What You Should Know About Chechnya as the Boston Story Unfolds

For centuries, the small Muslim country has been subject to a series of Russian occupations. Expect Vladimir Putin to use the marathon bombing to further rationalize Moscow's brutal rule.

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A policeman keeps watch at the site of a suicide bombing in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on September 16, 2009. (S. Dal/Reuters)

Breaking reports indicate that the alleged perpetrators of the horrific Boston Marathon terrorist attack were born in Chechnya. This Russian-occupied, landlocked Muslim nation of 1.3 million is the center of a Russian war that has taken the lives of more than 200,000 people over the last two decades. It is also one of the world's most poorly understood conflict zones.

On social networking profiles, the Boston bombers reveal themselves as supporters of "Chechen independence." Given the media spotlight that will descend on the region in the next few days, it is absolutely essential to separate the country's three major political groups: Russia's puppet dictatorship, led by Ramzan Kadyrov; the radical Islamist rebellion led by Dokka Umarov; and the legitimate government of Chechnya, headed by the exiled Akhmed Zakayev.

Chechnya has been ripped apart by Russian aggression for centuries. Most notoriously, Stalin deported its entire population to Kazakhstan in 1944. One-fifth of them died in the forced relocation and were only allowed to return after the dictator's death. In 1991, when Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and other former Soviet states proclaimed their independence, so did Chechnya. Russia launched two devastating separatist wars since, the first between 1994 and 1996 and the second since 1999. Several Chechen presidents have been murdered by the Russian government, and in 2007 Zakayev was forced into exile. Moscow installed its autocratic puppet Kadyrov in his place. At the same time, Umarov's Islamist terrorist network proclaimed a "Caucasus Emirate" in Chechnya.

Umarov's rebels claim responsibility for numerous bloody attacks in Moscow and elsewhere. Umarov provides Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and the criminal gang that controls Russia's vast energy resources with a scapegoat villain. Fear works, and in Russia the Chechen people are cast as the perfect enemy: Islamist radicals who celebrate the 9/11 attacks and pay homage to Al Qaeda. In the next few days, the Putin government will point to the Boston bombings as the result of any and all Chechen opposition to Russian rule.

This has been Putin's game for the past 15 years. After rising to power in 1999 on a promise to crush Chechen separatists, he exploited a series of terrorist attacks known as the "apartment bombings" to bolster his electoral chances. Almost 300 people died in explosions across three Russian cities. The tumultuous attack was purportedly carried out by Chechen rebels. However, a recently published book about the events by a Stanford University academic indicates that the horrific attack was most likely organized and financed by Putin and his henchmen -- to stir up nationalistic fervor, paving the way for the subsequent Russian invasion of Chechnya and cementing his reputation for being "tough on terror."

In the 2000 elections, Putin ran on a successful platform of restoring national pride and identity, and taking back the former colony of Chechnya was a major talking point. Reopening the Chechen conflict gave him the opportunity to play tough, to show strength, and to exercise his military might while voters cheered for a post-Soviet champion. Even President Bush praised Putin's "strong hand" against terrorists in Chechnya.

Presented by

Thor Halvorssen

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation.

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