WASHINGTON — In the wake of this month’s devastating suicide bombing of a hospital near Chechnya, diplomatic analysts have increasingly been speaking of the “Palestinization” of the Chechen conflict.
In recent weeks, suicide bombings have suddenly become the most visible, if not dominant, métier of the Chechen resistance. Since mid-May, there have been eight successful or attempted suicide bombings in Russia. They have been responsible for more than 150 deaths — despite the fact that this kind of terrorism was virtually nonexistent in the Chechen conflict before last year.
The sudden onset of the bombings has prompted some scholars, including Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center and Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, draw comparisons to Israel’s fight against terrorism.
According to Aron, “Palestinization” refers to the hijacking of a once-secular independence movement by nihilistic, uncompromising jihadists. “What began as a movement for Chechen autonomy has degenerated, on the fringes, into a radical, fundamentalist Islamic movement,” he said. “Insofar as Hamas is aimed at the destruction of Israel, the group of Chechen rebels reflected by the suicide bombers will not stop fighting until the green banner of Islam is flying over the Kremlin.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom appeared to back this theory during a trip to Moscow in June. “[Islamic terror] is the main cause of the terrorist acts that are happening in our country, that took place in Morocco, in Saudi Arabia, in Indonesia and also in Chechnya,” he said.
The U.S. State Department has added three Chechen rebel groups to its terrorist blacklist, alleging ties to Osama bin Laden, who has cited Chechnya alongside Israel, Kashmir and Bosnia as justifications for jihad.
“We should view [attacks on Muslims in these places] not as separate, but as links in a long series of conspiracies, a war of annihilation in the true sense of the word,” the mastermind of the September 11 attacks insisted in a November 2001 message to his followers.
According to Rajan Menon, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an expert on Chechnya, “there is no denying that there are radical Wahhabist elements in Chechnya, some of them native, others from the wider Arab world.” He cautioned, however, not to conflate the fundamentalists with the majority of the Chechen population who “run the gamut from people with whom Moscow could have a meaningful dialogue to those who have no desire for negotiation.”
Other experts stress the limits of comparisons between the Chechen and the Palestinian conflicts.
“There are some similarities and there are also some real differences,” said Stephen Solarz, who represented Brooklyn for 18 years in the House of Representatives and is now a co-chairman of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Among the most significant divergences: “Israel has agreed to permit the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, albeit there has been no agreement on where the borders should be,” he said. “In the case of Chechnya, however, the Russians categorically reject that possibility.”
Solarz also pointed out that “Russia’s conduct in the war in Chechnya has been infinitely worse and far more deplorable than anything Israel has done vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It bears no comparison.”
Gal Luft, founder of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, agreed. “The Russians are not as affected by international pressure as Israel,” he said. “Therefore, they use means and methods that would not be acceptable in the case of Israel.”
There is also concern that any association with Middle Eastern terrorism will only serve to demonize the Chechen cause further.
“‘Palestinization’ is a cute buzzword, but the core issue isn’t Islam. It’s national self-determination. You could also call it ‘East Timor-ification,’” said Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, referring to the former province of Indonesia that is now an independent state. “[Moscow] is using the issue of Islam to deflect accusations of its own abuses.”
Russia has waged two wars in Chechnya in the past decade. During the first, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, Russians shelled the Chechen capital of Grozny, making little effort to distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians. Although Moscow carefully restricts access to Chechnya, the U.S. government estimates that 80,000 Chechens have died since the second war ignited in 1999, and the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya calculates that Chechen casualties since 1994 are as high as 250,000. Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations have also documented hundreds of “forced disappearances” and other depredations by poorly-paid Russian troops.
But the dynamic fueling the continued violence in Chechnya may in part transcend any ideology — whether Russian chauvinism, Islamic fundamentalism or Chechen self-determination (the traditional bugaboos).
In his account of his travels in the Caucasus, Israeli journalist Yo’av Karny quotes Dzhokhar Dudayev, president of Chechnya during the first war with Russia, as remarking: “I need [the war] more than Russia does…. What would I do if the Russians suddenly pulled out? I’ve got 300,000 men, aged 17 to 50, homeless, jobless, embittered and with nothing to do. All they can do is fight. I need a little war and an enemy to send them to battle against.”
In this regard, the damage inflicted by the suicide bombers goes beyond mere carnage. Rather, the violence strengthens the worst elements in Russian and Chechen society.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Aron elaborated, “Radicals can only exist, as we know from totalitarian states in general, by perennial warfare…. Who would need [Chechen extremist leader] Shamil Basayev in a peaceful, democratic Chechnya? Who would need Arafat in a peaceful, democratic Palestine?”
It is for this reason, Solarz of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya said, that “at the end of the day, there is no military solution to either the Chechen or the Palestinian conflict.”
Vance Serchuk is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2001 to 2002, he lived in Russia as a Fulbright scholar.