Published on The Guardian Saturday 12 February 2011
When historians lookfor a succinct illustration of the hypocrisy of western democracies, they could do worse than turn to page 196 of this book. In March 2001, Ilyas Akhmadov, exiled foreign minister in Chechnya’s separatist government, had a meeting with a top US state department official. He had high hopes. The meeting was in the capital of the world’s most powerful democracy, which had just intervened to save the Kosovo Albanians and the Bosnian Muslims from defeat.
Akhmadov had prepared 16 suggestions that would alleviate his people’s suffering. The official listened to none of them. “He kept checking his watch and ended the meeting at precisely 59 minutes, so he could later tell journalists that it lasted less than an hour,” Akhmadov writes, with devastating simplicity.
I started writing about Chechnya a year after that meeting, and by then the tone of indifference to ordinary Chechens had spread across the globe. Journalists searched for a killer story that would alert the world to the horrors in southern Russia. But no one cared. Vladimir Putin still has a free hand to do anything he wants to suppress the Chechens – human rights groups have listed executions, torture and kidnapping – and the west has done nothing.
The Chechens declared independence from Moscow in 1991 and defeated a Russian attempt to conquer their homeland in 1994-96, before losing a second campaign that started in 1999. Akhmadov’s book minutely details the shattered hopes that followed the Chechens’ initial victory, as euphoria at their astonishing success turned into bickering and violence.
He was friends with Shamil Basayev, a self-confessed terrorist who went on to organise the Beslan and Moscow hostage tragedies. In an unlikely and short-lived reinvention as a politician, Akhmadov describes how Basayev held meetings with Russian officials about restoring Chechen’s roads. The image of the guerrilla fighter attempting to master construction contracts is an intriguing one, and Basayev genuinely seems to have tried to master the new trade. But, of course, it did not work out.
Akhmadov is a charming and self-deprecating guide through the mess. At one point he passes a Russian checkpoint and shows his Chechen documents. “You’re the first Chechen captain to go through the border post. Every Chechen is a colonel or a general,” he is told.
Basayev, and all the other “generals” who had made their names defeating the mighty Russian army, wanted something more exciting. They turned to radical Islam and launched incursions into Russia, bringing the wrath of Putin down upon them, and extinguishing the nation’s hopes for independence. Akhmadov does not avoid condemning such stupidity from Chechens, or pointing out how they contributed to their own national catastrophe. But he saves much of his bitterness for the west. The desires of the Chechens were meaningless when compared to our own security needs. Akhmadov forcefully argues that, in ignoring the legitimate desires of ordinary people, the democracies undermine the very safety they think they are securing.
“The lack of a principled assessment in the west contributed to the radicalisation of the Chechen resistance . . . The radicalisation didn’t happen in a day and it didn’t happen in a vacuum. We didn’t ask for money or weapons, we only asked for an adequate assessment of what was happening and we never got that,” he writes.
This is not a book to take on holiday. It is choked full of details that even a specialist might find a bit baffling. But when historians write about the war on terror, Akhmadov will come out of it a lot better than a lot of western politicians will.
Oliver Bullough’s Let Our Fame be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus is published by Allen Lane.