9 questions about Chechnya and Dagestan you were too embarrassed to ask

April 19, 2013

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Although information is still emerging about their exact connections to the Russian regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, early reporting suggests that Boston marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev may be of Chechen origin and may have grown up partially in neighboring Dagestan, The Washington Post reports. The regions are sometimes described as part of the "Caucasus region," so named for the Caucasus mountains.

You might naturally be wondering about Chechnya and Dagestan, which will no doubt be referenced frequently in coverage of the Tsarnaev brothers. This post is a simple, entry-level explainer on these Russian regions and their years of conflict and trauma, written to give anyone who's interested a basic understanding.

1) What are Chechnya and Dagestan?

The most basic answer is that they're two federal subdivisions of Russia, both in the country's far southwest. They're small, mountainous, predominantly Muslim and have been marked by years of conflict and independence movements.

The regions are known for their diversity and scenic beauty, but they've also sadly become famous as flashpoints of internal Russian conflict.

2) Why is there conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan?

To understand that you have to know that it's been almost 200 years since they were independent. In the early 1800s, Russian Tzar Nicholas I led an invasion of the Caucasus, including the regions we now know as Chechnya and Dagestan. After decades of fighting, they were incorporated into Imperial Russia, and have been under some form of Russian rule ever since.

Chechnya, and to a lesser extent Dagestan, have periodically rebelled against Moscow in a sometimes-violent effort to secure independence. Some of this violence has been led by separatists and some by "jihadists" who profess an extreme version of Islam. Some of it has been directed at local, pro-Moscow governments, some of it at people in Moscow itself and, during some of the worst years after the fall of the Soviet Union, against Russian troops sent to the region to put down the uprisings.

3) I think I remember hearing something about a war in the 1990s. Is that right?

Two wars, actually. The First Chechen War began in 1994. A few years earlier, when the Soviet Union dissolved and its various regions either seceded or negotiated their place in the new Russian Federation, Moscow's talks with Chechen representatives fell apart. Nationalist movements had been gaining momentum in Chechnya for years, some of them armed, and in 1991 a former Soviet Air Force general maneuvered his way into becoming the president of Chechnya, after which he quickly declared independence. Three years later, Russia sent tens of thousands of troops to invade and retake Chechnya.

The First Chechen War, which lasted almost two years, was brutal: Fighting claimed thousands of lives, including many civilians. Chechen groups devolved into insurgencies; Russian troops were accused by human rights groups of summarily executing men in their homes, firing deliberately into civilian areas and, according to one Human Rights Watch report, leading a "massacre" in the town of Samashki that the United Nations says ended in more than 100 civilian deaths. Eventually, Russia retook Chechnya.

The first war and its aftermath, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, "transformed the nationalist cause into an Islamist one, with a jihadi component." Jihadist groups started to rise in influence and, in 1999, a Chechnya-based group invaded the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan. They seized several villages, declared war against Moscow and said Dagestan was now an independent Islamic state. Once again, Russian troops moved in.

The Second Chechen War, like the first, took thousands of lives, including many civilians, leveled wide swathes of the country and was marked by allegations of horrific human rights abuses on both sides. Though the war lasted less than a year, it bled into neighboring Dagestan, as did the decade of insurgency and military presence that followed.

4) But it's over now, right?

Not really, no. Low-level rebel violence persists in the region, according to the Crisis Group, and Chechnya is now run by a leader known for his allegiance to Moscow, consolidation of power and sometimes severe crackdowns, none of which have exactly dispelled the underlying issues that led to the wars in the first place. Jihadist groups continue to operate there.

Dagestan has never had quite as tough a time as Chechnya, but it has struggled with insecurity and violence, which upticked significantly in 2010.

The violence and extremism have spread beyond Chechnya and Dagestan. In 2002, fighters who claimed to represent Islamist Chechen separatists seized a crowded theater in Moscow, taking hundreds of civilians hostage. In a microcosm of the larger conflict, Russian forces responded by pumping the theatre full of a toxic gas that killed 130 of the hostages. All of the militants were killed. In 2010, two women believed to be Chechen Islamist rebels bombed the Moscow subway, killing 40.

5) This is kind of bringing me down. Can we take a music break?

Good idea. Here's a song by the popular Chechen singer Timur Mucuraev, called "Jerusalem." The song, which I am not endorsing but rather noting as a lens for the larger conflict, is a bit controversial.

Mucuraev was born in Soviet Chechnya in 1976. In 1994, at age18, Mucuraev joined a number of his peers in fighting against the Russian troops they saw as invaders. By the Second Chechen War, he had gained something of a following for his mournful, Russian-language songs.

This song became a bit of an anthem for rebels during that war. It also reflected the movement's turn to militant Islamism. The song endorses jihad, although it's not clear if he means to use the broader definition of struggle or if he is specifically embracing the narrower, global definition espoused by al-Qaeda and similar groups. The song's lyrics implore God for strength during a time of darkness and for "fierce battles ahead."

6) Why are these people in the Caucasus so eager to break away from Russia?

Depending on who you ask, the reason for the violence has either changed dramatically over the past 200 years, swaying from separatism to nationalism to Islamism to general lawlessness, or it's been part of a consistent struggle to break free from Moscow's rule.

It's hard to separate the two, particularly given Chechnya's and Dagestan's long and traumatic histories with Moscow. After Chechen insurgents tried and failed to win independence during World War II, for example, Joseph Stalin approved a plan to forcibly relocate more than 400,000 Chechens, sprinkling them throughout the vast Soviet Union and undermining the very idea of a distinct Chechen identity. (Some of them ended up in Kyrgyzstan, which may explain why one of the Tsarnaevs was reportedly born there.) And that 1940s rebellion was itself a partial response to Imperial Russia's deportation of 100,000 Chechens a generation earlier.

7) So whom do we blame for the violence? Is it Moscow? Jihadists?

It's not that simple. First of all, whatever the Boston Marathon suspects believed and whomever they blamed, the Caucasus conflict has too complicated a history to be pinned on any one group or ideology.

One writer has called the conflict with Moscow "a circular pattern of marginalization, violent rebellion, and deportation that consumed the peoples of the North Caucasus."

A second Crisis Group report, calling the Caucasus conflict the most violent in Europe, explained, "The root causes of violence are as much about ethnicity, state capacity and the region’s poor integration into Russia as about religion."

It's about identity, about law and order or its absence. It's about the still-unresolved questions about Chechnya and Dagestan's place within but still distinct from the larger Russian state. It's really, really complicated.

8) Are things improving in Chechnya and Dagestan at all?

Things are not nearly as bad as they were a decade ago but, as the Crisis Group warned in its two 2012 reports that militant attacks are still a regular part of life, often against police or government targets; jihadist groups still operate in small numbers in the region; and, of course, the 2010 Moscow subway bombing was only three years ago. Neither the regional governments nor Moscow appear to be trying to solve the underlying issues so much as tamp down the extremism and violence.

This line from the second Crisis Group report is almost haunting in its potential prescience: "These harsh measures [by the Russian and Caucasus governments] do little to convince radicalised parts of the population to give their allegiance to the Russian state. They seem instead to stimulate a new generation of disillusioned youth to 'join the forest' (go over to the insurgency) in search of revenge or a different political order."

9) This was too long so I skipped to the bottom. What's the big takeaway?

The conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan is relatively quiet right now, but has been ongoing in some form or another for almost 200 years.

The issues at the heart of the conflict remain: Chechens and other peoples in the Caucasus region are struggling to retain an identity distinct from the larger Russian mass; Moscow and the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya are working to tamp down extremism and violence rather than address the underlying grievances; extremism and jihadism are filling the void left by two awful wars in the 1990s; and young people feel dispossessed and prosperity has not really arrived.

None of this necessarily means that the Chechen and Dagestan conflicts will define or "explain" what happened at the Boston Marathon, but as more biographical details emerge linking these two young suspects to a restive and little-understood part of the world, it can't hurt to better understand what's happening there and why it's been so troubled.

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Max Fisher | April 19, 2013