[Beginnings] Beslan (3)

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 5-7.

Before the war, few Chechens would have claimed their vision of Islam, so thoroughly diluted by seven decades of Soviet Atheism, was orthodox. The principal rules and regulations of society were set by adat, the Chechen’s centuries-old customary law. The years of war would change all that. During the republic’s isolation, Moscow did all it could to undermine the Maskhadov regime, while the Russian General Staff, humiliated by the retreat from the south, yearned for a grudge match. In the vacuum, a new religious force took hold — Wahhabism, the austere strain of Islam that emanates from Saudi Arabia. Its teachers, in the main, were young men with long beards, stern gazes, and shadowy sources of funding. On the scorched earth of Chechnya, among a generation raised on war and little else, the movement found a fast and impassioned following.

If in the first war, the Chechen rebels were freedom fighters in the Reagan mold, yearning for independence in a classic war of decolonization, the war that began anew in the late 1999 — Putin’s War that continues to this day — marked a sharp turn. It began with the invasion by forces from Chechnya into Dagestan to the east, and the series of apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities. The sparks that reignited the conflict, and provided a welcome platform to catapult an unknown retired KGB lieutenant colonel to Yeltsin’s throne, are detailed in the pages that follow. But whatever its cause, the “second” Chechen war differed markedly from the first. For the Russians, the new campaign would be even more brutal, with far more troops, sorties, and bombs. For the Chechens, in turn, the talk of sovereignty now gave way to an urge for little but revenge. And among the most militant, as Russia entered the twenty-first century under Putin, the rebellion in Chechnya would take on a new name, jihad.

NO ONE CAN JUSTIFY TERRORISM, of any species. Neither can anyone explain mass murder, whether sponsored by a state or a half-crazed gang of criminals or soldiers. It is beyond the powers of reason to comprehend how men could shoot children in the back. That is not to say we should not try.

Under Putin, Russia remains a land in upheaval. There are troubles with restive oligarchs, old epidemics of corruption and alcoholism, new ones of HIV and tuberculosis. Chechnya, however, remains the wound that unites the country in anguish. The true tally of the dead will never be known — more than one hundred thousand combining both sides is the modest estimate. The Kremlin has called the attack at Beslan “Russia’s 9/11.” The Russian president has looked to Washington and pledged to adopt George W. Bush’s doctrine of “preemption.” The Chechens, to be sure, have won no friends by the recent campaign of terror. But Putin, too, has yielded no ground, steadfastly refusing to concede that his prosecution of the war could have fueled the rebel fire.

Putin did not start the war in Chechnya. He inherited it from his enfeebled predecessor. However, under his tenure the conflict has become more radicalized and militant. Only under Putin did the Chechens devise a new weapon: suicide bombers bent on killing as many Russian civilians as possible. In June 2000, during the first summer of his reign, and days before I entered the republic, the first Chechen shakhidka blew herself up, detonating a truck bomb at an army checkpoint. By now, the evidence is clear: the Kremlin’s unyielding policy, coupled with the ineptitude and brutality of its armed forces, has only played to the hand of its most radicalized opponents.

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