BACKGROUND: Killed by pro-Russian security forces in Dagestan on April 19, Aliaskhab Kebedov, otherwise known as Ali Abu Muhammed, may yet go down in history as the last “emir” of the so-called Caucasus Emirate organization. The Emirate was conceived of initially as a means of uniting disparate rebel groups in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria under a single, mutually acceptable ideological umbrella. The Emirate was proclaimed by the Chechen rebel leader, Doku Umarov, in 2007. In doing so, Umarov forfeited his title as president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, instead casting himself as the emir, or military ruler, of the entire North Caucasus. With this proclamation, Umarov eschewed his previous political objective of securing independence for his native Chechnya, focusing instead on a more ambitious agenda whereby the entire region would be subjected to a political regime based on the tenets of Islamic law, the Sharia.
From the outset, however, it was clear that a sizable constituency within the Chechen rebel organization was uncomfortable with this new departure. A prolonged sequence of political infighting resulted in Umarov publicly accusing several recalcitrant lieutenants of insubordination. In turn, these opponents cited various shortcomings pertaining to the emir’s style of leadership as the main reason for their truculence. It transpired that Umarov arrived at the decision to proclaim the Emirate in consultation with a small, exclusive group of advisors. Umarov had neglected to involve the most senior Chechen rebel leaders in his deliberations.
If he believed that his seniority and legend within the rebel ranks would convince doubters to set aside any misgivings about the Emirate project, he was mistaken. Some regarded the proclamation as a strategic error; others simply considered it offensive. This rift within the Chechen rebel organization was never successfully bridged and further diminished the organization’s capacity to function militarily, and indeed politically, at a time when it was already under serious pressure on both fronts.
Since becoming the pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya in 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov has been firmly pressing the bounds of Chechnya’s political autonomy within the contours of Russia’s constitutional framework. Kadyrov’s Chechnya has accumulated many of the features of a sovereign state, with its own anthem, flag and legislative assembly. Kadyrov has also assembled a sizable security apparatus, staffed by thousands of native Chechens, tasked with upholding the interests of the pro-Moscow administration both in Chechnya itself and farther afield. Crucially, the administration has also managed to establish a lasting modus vivendi with the Russian government, an achievement which has previously eluded all would-be architects of Chechen statehood.
Umarov, meanwhile, saw his authority gradually dwindle during his tenure. Upon his death in 2013, he bequeathed an under-resourced organization blighted by sectarian infighting and severely compromised by government informants. Most importantly, he left behind an organization that is confused about its overall strategy and ideological orientation.
IMPLICATIONS: Umarov is not solely responsible for this state of affairs. A credible argument can be made that a relentless and multi-vectored counter-insurgency campaign waged by Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration has critically degraded the military capabilities of the rebel organization. But it is in the political-ideological sphere that the Kadyrov administration has been most successful. One of the principal complaints about Umarov’s leadership was that the Chechen organization’s long-standing strategic goal of securing an independent Chechen state was being marginalized.
Clearly, however, such plaintiffs did not recognize the emerging congruity between the traditional vision of an independent Chechnya – as embodied by the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria – and the contemporary reality of Kadyrov’s semi-sovereign Chechen republic. But is it possible that Umarov recognized this congruity sooner than his comrades? Is it possible that the development of the Caucasus Emirate project was in some way a tacit acknowledgment that Kadyrov had all but “stolen the clothes” of the Chechen separatist movement?
By so doing, Kadyrov left people like Umarov, who could see no role for themselves in Chechnya’s prevailing pro-Moscow order, with a pressing need to establish a new ideological paradigm for continued resistance. This would perhaps account for Umarov’s decision in 2007 to abruptly deviate from the orthodox separatist mantra in deference to the ideological formulae of certain rebel ideologues – a majority of whom were based outside Chechnya – who had been demanding the proclamation of a Caucasus-wide Islamic state entity for some time. Paradoxically, if one accepts the premise that Kadyrov’s Chechnya has met or exceeded the benchmark of what constituted a minimum level of sovereignty acceptable to the original group of Chechen separatist leaders, then it is possible to conclude that the Caucasus Emirate phenomenon does not in fact represent an evolutionary development in the traditional separatist agenda. Instead, the Emirate can be considered to represent a drastic reaction by Umarov and his confidantes to Kadyrov’s effective co-optation and implementation of their original program for a sovereign Chechen state.
As Umarov’s successor, Kebedov would also find his ideological paradigm for resisting Russian rule in the North Caucasus challenged by contemporary political developments. In his case it was the influence of ISIS, not Kadyrov’s all-encompassing nationalist paradigm in Chechnya, which presented the biggest challenge. Over the past several years, hundreds of young volunteers from throughout the North Caucasus have been making their way to Syria to fight the Assad regime, with many of them joining the ranks of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization. Since the end of 2014, however, there have been several instances whereby insurgent leaders in Dagestan have publicly forsaken the Caucasus Emirate organization and instead pledged their allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
CONCLUSIONS: There was a time when the separatist mantra of the Chechen rebel movement was practically the solitary ideological paradigm for organized resistance to Russian rule in the North Caucasus. Later, following the emergence of Kadyrov as a political force in 2005-2006, this mantra was progressively usurped as a paradigm for resistance. A constituency within the rebel movement subsequently embraced a somewhat elementary ideology grounded in notions of pan-Caucasian solidarity and the perceived utility of Islamic law was as an alternative paradigm.
However, with the advent of the ISIS phenomenon since 2014, it has become clear that a sizable body of opinion with the rebel movement in the North Caucasus, particularly in Dagestan, has deemed the Caucasus Emirate paradigm unfit for purpose. In many respects, the Caucasus Emirate experiment has demonstrated the political difficulties of uniting disparate rebel groups throughout the region under a single, unified command structure. The rebels’ organizational structures throughout the North Caucasus are centrifugal by their inception and there is a sense that the organization in Chechnya was not the only group discommoded by the tendency toward a centralized, autocratic style of leadership under the auspices of the Emirate.
By adopting a new figurehead, an “absentee emir” with little real interest in the affairs of the region, the insurgents in Dagestan and Chechnya who have pledged their allegiance to al-Baghdadi are effectively petitioning for the reintroduction of a more centrifugal paradigm of resistance, one which would render unnecessary the continued authoritarian oversight of a local emir.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from the University College Cork, Ireland.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov