I decided to write my thoughts on the matter because this issue rested on my chest for quite a while. I already wrote some posts regarding the North Caucasus in the past (see here, here and here) but wanted to write something like my initial post on Turkishness, basically a collection of my own perceptions and thoughts, gained by reading and debating. As with the Turkishness post I will not link much to any articles or cite any books. But don't worry, I am basing my argument on information that is logical and easily verifiable...
The idea to put my thoughts into writing emerged after being, for some time now, exposed to arguments of the anti-Russian (however not so much pro-Chechen as they love to portrayal themselves) crowd trying to point out Russian hypocrisy in recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states while not granting the same favour to Chechnya. Also on another level we hear from emigre Chechens and their, either gullible but more likely agenda driven buddies in the West, of a genocide conducted against the Chechen people by the Russians.
The latter drivel can be easily dismissed as a ridiculous, mendacious and malicious lie. But to it the issue of human rights abuses are often tied as supportive evidence. It should be said that the Chechen Republic enjoys considerable autonomy and the governing Kadyrov clan is certainly not a bunch of good uncles, however nothing close to genocide is taking place. The Kadyrov clan's rule in Chechnya is more telling about the nature of the Chechen society, a combination of customary tribal law with Islam, than it is about some deliberate Russian policy. My feeling is that the Russians cannot chastise the Kadyrovs much because there is no sensible alternative to them. The only realistic alternative there is are the Islamists from the Emirate, and that alternative is totally unacceptable to Russia, remember them because I will return to the Emirate later. Meanwhile those that see a potential for democracy in Chechnya and think that Russians hinder development towards it, might as well stop dreaming.
To answer the former drivel let me make a little divergence here and discuss some geographical and ethnic issues in the area first. Chechnya is pretty much ethnically homogenous, the Chechen population is however landlocked and surrounded by other Russian republics where the sentiment for independence is not that strong as in Chechnya and by Georgia to the south. It is unlikely that Pankisi Gorge could serve as the only export/import route. A politically independent Chechnya would thus be more or less entirely dependent on Russia economically. A comparison with South Ossetia comes to mind.
South Ossetian independence is certainly dubious by international legal standards but these standards were already put in doubt by the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo. The truth is that it would be very hard for Russia to annex South Ossetia back in 2008, when it conducted its operation in defence of its citizens and troops, given the diatribes in Western media. The the reality on the ground however is that although South Ossetia is de jure independent, albeit accepted as such by a handful of states, it is de facto a province of Russia. I think there is a real possibility we would see a referendum on joining the Russian federation in near future. Do you think I am making an overblown statement here? Let me explain by first quoting a recent article by Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow Center, published in Foreign Affairs:
South Ossetia, meanwhile [unlike Abkhazia], cannot become a viable state...(1)
Unlike Abkhazia, which has access to the sea, South Ossetia is virtually dependent on Russia. To the south, South Ossetia borders Georgia which does not recognise its independence. The only contact with the outside world it has is through Russia. It should be added that most South Ossetians accepted Russian passports and thus Russian citizenship. Potentially independent Chechnya would either be in hostile relationship with Russia and dependent on the little that comes through Georgia or it will be independent, friendly to Russia and thus its independence would be more or less pointless. The security situation in the North Caucasus might be still volatile but it has notably improved and many Chechens realise that their relationship with Russia has its benefits. I should point out that Grozny was rebuilt with the help of Russian money.
This geographical dilemma and economic dependency on Russia did not escape those that are engaged in the Emirate. A while ago Ruslan Gelayev made a statement that he would not stop fighting untill all the republics of the North Caucasus (i.e. Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia) will be independent. I don't know if late Ruslanchik was in any way affiliated with the Emirate but this line of thinking matches the Emirate's goals. Indeed, the Emirate resolves the dilemma of geography by expanding its area of interests. It would all sound rational, if only the area of North Caucasus wouldn't be so diverse.
Ethnically this area is inhabited by various Caucasian, Turkic, Iranian, Slavic groups and others. Religiously it is even more diverse. Given that the Emirate is a Wahhabi project it is bound to be intolerant against the various Christian and Islamic groups. Even if it was relatively 'tollerant', like the Ummayad Spain it is worth remembering that the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional, Ummayad Spain was an inherently unstable state. Also with regards to its war like nature (Emir means general or military commander in Arabic) and Russia being still one of the leading military powers the reconquista would in this case be swift.
Finally it should be mentioned that those Westerners who lend their support to the Emirate causes do so, not quite out of the wish for national self-determination in North Caucasus, neither can they be serious when they say that Russia is an obstacle to stability in the region, what they really want is chaos and instability. When under Russian hands the volatile security situation can always be used by the West as a bargaining chip, was Russia to refuse something that the Western demands. I don't want to discuss this in depth but suffice to say that many exiled Chechen leaders reside in the West and are given support, these people can always be useful assets in influencing events in North Caucasus. If the Emirate's dream ever materialised, this state would cut Russia off from South Caucasus and the Middle East. And this geopolitical goal is precisely the reason behind Western support for Chechen militants.
In conclusion, it could be safely said that potential independence of North Caucasian republics only serves the geostrategic goals of certain Western countries. Aside from being detrimental to Russian interests, the benefits of such order for people of North Caucasus are dubious. As single republics they will be a fledging bunch of states (dependent one way or another on Russia), unity in one state would not last very long. Motivations of those that fervently support Chechen independence needs to be questioned for that matter.
(1) Dmitri Trenin in "Russia Reborn: Reimaginig Moscows Foreign Policy" from Foreign Affairs 88/6 pg.70 Trenin writes that incorporation of South Ossetia into Russia would be viewed by Russia's neighbours as evidence of 'Moscow's territorial aggrandisement.' For that matter I think there would be a referendum on the issue because it would be harder to argue with the wishes of South Ossetian public. He seems concerned by what impact this would have on Russia's image in countries where the media are already hostile to Russia. I personally am not, if it will solve the situation...