By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
A Chechen human rights researcher is warning that militant Islamic ideology is gaining currency in the Russian separatist region of Chechnya and broadening its appeal elsewhere in the tense North Caucasus.
Ousam Baysaev, 43, an author and former journalist who has made a career of chronicling human rights abuses in Chechnya and surrounding republics, presented his conclusions in a lecture in Washington last month at the National Endowment for Democracy. Such findings are likely to cause new anxiety among U.S. and European policymakers already concerned by the unrest in a region strategically important to the United States because of its proximity to Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan.
Russia has fought two post-Soviet wars against separatist rebels in Chechnya, including one in 1999 that helped propel Russian President Vladimir Putin to power. While fighting declined in Chechnya a few years ago after the Russian military established a Kremlin-supported government there, turmoil and strife in the wider North Caucasus have spread.
In recent weeks, there have been protests in the neighboring, mostly Muslim republic of Ingushetia in response to a government crackdown on political opposition.
The demonstrators have risen up against official corruption and the republic's president, Murad Zyazikov, a close ally of Putin. On Monday, Putin visited a military unit stationed in the hills of Dagestan, another restive republic on Chechnya's eastern border.
"In those republics, there are metastasizing rebel movements," said Miriam Lanskoy, a senior program officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus at the National Endowment for Democracy, who moderated Baysaev's talk. "They come to Chechnya, fight for a week or two, and go home having more credibility and status."
Lanskoy, who is completing a book on the Caucasus, said Chechen rebels who subscribed to the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam fought secular nationalists in 1998 for control of the separatist movement. The battles, she said, tilted in favor of the secular wing of the movement.
That changed, she said, when the secular rebel leaders tried to flee Grozny, the Chechen capital, ahead of a Russian assault in 2000. Many were exiled or killed, including a dozen top rebel commanders who died in a minefield.
In his lecture, Baysaev showed a slide of a wall to illustrate the shift from secular to Islamic influence within the separatist movement. One slogan that had been sprayed on the wall graffiti-style read: "Freedom or Death." Beneath it was a more recent one declaring: "Chechnya is the Province of Allah."
"They perceive themselves as having no outlet," Baysaev said of the rebels, adding that they would probably "take the fight to a broader area" that would include Ingushetia, Dagestan and other nearby republics.
A former correspondent for Radio Free Europe, Baysaev has documented human rights abuses in Chechnya since 1999, when the second phase of the war began. He is a founding member of Memorial, a nonprofit organization devoted to monitoring atrocities, war crimes and other human rights violations.
Baysaev first became involved in human rights work in 1995, when Human Rights Watch came to his village of Zamashke during the first Chechen war. The following year, Russian soldiers arrived, searching for rebels, and ordered residents out of their homes. He said the soldiers then opened fire, wounding his entire family and others in the village.
In recent years, Baysaev and a small staff in Grozny and Ingushetia have been putting together "A Chronicle of Violence," a record of abuses during the most recent Chechen war.
"Chechnya became the greatest humanitarian disaster and one of the greatest cases of human rights violations in Europe," he said.
Baysaev became known outside the Caucasus when he spoke at a conference in Stockholm in the fall of 2006 and caught the attention of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist. She was, he said, particularly interested in his claim that Russian security services were working with Chechen criminal rings against the rebels.
"I gave names of concrete killers who are now in power in Chechnya," Baysaev said. Politkovskaya pleaded with a reluctant Baysaev to allow her to print his findings in her publication under a different name, which she did. Two days later, on Oct. 7, 2006, Politkovskaya was shot and killed in her apartment building in Moscow. Baysaev is uncertain whether the publication of his material led to her murder.
"She feared absolutely nothing," he said. "She had one great quality. When she wrote about someone, she did not forget him or her. So even when people felt disillusioned, people were willing to talk to her."
Baysaev said it is now up to the Chechens to make sure they are not forgotten.
"Our own history has to be written by us," he said.