How a savage insurgency in Eurasia spread to Boston, and why Russia has its own problems.
You’ll have been forgiven for not immediately being able to place Chechnya on a map. An unloved scrap of Russia’s under belly, the rugged region was been fought over by Turks, Persians and Russians for centuries, before finally being incorporated into Russia proper in the late 19th Century when the Ottomans finally ceded defeat.
The Boston bombers never fought in the Chechen Wars, or even lived there for any length of time. But, struggling to integrate in the US, they did what many immigrants do and sought refuge in the culture, history and identity of their homeland. This would not have mattered if Chechnya had not been such a brutal place.
What started off in 1994 as a bid for independence has mutated into a religious crusade, with anti-Moscow fighters identifying themselves as Jihadist as often as Chechen. This is not the first time this has happened of course; fighters opposing the US occupation of Iraq quickly found the flag of Islam a useful rallying tool. In Syria, moderate rebel groups are being squeezed out by vehemently Islamist elements, many of whom cut their insurgent teeth in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Russia certainly hasn’t helped. In their tried and tested model of empire, the region is technically a self governing administrative region of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In reality, a Russian installed strongman rules with a rod of iron, with FSB and Russian military units doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of counter insurgency work. Unable to express their identity as Chechens, the population embrace religion, with traditional Sufism often clashing with the more radical Salafism.
Although the local Jihadist group, the self styled Caucasus Emirate says it played no part in the Boston attack, Chechnya’s heady mix of nationalism, Islamism, and a culture warped by violence will have made an impression on young brothers struggling to find a sense of belonging.
Russia has nationalist problems of its own. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 was as shocking as it was humiliating. The speed and absoluteness of the implosion shook Russian establishment, and undermined its legitimacy. Luckily they had a ready made solution; 70 years of bottled up nationalism.
At a stroke, the frustrations of the millions of Russians could be turned against real and imagined enemies abroad who’d conspired to hobble Russia and take advantage of its temporary weakness. Putin was the strongman, the stone-faced patriarch who would stand up for his country and restore it to its rightful place the top table of powers. Sure, if a few civil liberties were the price that had to be paid for much needed stability, so be it.
But Russia may come to regret letting that particular genie out of the bottle.
The Russian electoral services regularly ban Ultra-Nationalist and Nazi groups from taking part in elections. Of course not that it matter because Putin’s United Russia Party has a well oiled machine when it comes to voter intimidation and fraud. But the unsurprising effect is that in the absence of a political voice, several paramilitary groups have sprung into existence. (Yep, no one saw that one coming!)
The two salient characteristic of these groups is Russian Ultra Nationalism and Orthodox Christianity, with anti-Semitism and hate fuelled attacks on people from the Caucasuses.
A brief over look on the more prominent Neo-Nazi groups:
Pamyat– Orthodox Christian, Ultra nationalist. Newspaper with 100,000 copies and a registered radio station. The group slumped with the death of its long term leader but is now active again.
Russian National unity– national socialist, Orthodox Christian, Ultra nationalist. Opposes inter ethic/racial marriages. Members often wear black uniforms (similar to blackshirts of Italy) or camouflage uniforms similar to paramilitary groups. Group officially doesn’t support Nazism, (like the BNP) however many party officials have been seen saluting swastikas. Its estimated strength is in the order of 100,000. It has a paramilitary wing which installs a rank system to keep order and to ensure candidates are suitable. All new joiners are required to act as drivers or hand out flyers, and it is rumoured they all must commit at least one attack on an ethnic minority. They are then promoted and this allows them to start paramilitary training.
Russian National Socialist Party– Orthodox Christian with huge amounts of ethnic Russian nationalism. The group responsible for the video which shows two immigrants being executed, gaining them world wide renown.
National Bolshevik Party– a strange combination of communism and national socialism. Banned by the Russian electoral services, broken down due to infighting and “The Other Russia” was formed. Linked to several high profile protests, such as attacking polling stations during elections to protest their electoral ban.
Most of these groups have a paramilitary wing of some sort of level, from street thugs all the way up to military level groups, whose training and weaponry is bordering impressive in the case of the Russian National Unity group.
The forces of law and order are doing little to combat these groups, choosing with the “out of sight out of mind” approach. But how long will these people stay in the woods? How long can Russia continue to ban them from elections, gifting them the victim card to play? These groups have started to attack random immigrants, record their attack and put it on popular video sharing sties such as YouTube. How long till these attacks grow into something more evil and immigrants are being murdered? If the Russian government continues to help them by banning them from elections (which they’d be easily defeated in) and refuses to deal with them, it’s hard to see a happy ending for Russia’s problems.
Gareth Shanks & Lee Jenkins