Vitaly Naumkin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islam and State Power in the Middle East and Central Asia: Conversation with Vitaly Naumkin, President of the International Center for Strategic and Political Studies, Moscow; February 19, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Jane Scherr photo

Page 3 of 5

Russian Perspectives on Islam

Does your description and analysis suggest that in the present environment, Russia and the United States have a great compatibility of interests in dealing with that part of the world?

Absolutely. I think that we have full compatibility in dealing with these parts of the world. We have common interests. These are interests in providing security to all of us. Russia regards itself as a part of the Western world and wants to be a close ally to the United States, and I think Mr. Putin's politics, especially since September 11, are a clear evidence of his course.

Putin's main idea is an idea of modernization. He wants to modernize the country, and he's ready to do whatever is needed to [accomplish] that. Of course, the latest contradiction on the issue of Iraq is a very special case. But in general, there is a clear coincidence of interest, security, of economic interests. Russia is interested in, I think, American presence in the world, economically and politically. But, as I said, it will be very counterproductive to understand this as trying to change this world in accordance with our recipes, by force, and trying to speed up all these developments. I'm in favor of evolution, so all these regimes can undergo certain evolution as the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did. They did it successfully.

Before we talk a little about Iraq, let's talk about how Russia is dealing with Islamic fundamentalism and questions of autonomy for particular regions within its own boundaries. How would you assess the way the different post-Soviet Russian regimes have dealt with the province of Chechnya?

Russia has a bad record of dealing with Chechnya, though I would rather say that in general, the Russian government's position towards Muslim regions and towards Islam and those who seek autonomy and these ethnic minorities -- this policy is not bad at all. It's not bad at all. We have very broad autonomies for all these regions, and there is much tolerance in the politics of Kremlin towards these regions. I think the government is very cautious about impeding changes or trying to spread its control over spheres that are very sensitive for the Muslims.

Does that extend back to the Soviet period, what you're describing? Or is this only now?

The Soviet Union was different. You know, it was controversial. On the one hand there were some positive elements, for instance, in spreading education and culture in certain regions. And also, developing local, maybe ethnic elites and so on. But in general, the Soviet national policy did a lot of damage to [Chechnya], and its atheistic Bolshevik dimension was even more damaging. There were a lot of positive things done in Central Asia in the Islamic region, especially in the sphere of education and modernization, but Chechnya is a very sad case.

It happened that this region was alienated. On the one hand, it's the legacy of the past, because there was a big Caucasian war in the nineteenth century. Now the question is why -- if this is the main reason, as some Chechens think -- why are the other ethnic groups in the Northern Caucases are not conducting such revolts? Dagestan, for instance, because of the implication of Imam Shamil in the nineteenth century, who was an Avar from Dagestan. He was not a Chechen. Most of the imamate, Shamil's followers who were conducting this war against Russia for many years, were Avars -- the Avar component was the main one. As far as the Dagestanis were concerned, there was no problem. The Ingush, an ethnic group very close to Chechens, are a very peaceful group and they have no problems with Moscow.

Why is Chechnya so different?

Why is Chechnya different? The Chechens are very independent-minded people. I think they have a very special mentality, very special political culture of violence. And being deported -- but many ethnic groups were deported; some of them are now quite comfortable. They didn't, of course, forget about these deportations. But the Chechens are different. They have a very strong historic memory, very strong culture of violence, very strong love for freedom, and a very specific mentality which helped them to start this rebellion. In the beginning, this rebellion or these ideas were supported, unfortunately, by some democrats from the center, because the main idea of some democrats in the beginning of the nineties was to replace the old nomenklatura, the old Party bureaucrats who were ruling these regions, with some new people. They were imagining; they had some illusions about the fact that maybe Mr. Dudayev was a new guy, a new general.

A Chechen?

A Chechen general who was supported as somebody [new] instead of the old Party bureaucracy. He would be a good ally of the new democratic Russia. And it was a mistake, because he came with crazy ideas. I wouldn't say that they had no right to struggle for independence, but they have to use legitimate means for that. But what happened under Dudayev, Chechnya turned into a place where a lot of people were taking hostages, were being kidnapped, and a lot of criminal affairs were just a part of their ordinary life. He tried to change the traditional way of life of the Chechens and turn it into an Islamic rule, in the fundamental sense, and a lot of bad things were done. Of course, I still think that it was a mistake that the Kremlin started the war. There was still some opportunity to deal with the problem, to solve the problem by peaceful means, but it wasn't done then.

Now we're all leaving. We're all seeing all these bad, very negative consequences of the situation. The war is still there, though the active phase of war is over. I am a cautious optimist. I think that most of the Chechens now think about their future. They want to live peacefully. And there is some opportunity of solving this problem. So I think that both sides, the Chechens and the government, have to be more tolerant, to use better ways for understanding and trying to solve this problem peacefully.

Is the rebellion there, or whatever is the appropriate term, the discontent and so on, how much is it affected by these external forces, both in concrete aid, but also in terms of ideology?

Very much. I would say that in general, it's insurgency. In general, it's a separatist movement. A certain part of this movement is a terrorist one. Not all Chechens fighters are terrorists, but some of them are. And some of them are international terrorists. It's supported by international terrorists.

I listened to the lecture of Mr. Akhmadov, who is a Foreign Minister of the unrecognized Chechen government of Ichkeria, and he said that the Chechens now are fragmented, that they're confronting each other. It's a very tragic result of this war, because it's not only a conflict between Chechens and Russians, it's a conflict between Chechens themselves. Most Chechens live in Russian territory outside Chechnya.

And second that the Chechens, when living in these circumstances [under Soviet rule], were ready to accept any aid from whoever was supporting them. So the aid was coming from international organizations -- terrorists, radicals, Islamic organizations aimed at creating an Islamic state in the North Caucasus. We know all that. I know that when I travel through the Middle East, this aid is so much that you can go in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and in any country you can enter and see there is support for fighters in Chechnya. The people are donating money. A lot of them are in favor of this military insurgency. [Or on the other hand,] when they are called to support the poor Chechens suffering from the infidel rule, they give money, and this money is used not for good purposes. Sometimes [it's used] in terrorist networks all over the world and it's used for drug trafficking, for killing people. In general, this is part of an anti-Western, anti-Christian big battle, which is conducted by these Islamic forces.

Not all Chechens are of this kind. I'm far from describing all Chechens as terrorists. There are people who are separatists and there are people who are innocent victims who are just forced to go there. They have no way but to support this. That's the most tragic thing in the present situation. It's very difficult for Mr. Putin to find ways to solve this problem. But the Russian leaders are trying, and there will be elections, a referendum. Maybe it will help to solve the problem.

As the international Islamic fundamentalist movement identifies with various movements for autonomy within particular nation states, what immediately comes to mind is the question of Israel and the Palestinians. Do you think that the Arab states and international Islam can reconcile themselves to the existence of Israel as a state, even though certain fundamentalist terrorists groups might oppose that existence?

I think the Arab states, or many of them, have already accepted the existence of Israel. Many states. First of all, in Egypt, which is maybe the main and the most important Arab state, recognition is possible. Now, of course, there are fundamentalists who are using every opportunity to kill recognizing Israel on the part of the Arabs. But, unfortunately, the situation is so bad in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians that there is a fertile ground for Islamists and for radical groups to use it. You know, they say, "No, there is no other way to liberate our land, but to start this struggle using all these methods." And history knows that many liberation movements resort not only to using violence, but to terrorism to liberate themselves from what they consider to be an invasion or foreign rule. That's true.

Next page: The Case of Iraq

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California