Wednesday, 30 January 2002

TURKISH-RUSSIAN RELATIONS AND THE CONFLICT IN CHECHNYA

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By Michael A. Reynolds (1/30/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: On January 9, the office of the Russian Presidential Spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky announced that Turkey had requested the extradition file for Movladi Udugov.  Udugov is closely tied to the radical wing that includes Shamil Basaev and the Saudi-born Khattab, has played a prominent role as a propagandist in the Chechen conflict, and has for periods of time resided in Istanbul. News agencies throughout the world picked up the announcement, and the next day the Russian press was abuzz with speculation about how the request dealt a blow to the Chechen resistance and how it signified a watershed in Russian-Turkish relations.

BACKGROUND: On January 9, the office of the Russian Presidential Spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky announced that Turkey had requested the extradition file for Movladi Udugov.  Udugov is closely tied to the radical wing that includes Shamil Basaev and the Saudi-born Khattab, has played a prominent role as a propagandist in the Chechen conflict, and has for periods of time resided in Istanbul. News agencies throughout the world picked up the announcement, and the next day the Russian press was abuzz with speculation about how the request dealt a blow to the Chechen resistance and how it signified a watershed in Russian-Turkish relations. Yastrzhembsky himself crowed that "A new wind is blowing." Curiously, no Turkish authority has confirmed Yasztrzhembsky's claim. When asked on January 18 about the matter at a press conference in Washington DC, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in his typical style cryptically responded that "there are different opinions about the fight against terrorism - even in some democratic West European countries." Ecevit's response echoed his opening statement and was a veiled reference to the refusal of several Western European countries to label the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist organization. It may well have been directed at Russia as well. Moscow has long maintained ties to subversive Kurdish groups in Turkey, and has on more than one occasion in the 1990s alone exploited those ties to pressure Ankara. The unwillingness of these states to prevent the PKK from using their territories to raise funds and organize attacks against Turkish targets continues to be a source of great frustration for Ankara.

IMPLICATIONS: Even if Yastrzhembsky's announcement were correct, it would have little significance. Turkish support is of marginal importance for the Chechens, and Russian-Turkish relations have been quite positive for some time now. In marked contrast to the situation in the first Chechen war, Turkish support for the Chechen cause during this war has been significantly limited. The Turkish government has impeded, and at times banned, pro-Chechen rallies, restricted the ability of pro-Chechen organizations to operate and raise funds, and forced a number of Chechen activists to leave the country. Turkish media coverage of the conflict has been scanty, and the media's tone has been cool, even at times hostile. Overall public opinion in Turkey is not far from apathetic to the Chechen cause. Moreover, the kidnapping of Turkish citizens in Chechnya following the first war, the radical Islamic image of Basaev and Khattab, and the initial attack on Dagestan also served to disorient and alienate most of Turkey's North Caucasian Diaspora, which during the first war had provided a united and enthusiastic organizational backbone for the Chechen cause. The only significant constituency group among which the Chechen cause has found support is the Islamists - but the Islamists' support is a mixed blessing.  By linking their cause to that of Turkey's Islamists, the Chechens and their backers pit themselves against the Turkish State establishment and the military in particular. The immensely powerful Turkish National Security Council regards Islamic radicalism as the greatest threat to the Turkish Republic, ranking it ahead of even Kurdish separatism. Ongoing pressure from the Turkish state, such as the banning last year of the Islamic-minded Virtue Party, forces the Islamist movement to concentrate its resources on survival and limits the support it can provide to an outside issue such as Chechnya. In addition, there is no indication that either Moscow or Ankara have recently regarded Chechnya as an impediment to building closer ties. Indeed, their relations in both the diplomatic and economic spheres have only improved since the second war, beginning with Ecevit's signing of several agreements on the eve of the Russian storm of Grozny in 1999. The agreements included one on joint anti-terrorism and one on a formal commitment to the Blue Stream project, an ambitious effort to pipe Russian natural gas to Turkey under the Black Sea. Ecevit's visit was followed by a reciprocal visit to Turkey by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in 2000. Accompanied by a high level delegation, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov this past year met not only with the Turkish president and prime minister, but also delivered a special address to a large gathering of Turkish businessmen in Istanbul. Both sides are planning for a visit to Turkey by Russian President Putin later this year, and Blue Stream is expected to be delivering gas to Turkey before the summer.

CONCLUSIONS: At a time when Russia and Turkey are exchanging diplomatic visits at the highest level and when mutual trade and investment continues to grow at unprecedented levels, it is difficult to understand how Turkey's willingness to extradite a notorious but relatively minor Chechen figure could further improve those relations.  Aside from the occasional low-level attempt at scandal, such as the recent release of an FSB propaganda film conveniently portraying the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) as a candidate to replace the CIA as a threat to Russia in the wake of Putin's support for America's war on terrorism, Russia has not given any significant indication of displeasure with Turkey's stance on Chechnya. Unless Moscow chooses to pose a direct challenge to Turkish security by, for example, reactivating contacts with the PKK, there is no reason to expect Turkey to reverse course and begin assisting the Chechens as it did in the first war. The September 11 attacks only heightened the Turkish security establishment's determination to quash Islamic radicalism, and it will continue to regard with great suspicion all causes associated with that movement, including the Chechen cause. Active support for Chechnya in Turkey will remain restricted to a badly split Diaspora community, a dispirited and embattled Islamist movement, and thoroughly marginal political figures such as Besim Tibuk. Given the sharply circumscribed nature of the support, the Turkish contribution to the ability of the Chechens to resist can only be negligible. Those who believe that Chechnya can be pacified by cutting outside sources of supply would do well to consult the archived debates of the Cheka, the forerunner to the KGB, regarding its attempts to pacify Chechnya in the 1920s.  While some Cheka officers preferred to rage about suspected aid trickling in from "bourgeois Georgia", others more soberly observed that the Cheka's own brutality had given the region's inhabitants no choice but to fight. If Russia hopes to defeat radicalism in Chechnya today, it would do better to curb the atrocities of its own forces than fulminate about foreign sources of aid.

AUTHOR BIO: Michael A. Reynolds is Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies of Princeton University. He has conducted extensive research in Turkey and Russia.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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