in Chechnya: Their Relevance for the Chechen Conflict
© William R. Nelson Institute, 2000
Relevance of Religious Brotherhoods to Current Conflict
In order to appreciate the relevance of the Kunta Hadji movement, it is necessary to place this brotherhood within the context of other such associations in Chechnya. As noted above, the Kunta Hadji is only one of an estimated twenty-seven Chechen brotherhoods but, with the Vakhab movement (also known as the Djamaat movement), it is one of the two largest. A result of this multiplicity of religious groupings is that each has developed an exclusive sense of community or clannishness that encourages members to promote only their immediate "brothers". Non-members are regarded as being beyond the moral code that applies only within each particular community. Consequently, corruption is not only rampant but is also justified on the basis of religious affiliation and dogma.
One important consequence of this corruption has been an exacerbation of tensions leading to violent clashes involving groups identified with religious brotherhoods. An example of one such clash occurred in 1998 in Gudermes, an industrial center which had fallen under the control of organized crime after the first Chechen war. In this case an armed Vahkab group known as Shariat's Guard waged a battle against a criminal gang that was attempting to assert control over local industrial enterprises. The criminal gang was under the leadership of Sulim Yamadaev, one of Chechnya's most prominent underworld figures, and enjoyed the patronage of Ahmed Kadirov, an important local politician. An estimated twenty-eight people were killed during the battle and an additional dozen died in subsequent skirmishes.
Thus, both corruption and violence have become the hallmark of contemporary Chechen life. The deterioration of national life is reflected in changes in the patterns of societal violence since the immediate post-Soviet period. During the first Chechen war, there was a degree of national unity that was reflected in the fact that almost all factions joined in fighting against the Russians. For them, the fighting was seen as a war of national liberation. The more recent post-Soviet years have been characterized by the vendettas undertaken by individuals whose families were killed in early clashes that now appear to have been futile efforts to assert national identity.
In this environment, it is not surprising that almost all sects have armed formations, generally described as militias, which work to advance the often-divergent interests of their particular brotherhoods. A very practical explanation for the appearance of such formations is that the North Caucasus region is populated by numerous veterans who served not only in the Soviet Army but fought in the conflicts in Abkhazia and Afghanistan. These people have limited training beyond their military education and have almost no civilian career options in the region's terrible economic environment. Shamil Basaev, for example, participated in the fighting in Abkhazia and Maskhadov served with Soviet troops that suppressed demonstrations in the Baltic states. For such people, armed conflict provides a natural opportunity for one of the services they can best provide.
The basis for most active of the armed groups in Chechnya is the former members of the Shariat's Guards, the Shariat's "Courts", and former members of various organs of state security. The Shariat's Guards and the Shariat's Courts were organized by Chechnya's Vakhab movement and were composed of young men who saw themselves as being at the forefront of the fight against criminality and corruption. The stated goal of the Shariat's Guard was to implement decisions made by the Shariat's "Courts." Those quasi-judicial decisions were intended to serve as expressions of the Sharia, which is a specific interpretation of the Koran. The Sharia, therefore, should be viewed as law based on the Koran. Each sect, of course, has its own interpretation of the Koran in order to advance that sect's specific agenda. The overall goal of the Shariat's Guard was to reinstate the "true law", which for the Vakhab movement means full equality for all men before God and the law. In short, this was intended to be a practical code of behavior for all followers of Islam.
Since 1997, most of the militias' military efforts have been directed against other sects rather than against state agencies. This situation is, in large part, a result of the Shariat's Guard view of itself as the true expression of legitimate state power and the resultant necessity to direct their efforts against other sects that challenged their legitimacy. In this, they present themselves as being involved in the struggle against corruption and criminality rather than as agents of religious extremism.
The religious brotherhoods have emerged as major political actors in Chechnya and they played an important role in facilitating the demise of the Dudaev regime. While Dudaev utilized religious appeals in advancing his political agenda, it became obvious to serious Muslims that Dudaev's commitment to the Kunta Hadji movement was, at best, superficial and, more likely, insincere. This apparent hypocrisy, coupled with complaints over his increasingly dictatorial operational style and suspicions that he was a "Russian agent," contributed to his political decline.