Will Russia blame Turkey?

This article is four years old, so there might be no direct connection between the atrocity in Beslan and the Turkish support for the Chechen resistance in Grozny, but Turkish-Russian relations might become pretty tense even so:

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNNItalia) — For many of its main players, the Chechen war starts here, in the streets of Istanbul. It is here, in this Turkish metropolis, that they gather from all over the Islamic world, the Mujahedeen, the holy warriors of Islam. They are the same volunteer fighters that put up a fierce resistance to the Russian forces that have had Grozny under siege.

Turkey is the principal ally of the Chechen independence fighters. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, almost all the peoples of the Caucasus region — including Chechens — have had close ties with Turkey, which though secular is still part of the Islamic world.

Each week Turkish Muslim groups and the Gray Wolves organize demonstrations against the Russian government. The Gray Wolves are extreme nationalists accused of being behind the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and who have managed to become part of Turkey’s governing coalition [they aren’t part of the current government — RG].

The Gray Wolves run the mosques and commercial activities in some parts of Istanbul. It is in these mosques, in the suburbs of the city, that offerings are collected after daily prayers for the Chechen refugees. It is money that probably also goes to soldiers on the front lines.

As the conflict in Chechnya has intensified and played out its more dramatic moments, such efforts have multiplied. According to some estimates, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign Mujahedeen in Turkey on their way to fight in Chechnya.

Their movements across Turkey certainly could not take place without at least the tacit consent of the Turkish government. Indeed, it is no longer a secret that the main training camp for the Chechen fighters is at Duzce, a town between Istanbul and the Turkish capital of Ankara.

Regardless of my caveat above, considering how long Turks and Chechens have supported each other, things may not have changed much over the last four years:

To better understand the reasons behind the Turkish-Chechen axis, one only needs to look at Ottoman history. The Caucasian tribes fought the Slavs from the Russian steppes for centuries. With the Ottoman conquest, they found a natural ally against the Orthodox [Christian] imperialists — the Ottoman sultan who resided in Istanbul, ancient Constantinople.

For many of the Caucasian peoples the Ottoman Empire offered not only a protective shield against Russian attacks, but also an ideological arm against Orthodoxy. Islam also served as a cohesive factor in a society of small tribes. In return, the Caucasian tribes for centuries strove to outdo each other in sending their most beautiful girls to join the sultan’s harem.

The Russian response to the Ottoman policy was similar. The Russians tried to spread Orthodoxy among the people of the Caucasus. Often they succeeded. The Ossetians, for example, who are from the same ethnic branch as the Chechens, today are predominantly Christian.

When the Ottomans lost the war of 1856-57, the Russians decided to clear the region. Over the next 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Circassians were relocated to various parts of the czarist empire. For the Turks it is one of the greatest tragedies of their history.

Connections between Chechens and Arabs also aren’t all that recent either:

Many people of the Caucasus fled to Bulgaria, to Bosnia, to Jordan and to areas on the Black Sea. Even today many Circassians and Chechens live in Jordan and Bosnia. The cavalry unit that protects King Abdullah of Jordan, for example, is composed entirely of Circassians.

Jordan’s ruling Hashemite family today is more Caucasian than Arab. Prince Ali, King Hussein’s son by his first wife, whose background was in great part Circassian-Chechen, last year traveled across the Middle East. With him were 12 horses so that he could participate in ceremonies in the Republic of Georgia. He dressed in Chechen garb, complete with an Astrakhan fur hat.

If Putin feels like it, he has some serious leverage to put pressure on Turkey:

…Turkey may suffer if its relations with Russia come under strain. Russia has become one of Turkey’s major trading partners in recent years, with an official trade volume of around $4 billion, and “shadow economy” activity could account for an extra $4 billion. Many Turkish construction firms are also operating in Russia, representing about $1 billion worth of investment. And Russia is one of Turkey’s most important suppliers of natural gas, a role highlighted by the recent completion of the Blue Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea.

If he could come to some kind of agreement with the US, he might alternatively undercut Turkish influence in the Caucasus by renewing the support for the opponents of Turkey’s Muslim (and ethnically Turkish) allies. In the early 90s Russia had helped Armenia to win it’s war against Azerbaijan, but since that time, American influence has crowded out Russia’s in that region so that American consent would be a pre-condition for taking that approach:

Russian military support was essential for the Armenian victory in the 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh. It has enabled Armenia to build what its leaders say is the strongest army in the South Caucasus. With renewed fighting in Karabakh remaining a serious possibility, Yerevan is bound to seize on any opportunity to reinforce its army. It would also welcome Russian efforts to contain Turkey, which too is expanding military cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

However, the government of President Robert Kocharian is unlikely to be drawn into a possible new round of the Russia-US rivalry in the region just as it is trying to develop military cooperation with the United States and NATO in general.

Armenian officials have indicated recently that global geopolitical changes since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the US emphasize the need for greater reliance on the West for defense and security. They are keen to stress that such an arrangement will complement, not contradict, the Russian-Armenian military alliance, pointing to warming ties between Russia and major Western powers.

But analysts say the US-Russia rivalry is not necessarily over as far as the South Caucasus is concerned. Russia’s initial anger over the US announcement in February that it planned to dispatch up to 200 military instructors to Georgia highlighted the depth of Russian unease over growing American involvement in the region. “Officially, Russia is not against the presence of American troops in Georgia. Putin has repeatedly reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and independence. Nevertheless, I am well aware that people close to the Kremlin call Georgia and [President] Eduard Shevardnadze the most anti-Russian regime in the world,” Felgenhauer said.

(An aside: Shevardnadze no longer is the President of Georgia, and his successor is even more pro-American).

Should Putin decide to confront Turkey at all, he might prefer using economic pressure, for American support might not necessarily come cheap.

4 thoughts on “Will Russia blame Turkey?”

  1. Peter Lavelle seems to think the violence is going to be regional. He also feels Russia is going to be powerless to stop it, maybe powerless to even influence it:

    The Kremlin claims the hostage takers in Beslan forced it to storm the school, leaving over 350 dead and more than 600 people injured. During the assault on the school the townspeople of Beslan, also armed, fought beside federal troops. This is a very important reminder of what the future might hold. Local populations in the region are armed and now enraged with burning hatred and a desire for revenge.

    The Kremlin was powerless to stop terrorists from seizing the Beslan school on Sept. 1. It was powerless to save Beslan’s children. There is no reason to believe the Kremlin has the power to stop another vicious round of ethnic strife in the North Caucasus. There is every reason to believe the residents of North Ossetia will not wait much longer than forty days to avenge the loss of Beslan’s children.

  2. Russia is way too big too stop any localized attack. By the time the secutity forces arrive at the scene, hostage takers or any other atackers either will have done their dirty work already, or at least they’ll be deeply entrenched. The vengeance factor notwithstanding (the country will mostly also be too big to get at the attackers’ home-town) towns and villages will have to organize effective local militias to repell terrorists themselves.

  3. Ralf, I agree the hard work needs to be locally. The farther down towards grass-roots level you can push a solution, the more effective it’ll often be.

    Looks they also need to make a serious effort to professionalize their antiterrorist response. Why don’t they send their folks to train with the SAS or something? Too proud I wonder?

    I’d hate to be a Muslim in that region right now. I’m guessing there’s going to be a lot local response in the way individual reprisals in the coming months.

  4. The Argus has a roundup of local opinion from Central Asian commentators.

    In particular is this fascinating piece he links at Ferghana, a news service on Central Asia that is based in Russia.


    War on terrorism by suppression of liberties or development of democracy? Opinions offered by politicians, scientists, and journalists of Uzbekistan
    Ferghana.Ru, Regional staff, 07.09.2004

    What is to be done? This is the question everybody asks in the wake of the series of terrorist acts in Uzbekistan and aggravation throughout the world. What is to be done to drive the genie of the aggressive extremism back into the bottle, the genie that does not care for life? What is to be done about the habitat that gives birth to it?


    What amazes me is to see them ask the same questions we’re asking and getting many of the same answers. Do we simply kill all these radicals? Do we need to change the political/economic conditions which give rise to them? What does this mean for us as a society? I’m also startled to see how deeply the concepts of free speech and cultural tolerance have penetrated that benighted region. Fascinating.

    This gives me hope that have more allies in this WOT than we sometimes realize. It seems that in the entire region surrounding the ME, everyone is struggling with the question of what to do about these people.

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