"Effect of Dagestan invasion was similar to 9/11"

Shamil Basaev
Public support of hardline policies surged in Russia after the invasion in Dagestan ten years ago, very much like in America after the 9/11 attack, says Aleksey Makarkin from the Centre for Political Technologies.

RT: Could you talk a little about both Chechen campaigns – what was their character, how were they different?

Aleksey Makarkin: I think that the most important thing was society’s reaction – I mean the reaction of Russian society to those military campaigns. You see, when in December 1994 the first one started, the society had a very controversial attitude to it. Some were in favour of it, some against it. But in the long run the number of the opponents was growing – people just could not understand why that conflict was going on. And really, why? There were several versions: among them the idea of Russia restoring its territorial integrity. You see, right before that the USSR collapsed. Many states broke away: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Baltic states, the countries of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. But then a small republic – Chechnya – decided to break away too.

But for some reason, Russia decided to enforce its return. Then the hostilities would not stop and became only longer. Then it turned out that our military had expected it to be a Blitzkrieg, but the campaign went in a different way. So at that point society refused to support the government or the army. That’s how the army got into a very dramatic situation, because on the one hand it had to fulfil the orders, but on the other hand it did not feel the support of the society.

The Second Chechen military campaign was different, because it started with a different event. The armed units of Shamil Basayev (where Arabs participated too) went from Chechnya to Dagestan, actually committing an act of aggression. After the so-called Khasavyurt accords – which were at the end of the First Chechen campaign – Russia pulled its forces out of Chechnya. There were only Ichkerians left there: the winners, who later became presidents – first Yandarbiev, then Maskhadov – ministers and generals. They began to build a state. But instead of a real state, they built a quasi-state. It was full of internal conflicts, basically balancing on the edge of a civil war, with a growing level of criminal activity in the republic. Then, in addition, there was a conflict between the Chechen nationalists, who really wanted to build a state: Akhmad Kadyrov on the one side, who at the time was leader of the Chechen Islamic clergy, and on the other side there were fundamentalists who were viewing Chechnya as a military base which they would be able to use to move further to Russia, to other Republics of the Northern Caucasus. For them, Chechen independence was like an intermediate link in their game.

So when the events of 1999 started the Russian population supported the government. And the anti-war part of the population found itself in the minority. I think that that was most important, because if the population supports the army and wants the war to be over, when it wants a victory and doesn’t ask questions about its price. The perception was changed. During the First Chechen military campaign, they were viewed as part of us, our country – the USSR – we used to live in the same country, and maybe we might find a way to settle it down. But during the Second campaign, we started to see an enemy in them, since there had been bombings of residential buildings, and naturally there had been a shock. So we stopped regarding them as Soviet citizens who might come to their senses. They were enemies. That’s the main difference – the society’s attitude which determines the end of the war.

RT: Was the Second Chechen military campaign just the matter of time after the Khasavyurt accords?

A.M.: You see the problem is now this. We are looking at it from the year 2009 – we have wised up – and so the year 1999, the explosions of residential buildings, the Dagestan event, the Second Chechen military campaign are now in the past. And now it’s very easy to say that after Khasavyurt the Second Chechen War was pre-programmed to happen. But you see those who were holding negotiations and signing the Khasavyurt accords on Russia’s side – at that time it was General Lebed, Secretary of the Security Council – they thought in a different way. Since society doesn’t want a war, then is there a way to make it fight? How to make the society put up with that military campaign? So if you can’t make the society accept that war, then you need to hold negotiations with the other side, with their most understanding representatives, so that they would create some sort of a governmental structure and clean it from radicals, and to have it made in such a way, that later it would have been possible to have relations. Then later on they might think it over and decide to return. I think that that was the way they were thinking, and there were attempts to find politicians, military commanders on the other side with whom it would have been possible to reach an agreement, who would have been competent.

At that time Aslan Maskhadov appeared on the scene – a Soviet colonel, very impressive, and sort of firm at first sight. The idea was that Russia would withdraw from Chechnya; Maskhadov would head it and put everything in order, since he was a military man. He would fight radicals, and would start to build relations with Russia in a pragmatic way. But the idea failed. And it failed because during the military campaign, different people who were fanatics came to the power imposing new rules. As I said, the Chechen nationalistic idea was only a step on the way of their plans’ implementation. Both Shamil Basaev and other people who were with him were actually controlling Chechnya. As for Maskhadov, he tried to keep the balance. He was balancing between different people, he tried to reach an agreement with Kadyrov, then with Basayev. He tried to bring peace to the republic. And finally he showed himself as a poor politician. He showed that he could not control the situation. Then the escalation started which actually led to the Second military campaign. I think when they were signing the Khasavyurt accords – they did not imagine that things would follow such an awful scenario. They had hopes for Maskhadov and his pragmatism, but finally they got what they got. That was the reality, because it was very difficult to consider every possibility at that particular dramatic moment.

RT: Who do you think supported Shamil Basayev and Khatab when they invaded Dagestan in August 1999?

A.M.: At that time, I think, those were Arabs who supported them both financially and ideologically – the Arab structures could wish promotion of the fundamentalist ideology, and considered Chechnya and Afghanistan. Just let me remind you the situation. The Taliban were there controlling almost 90% of the territory. And they were viewing Chechnya and Afghanistan as places for military bases to move to the North from. They wanted to promote their views, expand their influence, and attract new followers of their ideas by means of ideological weapons and gaining territory by military intrusion. When Basayev was moving to Dagestan, he was expecting that he’d be supported in the republic. But he ignored the fact that the majority of Dagestan’s population and clans who traditionally play a significant role there, perceived it as aggression. So they consolidated, and those who might have supported Khatab and Basayev became isolated. He forgot that for Dagestan it was a way to protect their identity and nationhood as part of Russia. I think that the international terrorist organizations were also there – those who organized 9/11. They had supporters in Chechnya – Basayev for example.

RT: What do these Islamists you mention aimed at – a global Islamic state?

A.M.: As for globally, I do not know, because they were realists. But it’s the idea of widening the range of their possibilities – it’s the idea of expansion. In this case it was expansion to Dagestan, then probably to Ingushetia. I do not know if they were thinking of the next steps. Such systems, or anti-systems if you wish, live by means of expansion. They need to be in constant movement in the state of war. They think that if they get military victories, they will gain more followers, and they will scare their enemies. When they hit both the US and attacked Dagestan, they thought that their enemies are weak, and have internal conflicts, and that they will lay arms down and would not fight and that their societies are weak.

For example if we talk about Chechnya, Basayev, because of his experience of the First military campaign, which was rejected by Russia’s society, expected it to be the same in the Second conflict. He thought that… like the way in which Japan hit Pearl Harbor in 1941, they too thought that American democracy would not survive such a blow, and the people would demand negotiations and concessions from their government. Probably they did not take into consideration that society was grossly insulted. How come that people whom we had given a chance, and with whom we had hold negotiations – well, not we, but the Russian government – those who had been given every possibility to develop their country – how come those people attacked Russia? That caused a huge feeling of insult, and then the society appealed to the government asking for safety and protection by all means – so that now nobody was caring about the type of measures being taken, or the faith of peaceful citizens. The society decided that there must be a response – not just to block or isolate them, or localize to start negotiations on the position of strength, but there was a desire to put an end to it, so that a new menace won’t come from them, to eliminate the source of danger. Quite the same happened to American society after 9/11, when it almost unanimously supported the war in Afghanistan against Taliban. Again, here is an insulted society.

RT: What was the outcome of the second Chechen campaign?

A.M.: The Second Chechen campaign was over. There was a victory, and the leaders of militants were destroyed. Maskhadov and Basayev died, as well as Khatab – the black Arab. And many militants died too. But then the problem of what to do next with that republic occurred. Some suggested creating there a Governorate General, so that an efficient Russian General would rule in Chechnya as a representative from Russia. But it was clear that he would have become the number one target, Chechens would not like him. Then the Chechens would have been insulted because their leader would have been a Russian General which means they were not respected. Then another idea came to find a person in Chechnya – trustful and reputable – to be appointed a President. There were a few variants, but Akhmad-Khadji Kadyrov was chosen. But when he was killed, Ramzan Kadyrov became the Republic’s leader. Ramzan Kadyrov was provided with every possibility to put everything in order in the Republic but on the condition that the Federal Centre would decrease its control over his activity. So, possibilities were created and very soft control provided. So what do we have now? There are still reports of murders and explosions in Chechnya, but they are of a different character, not like it was before, when they were shooting constantly. You know everybody shoots from time to time. The war that is going on there – you may call it a continuation of the Second military campaign or a new Terrorist war – it has a different character.

At the moment we are not talking about thousands or hundreds or even dozens of militants, but about very small groups. You cannot fight such small groups by planes for example. They are performing some sort of underground activity and organize separate terror acts. So fighting them has become much more difficult – only by means of agents from special bodies and services. And that’s one of the modern problems of Chechnya: the war changed its character. The open war, where it was clear who was the enemy ended in a victory. But now it’s different, because a diehard terrorist may look like a normal citizen – and he hides well, because he is not interested in being exposed. Only agential and operational activity may help here.

That’s why the explosions continue, but they are not as numerous as in 2002, 2003, when the government building was blown up, or during the Beslan events. So let us hope that such terror acts are part of history. Now there are only a few diehards and small groups of militants who normally act in the mountains where it’s hard to catch them.

RT: What are the republic’s prospects?

A.M.: There is a problem of control over the republic. Ramzan Kadyrov was given strong powers. But now in the Federal Centre, many think of what to expect next. Ex-militants, who now stick to the federals, have become militia men: officers or sergeants or privates. But on the whole they live according to the rules they think to be right and which are far from current Russian legislation. This presents a serious challenge, because nobody knows what it may lead to. The situation actually it raises concerns.

But at the same time, I don’t think that in the nearest future the situation will get a dramatic twist. Such a terrorist war gives the militants some advantages, because they can make a blow and escape, or prepare diehards who will perform a terrorist act leaving the organizers in the shade. But at the same time by means of such small acts of terror you will not get the actual power. You can make it harder for government through those terror acts, but you cannot overthrow it. Despite the fact that terror acts are worrying and dramatic, they cannot return to power fundamentalists, for example, or to the pre-Khasavyurt agreement era.