Clearing up misperceptions about Chechnya -- one Reddit post at a time

In the mad rush to identify the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, Reddit, the popular link-sharing site, was at the center of vigilante campaigns online to pick out suspicious individuals in photos from the finish line. The effort ran into the expected problems -- racial profiling and the identification of innocent people as suspects -- and left many people skeptical about the utility of incorporating the Internet hivemind into police work.

But that doesn't mean Reddit is always a source of confusion rather than clarity. With Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Chechen heritage in the spotlight, Aslan Doukaev, the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's newly formed North Caucasus Service, participated in a Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on Tuesday to clear up some misconceptions about his native Chechnya and the nature of the groups waging a brutal campaign against Russia for Chechen independence. Here are some of the highlights from the Q&A, which offered insight not only into Doukaev's unique perspective but also into the questions people are grappling with as they digest the latest developments in the terrorism investigation:

Question: In his comments [Chechen] President Ramzan Kadyrov, seemed as though he was anti-American. Is that the way he wished to come across or is he in fact down on America?

Aslan Doukaev: Yes, he has recently adopted and [sic] anti-american stance. It is not exactly clear to me why he has done that. One possible explanation is that there are rumors he was included in the so-called Magnitsky list, meaning he would be denied entry into the USA. Ordinary Chechens, however, never harbored any negative sentiment toward Americans.

Q: Other than the fact that the two bombers were ethnic Chechens, in your opinion, does this story really have anything to do with Chechnya? In the wake of the bombings, lots of news sites have clamoured to explain "the Chechen connection." In your view, is there any merit to this?

AD: Neither of those two men nor their family ever lived in Chechnya, but I cannot rule out that the Chechen tragedy may have affected their world view. I have to emphasize again that if there was some anger or frustration which they experienced, it was totally misplaced, and I do hope a careful investigation will shed some light on this.

Q: What can you tell us about the 19 years of conflict [in Chechnya]?

AD: The conflict is usually divided into the first and second Chechen wars. The Russians sent their army to crush the separatist aspirations of the Chechen people in 1994. The first war resulted in the killings of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of the main cities and towns in Chechnya. Probably hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, but in the end, the Chechen guerilla [sic] army was able to inflict serious losses on the Russian forces and a peace treaty was signed. However, the Russians never intended to leave Chechnya alone. In 1999 Putin sent the Russian army to bomb Chechnya again. The conflict in Chechnya inevitably spread to the neighboring territories such as Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. These days Chechnya is quieter then [sic] some of those territories. The conflict has a profound effect on the mentality and psyche of a lot of young Chechens, and it is possible that the two young me were in some way affected by what they saw on their television screens. And if that was the case, it is quite clear to me that their anger was misplaced.

Q: Can you explain a little bit about the separatist movement in Chechnya regarding why they wish to be independent from the Russian federation? Is this a sectarian issue down the Sunni/Shia split, just more of an independence movement, or something else?...

AD: The separatist sentiment in Chechnya intensified in the last years of the Soviet Union and was particularly strong right before the demise of the Soviet state. Chechnya was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century after several decades of war. So Chechnya was conquered by force, in effect. The desire to be free never went away. After the Bolshevik revolution, Chechnya suffered another tragedy when in 1944 Joseph Stalin deported the entire Chechen population from the Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia. This act was designated as an act of genocide by the European Parliament in 2004. The list of grievances which Chechens harbor against Moscow is quite long. The issue has nothing to do with any sectarian divide or anything of the kind. It's just a normal desire of one ethnic group to be free from another.


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