Farewell to liberal innocence, make way for the extremists


Once in a no-star hotel in the Volga town of Samara I found myself nursing a broken arm. An attempt to enter a military hospital as a journalist had gone wrong. Instead I had slipped on the icy pavement and broken my wrist. I entered the hospital as a patient and saw young Russian conscripts suffering from horrific injuries sustained in the opening weeks of the Chechen war.

In the hotel's "buffet", a tiny room where tepid soup and fiery vodka were served, I met Malik, a trader from Azerbaijan. He offered his views on the conflict which had just begun. The Chechens, he correctly forecast, would emerge as the victors. He came to this conclusion, however, by spiritual rather than material reasoning. The Chechens would win because their God, Allah, was stronger than the Russians' God, Christ.

Malik then proceeded to buy a half-litre bottle of Russian vodka in order to toast the forthcoming victory of Allah against the Slavic unbelievers. The incident occurred in January 1995. The Soviet Union had been disbanded almost exactly three years earlier. The Russian Federation had just begun to fray at the edges but there was still a lot of political and religious innocence about.

Nowadays, in certain parts of Chechnya or Dagestan, if Malik were to reach for his half-litre of vodka he would risk having his hand cut off following trial at a Sharia'h Court in which Islamic justice is dispensed. In the old days, the 20 million Muslims of the Russian Federation owed little more than a vague ethnic allegiance to Islam. Many of them now practice an enlightened and liberal form of their religion but others have turned to extremism.

Today, Russian television shows devastated apartment buildings and videotapes of the execution of hostages by Chechen warlords. The innocent times, so amusingly portrayed by Malik's behaviour in the buffet, have gone forever.

The shift from vague feelings of ethnic allegiance to Islam to more fundamentalist belief and practice has been more evident in Chechnya and Dagestan than in other parts of Russia. The Volga Tatars, for example, have retained their moderate form of devotion and have strongly resisted proselytisers from outside the region or from outside Russia.

Rafael Hakimov, policy adviser to the President of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiyev, was quite open to The Irish Times about the region's opposition to more fundamentalist forms of practice and especially to that of the ultra-puritan Wahhabi sect, which has its origins in Saudi Arabia.

"We had some Wahhabis here in Tatarstan, but we don't have them now. It may not have been very democratic but we just got rid of them," Mr Hakimov told me in an interview in the presidential palace in Kazan, 500 miles east of Moscow.

While they have adopted a moderate approach to religion and politics, Tatars have shifted away from the unity of purpose and political belief which they shared with Russians in Soviet times. The most striking evidence of this has been seen in Tatar support for the NATO campaign in Kosovo and virulent opposition to the proposed "Slavic Union" between Russia and Belarus.

Further south in the Caucasus the movement away from Moscow's political line has been far more dramatic. Chechens have always been the most recalcitrant of Russia's minority nationalities. When the Tsarist forces occupied the Caucasus in the last century it was the Chechens, under their religious leader Imam Shamil, who held out longest. The USSR and later the Russian Federation took over the Tsarist dominions and when, in the 1990s, Moscow began to show signs of weakness, it was the Chechens who probed and pressed at those weaknesses until they reached breaking point.

THE result was the appalling war in Chechnya that ran for nearly two years from the beginning of 1995. More than 20,000 non-combatant civilians died. Massacres were committed by both sides, hostages were taken, little quarter was given.

In the end the Chechens won but at a terrible cost. The military commander, Aslan Maskhadov, a moderate and a former officer in the Red Army, won majority support in Chechnya's first presidential election. He has not, however, gained control of the entire territory. The more remote and mountainous regions remained in the hands of warlords and bandits. The taking of hostages for ransom became a major source of income.

Russia's NTV station this week showed a chilling video in which a young Russian faced the camera and said: "I am going to die now. I appeal to you to raise money to free the others." The Russian then lay on the ground and was decapitated by a man wielding an axe.

Some warlords have acted simply as bandits and kidnappers. Others, however, have moved towards religious fundamentalism. Shamil Basayev, who led bands of rebels into Chechnya on August 7th, was perhaps the fiercest commander on the Chechen side in the war against Russia. Unlike many of his colleagues he was always a devout Muslim, though it is extremely doubtful if he has become a member of the Wahhabi sect.

Russia's attempt to portray the rebels as Wahhabis is not entirely without foundation. The Saudi sect has taken root in the area and there is little doubt that many of the rebels owe it allegiance. Most Dagestanis and Chechens adhere to the mystic Sufi tradition of Islam. They have seen their shrines defaced and destroyed by Wahhabis in the region and they have no wish to be part of the Islamic state declared by Basayev and his followers.

That does not mean, however, that Dagestani loyalty to Moscow can be permanently relied upon. Moscow knows this and worries that a successful secessionist movement in Dagestan would trigger off a domino effect not only in the intricate ethnic patchwork of the Caucasus but elsewhere among ethnic and geographical groups in the federation.

Russia cannot afford to lose the war against terrorism but there are signs that it may be going the wrong way about winning it. If many the Muslims of the Caucasus have reverted to the actions and the attitudes of the times of Imam Shamil, some Russians are returning to attitudes which became prominent in the time of Stalin.

Watch committees have been set up in apartment blocks. Xenophobia and spying on neighbours has returned, if on a smaller scale than in the old days. Natives of the Caucasus who form the largest group of traders in Moscow's fruit and vegetable markets are being rounded up and put in police lockup cells throughout Moscow. A bitterness and hatred is being stored up on both sides that could lead to a protracted period of unrest.