Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad
Reviewer: Jiří Brandýs (Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy)
- Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
- ISBN: 9780812240139
- Available at:
- Author's page: James Hughes
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Hughes’ work entitled: Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad gravitates around the thesis that the enduring Russo-Chechen conflict – which commenced with the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a nationalist struggle for independence and self-determination – has mutated into a religiously-inspired Islamist campaign. According to Hughes this is the result of three factors: 1. the misconduct of Russia’s political and military leadership; 2. the infiltration of “Wahabbist” elements into Chechnya’s socio-political strata; and 3. the manner the conflict was waged (techniques, tools and tactics).
However, the main thesis is lost in a number of other convincing hypotheses and analyses which the author presents in each chapter, and readers hardly find the aforementioned hypothesis as the main point of the book. This book is therefore a broad analysis of the conflict and this review has must explore each chapter, with their own arguments, to a larger extent than most other reviews.
The book is divided in to seven chapters and each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the conflict. The first chapter aspires to indicate the causes of the conflict. The author dismisses historical and ethnic accounts of the conflict as inadequate and misleading explanations for the break-out of the conflict and argues the that ‘there is no a priori reason to assume that ethnic conflict in Chechnya was inevitable or would be more intractable than other conflicts’ (Hughes 2008, p.1). Hughes claims that for a proper understanding of the phenomenon, the conflict must be analysed within the context of the Russian refederalisation process, which is the topic of the second chapter which itself asks why the same political instruments which resolved Tatarstan’s bid for secession did not help Chechnya. In the third chapter Hughes continues with the analysis of the break-out of the first Chechen war, a theme that will be addressed later in this review. In this chapter, Hughes analyses the nature of Dudavev’s regime in Chechnya and draws the conclusion that the first Chechen war (1994-1996) can be characterised as a secular nationalist conflict. In chapter four, Hughes draws attention to the phenomenon of the Islamisation of the conflict and break-out of the second Chechen War (1999-2002). Chapter five deal with the terrorist aspect of the conflict, where the author conceptualises the terrorist dimension of the Chechen war and its implications for both the conflict itself as well as for international politics more generally. Hughes claims that ‘the number of deaths from terrorism by Chechen groups is likely to be less that 3% of the total number’ and so ‘this is not a conflict that can be characterised as terrorism’ (p. 145). Regarding the implications of the terrorist dimension however, the author recognises the potential, which was used by Russia, to raise both international as well as domestic support for such a war once depicted as a war against Islamist terrorism. Also, Hughes deals with the legitimate use of violence to resist occupation and misgovernment, though does not take any defined position. In the last chapter, ‘Chechnya and the Study of the Conflict,’ Hughes reviews possible approaches for studying the conflict including: the role of nationalism, stressing how nationalist mobilisation caused the conflict, the significance of ethnicity in developing “ethnic hatred” / “ethnic belligerence” account of its causes, the collapse of empire associated with disorder and conflict and the impact of democratisation observing the tendency for newly democratising state to be war-prone.
There is little to critique of the main thesis of the book given the analytical strength the author displays, which is supported by well researched and documented arguments. According to Hughes it was not only Russia’s destruction of nationalist options for Chechnya, or “Wahabbist” infiltration which created the political space for Islamist; it was the way the conflict was fought notably the lack of proportionality, discrimination and the excessive use of violence by Russia, which intensified Islamic radicalisation and transformed the conflict.
Hughes demonstrates the violence in the conflict by numbers and statistics from various sources. Still, this does not allow readers to fully appreciate the true meaning of the author’s intended ‘how the conflict was fought’ focus. Indeed, readers need complimentary works to fully comprehend the author’s point and journalistic works, such as Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (The University of Chicago Press: 2006), provide leverage to Hughes’ scholarship which lack’s personal testimonials from Chechnya. Such a lack is not as problematic as some may suggest however, since the arguments are build on facts not emotions and Hughes himself admits that providing testimony is not an intended aim of the work.
It is also worth highlighting the way Hughes perceives the brutality of Russian operations in Chechnya as a natural state of affairs for Russian military forces though does not address root-causes of such conduct beyond normal military procedures. This is rather surprising considering the weight Hughes attributes to brutality in the conflict; it is a central variable deployed throughout the book for heightened Islamisation in Chechnya. It should therefore follow that such violence and brutality be regarded as yet another independent variable producing an explanatory cog for the ailments facing Chechnya. According to some scholars, it was the lack of doctrinal and technical know-how for peacekeeping among Russian forces, excessive corruption and a lack of the rule of law that conspire to explain Russia’s excessive use of force and it would have been interesting to have been able to know Hughes’ opinion on the matter.
The topics selected for each chapter and the academic approach adopted by Hughes ensures that the multilayered Russo-Chechen conflict is adequately presented. Additionally, the value-added of this work is best seen in its explanation of the slow, but determined Islamisation of the conflict, a process which is likely to reverberate throughout the region and the international environment for years, if not decades, to come.
This book comes highly recommended to the interested public and those researching the history and evolution of the Russo-Chechnya conflict and enduring animosity. Hughes’ work should be the first stop on the path to fully understanding the dynamic and changing situation in the North Caucasus.