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Chechnya & Iraq: Comparable Conflicts?

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.“–Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

With reports of
180,000 displaced Iraqis since mid-February and 1,398 civilian deaths in May, it is a stretch to compare the present state of the American induced civil war in Iraq to the present conditions of war in Chechnya. By most accounts the war in Chechnya has been reduced to a low intensity conflict where formal military violence has abated, while in Iraq everyday seems to bring more violence, misery, and atrocities committed by insurgents, Shia militias, and the American military.

Yet to analysts, Chechnya does invite comparison with Iraq. First, both conflicts involve two of the world’s largest military powers locked in a quagmire of counter insurgency. Second, both wars are rooted in a vertical conflict, whether the goal is independence from Moscow or to drive out Americans, where Islam functions as a principle marker for national identity and liberation. Third, both involve a horizontal struggle between political and religious communities, whether they are Islamist or secular, Shia or Sunni, over the future of the nation. Fourth, both invading powers justify, but frankly miscategorize, each local conflict as integral to a global conflict against “terrorism.” Lastly, a comparison is viewed as apt because perhaps one, ironically the Chechen war, can point to a possible resolution to the other, the Iraqi war.

In a recent Expert’s Panel, Russia Profile posed the question, “How Does Chechnya Compare to Iraq?” to five Russia watchers. I found most of the responses uninteresting. Mostly because they focused on whether or not Chechnya remains or should remain a diplomatic issue between Russia, the United States, and the European Union and questioned why Putin has not received his due for Russian “success” in Chechnya. I seriously doubt the Chechen war really ever was a point of contention between the three powers. Sure, the US and Europe made lip service to condemning Russian atrocities, and sometimes Putin took offense to these, but I seriously doubt much time was really spent on the issue in discussions. In the last ten years, bigger problems have plagued U.S.-Russian and EU-Russian relations.

However, I did find Andrei Lebedev’s response interesting. Lebedev, a Senior Associate at the State Club Foundation in Moscow, had this to say,

The degree of success [in each conflict], however, is strikingly different.

The reasons for that are evident enough. Rehabilitation of Chechnya was entrusted to local feudal barons-turned-politicians, who widely employed – and still employ – former rebels. This did not end the interclan feud, however, it only made them less visible by mostly excluding federal forces from them. As the outcome of the feuds in favor of the Kadyrov clan was becoming clear, it left less ground for involvement from abroad in the situation. As long as Kadyrov’s people rule in the republic, they have no reason to let someone from Amman, Tbilisi or Istanbul stir the situation, and many reasons to go on milking the federal center.

In Iraq the coalition forces failed to find the winning combination of leaders and/or forces. Potent religious and political groups violently oppose the pro-American government, making reconstruction of the country impossible. If there was a moment fit to switch gears and change horses, it was missed. The United States is in a desperate situation; its faces the unappealing alternatives of getting further bogged down in a hopeless guerrilla war or withdrawing from the country claiming “victory” but losing face over inevitable defeat. No joy either way.

So there is hardly is any realistic advice President Putin can give to President Bush on this sad situation. Moreover, peace in Chechnya achieved by Kadyrov’s clan may become a Pyrrhic victory for the federal center, after all. Milking the Russian treasury is an important element, but still more important is the possibility of sudden political changes in Chechnya, should its current clan leaders receive an enticing enough proposal. This is perfectly well known in Kremlin, which is why Putin will not offer Bush any Chechnya-based advice on Iraq. Still, the current development of events in Chechnya, however deficient, is the best of the worse from the Kremlin’s point of view. The trick is not to overplay the hand. Over time, something better that Kadyrov and his clan may come along. No one in the Kremlin will guarantee Kadyrov rule for life. Other powerful Chechen clans will be supported by Moscow to provide a check on Kadyrov’s rule.


I think that Lebedev’s comments should be kept in mind. Russian “success” in Chechnya is a paper thin veneer which may rip apart at any moment. Putin has essentially found stability in the strongest clan that was willing to kowtow to Moscow. He is able to do this because Chechnya has a far more homogenous political landscape than Iraq. Despite ethnic and religious differences within the republic, several tenets Chechen nationalism remains reconcilable with Moscow’s interests.

Unfortunately for many Chechens, nationalism is also quite reconcilable to corruption. As Anne Nivat writes in “Chechnya only Seems Normal” published in the May issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, life hardly approaches normal for many Chechens. Though new construction sites and billboards are dotting Grozny’s main drags, and cell phones are stapled to residents ears and passing cars blasting Russian pop hits, unanswered questions and deep uncertainty also remains on he forefront of many citizens minds. “You are immediately struck by the outward changes in Grozny, the renewed economic activity, the bazaar, public transport, government departments, building sites, cafes and restaurants,” writes Nivat.

“There are also signs of political normalisation, such as a referendum on the constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections. But behind these appearances war is on everyone’s mind. People are more wary. “Before, we more or less depended on each other, but that’s no longer the case,” says [Zainap] Gashaeva [who heads the NGO Echo of War]. People denounce each other to the police to catch the attention of some government official with influence, or to get some small reward. Mostly they live in fear; they go to sleep in fear and they wake up in fear. What will happen tomorrow? Nobody really knows. Will Kadyrov stay in power for long? Will he be murdered like his father? When will the boievikis counterattack, and if they do, will they return to power?”

The Kadyrov’s clan based power exists on shaky ground. On the one hand it is predicated on excluding some clans, while allowing others to have access to avenues of power, influence, and wealth. On the other hand, this system of rule has monopolized all the paths to stability. Normality passes through them. For citizens many of the citizens Nivat cites in her article, one must either forge or utilize connections, or somehow emigrate abroad as a political refugee. The later is made difficult for many because the feeling is that there is simply no where to go.

However, even such tentative normalization would be a luxury for Iraqis. And I’m sure American politicians and policy makers would be delighted to have the problems Putin has in Chechnya. But as the current moment shows both Iraq and Chechnya are worlds apart. Still, a comparison between the two wars is attractive and possibly instructive. Despite their important local differences, Chechnya and Iraq occupy the same historical moment. And by this I do not mean the “War on Terror”, but rather the continuation of nationalist movements and/or national liberation in a post-Cold War context. However, I think that while both conflicts occupy the same historical space, I think it would foolish to expect a solution in one to work in another. The historical legacies in Chechnya and Iraq preclude predictions based on comparison. As Lebedev states above, the US has no plausible alternatives and it is getting sucked deeper into a civil war with each passing day. All exists appear to be labeled, “Leave face at door.” And the solution in Chechnya is lacks any long term promise. Yet, despite this one is still forced to admit that even paper veneers cover something.

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