had gained world-wide notoriety in June 1995, when his detachment briefly seized the town of Budionnovsk in southern Russia, barricaded itself in the hospital with almost 1,600 hostages, and, in a dramatic televised stand-off, forced Moscow to halt its immensely destructive offensive in Chechnya and accept negotiations with the rebels. The uneasy truce lasted only as long as it took Moscow to reshuffle its top generals for yet another time and realize that the rebel forces had exploited the lull to rebuild their confidence and infrastructure, badly battered in the heroic but near-suicidal defence of Grozny during the initial phase of the war.

Meanwhile, the puppet government of Chechnya, consisting of the pre-1991 Chechen nomenklatura élite and a few former revolutionaries who had since quarrelled with the separatist Chechen President General Djohar Dudayev, tried, with Russian help, to create its own military units, governmental authorities and a newly elected regional parliament. The hostilities fully resumed towards the end of 1995 with increased ferocity on every side. In April 1996, another Chechen detachment dealt a spectacularly humiliating blow to the Russian army, when an armoured regiment was ambushed and annihilated in a mountain pass near Yarysh-Mardy. This triumphantly videotaped slaughter instantaneously advertised the name of Khattab, a mysterious Arab from either Jordan or Saudi Arabia who had allegedly acquired his military skills while fighting on the mojaheddin side in Afghanistan and, later, in the Tajikistan civil war.

Khattab rushed to Chechnya in the first days of the Russian invasion and created the multi-ethnic guerrilla brigade that fought under explicitly Islamist colours rather than the banner of Chechen nationalism. Khattab’s small army was reputedly among the best-equipped and the most ruthless units fighting against the Russians in Chechnya. Its apparently generous sources of financing remained no less a matter of speculation than the elusive identity of its commander. After the war ended in August 1996, Khattab maintained in his camps an active training programme for the young Islamist mojaheds who were said to be recruited from all over the Muslim areas of the former ussr as well as the Middle East. He married a Daghestani woman and thus became an honorary native. The Russian press frequently blamed Khattab and his associates for many terrorist bombings and hostage-takings in Chechnya—and as far away as Uzbekistan—but could never prove the charges.

In the aftermath of Chechen victory and the Russian withdrawal in the autumn of 1996, Shamil Basayev, in contrast, made a surprising effort to recast himself as a cosmopolitan civilian and secular statesman. Unlike the elements of local artistic intelligentsia, who, in the early 1990s, became the ideologues of Chechen independence and during the war proudly changed into all kinds of fatigues and shepherds’ sheepskin hats, Basayev shied away from such markers of nativist and warrior identity. He was, after all, a war hero and a native villager. Instead, Basayev trimmed his trade-mark beard, sported elegant woollen cardigans with a silk scarf, and regularly shared with the hordes of visiting journalists—who could never resist their fascination with his romantic personality—his dreams of starting one day a computer dealership or a bee farm. Undoubtedly, this was part of Basayev’s presidential campaign strategy that also included mocking his fellow runners for their hypocritical newly found Islamism, a solemn promise to travel to Budionnovsk with the mission of repentance and reconciliation, and an emphatic appeal to an ethnic Russians to stay in the independent Chechnya and become its citizens.footnote1 Many people, however, doubted at the time that the recent terrorist of Budionnovsk could be recognized as the head of a prospective independent state by either Moscow or the Western governments. Besides, Basayev was barely thirty and his higher education ended after the first semester at the Moscow Land Survey Institute when, in Basayev’s fond recollection, he failed to pass the maths exam to none other than Konstantin Borovoy.footnote2

In the Chechen presidential elections of January 1997, Basayev nonetheless scored 23.5 per cent of the vote, stemming, according to exit polls, overwhelmingly from the younger Chechens who regarded the victorious Colonel Aslan Maskhadov as the symbol of old Soviet habits and hierarchy—precisely the same attributes cited by the larger half of Chechens who supported Maskhadov’s candidacy and his promise of a return to normality.footnote3 Basayev spent the next couple of years flitting between Maskhadov’s government, where he regularly rebelled against the futile bureaucratic routines and the opposition of disgruntled war veterans who neither disarmed nor found for themselves any appealing civilian occupations. The nascent nation-state was never able to disarm its erstwhile defenders and achieve the primary condition of statehoody—monopolization of the means of violence. The war-ravaged Chechnya had neither the internal resources nor the international recognition that could bring the external resources necessary to strike the social and political bargains which could sustain the new régime. Thus the Chechen revolution failed to end after the great patriotic victory.footnote4 Its mutations continued in the form of now almost totally obscure internecine struggles before bursting into the open with the attempted Islamist conquest of Daghestan in August–September 1999. Despite the opacity of these conflicts, we can, in retrospect, trace the general logic at work.

During the elections of 1997, I met in Grozny the university professor whom President Maskhadov had just appointed as dean of the newly-created guerrilla re-training faculty and only half-jokingly had promised to make Brigadier-General in order to gain him the respect of his special students. The prospective dean, a respected Soviet-era academic disgusted with ‘Yeltsin’s war’ yet openly nostalgic of past relations between Grozny and Moscow, was wondering how he could replace the burnt libraries, laboratories, or even the benches in the gutted lecture halls, but his main concern was what uses the future graduates could expect to make of their engineering and agronomy diplomas, and, in a sign of new times, also their computing and business management qualifications. The oil deposits of Chechnya have been nearing depletion since the late 1970s. Its rusting industrial parks, the decrepit infrastructure and the badly strained social services were almost paralyzed by the generalized bankruptcy of the Soviet economy even before the war devastation of 1994–96. At the best of Soviet times, an estimated 40 per cent of the rapidly growing rural Chechen population was chronically unemployed and, like most rural areas of the Caucasus, depended on seasonal migration to Russia and Central Asia.footnote5 Exploiting the inherent labour shortages in the Soviet industrial centres and the informal managerial mechanisms for fixing shortfalls of all kinds, the teams of migrant workers used to bring in handsome incomes, which helps to account for the solid brick houses that have appeared in most Caucasian villages in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, the collapse of the Soviet economy closed this valve, a factor which, arguably, played a role in the 1991 Chechen revolutionary mobilization. In 1991–94, during the relatively peaceful years between the unilateral declaration of Chechnya’s independence and the Russian military invasion, many enterprising Chechens discovered an alternative in cross-border petty trade. Hundreds of charted flights a year shuttled between Grozny and the shops of Middle Eastern countries, weaving an informal network of market exchanges that most states, Russia in particular, would consider contraband.footnote6 After 1996, Moscow, apparently in an attempt to make its Grozny counterparts beg for federal subsidies, effectively blockaded what the Russian officials called the ‘criminal free trade zone’.

Politically, Chechnya remained hostage to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize its independence, thus preventing the rest of the world’s governments from extending diplomatic recognition and any kind of officially-sanctioned aid. The fear of angering Moscow is the most obvious explanation for this attitude, yet the tacit position of the us was probably a stronger factor. The policy-makers in Washington view the Chechens in accordance with the wonderfully succinct definition found in a recently published American encyclopaedia: ‘A fiercely anti-Russian, Muslim mountain people of the North Caucasus’.footnote7 Arguably, there are fundamental disagreements in Washington on whether to continue the cold-war strategy of containing the Russian Bear, whose malicious nature is claimed to be historically immutable, or to engage in supporting what came to be construed as Russia’s transition to capitalist democracy. There is, however, an overriding fear of radical Islamism and a limit to how many overseas crises Washington can keep in the focus of its attention. Chechnya was thus relegated to the category of Russia’s many internal problems. These are the most obvious reasons for the continued isolation of Chechnya.footnote8 Far more important, however, seems the demise of the cold-war geopolitics that, in the previous decades, allowed the successful rebellions in the Third World an almost automatic access to world networks of solidarity campaigns and open or covert aid from the competing superpowers. Furthermore, the forceful reduction of the world ideological field to the opposition between the reigning neoliberal orthodoxy and nativist reactions—in the best-seller formulations of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad versus the MacWorld or Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations—shows the power of self-fulfilling prophecy by channelling the protests of newly marginalized groups and areas worldwide into precisely this pattern of nativist contestation. The current re-Islamization of Chechnya provides a clear example.