Czarist Russia conquered the previously independent Muslim peoples in the 19th century and forcibly incorporated them into the Russian Empire. The Soviet government repressed all forms of religion, creating an ideological void that Islamists exploited following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The two Russian wars, which began out of nationalist and separatist aspirations, eventually took on a religious element as well. Difficult social and economic conditions, two brutal wars and the virtual abandonment of the Caucasian region by international communities – further encouraged the turn to radical Islam, despite the fact that the region practices a moderate type of Islam (Sufi Islam).
After 1996 (when the first war was over and Chechnya was declared independent), the islamization of the Chechen ethnic group, the penetration of the Islamic fundamentalist movements from Saudi Arabia and Turkey began. Aslan Maskhadov – the elected president of independent Chechnya, known to be a moderate leader – put an interdiction on the wahhabist ideology, but lost the control over the situation given that the country was weakened by war and lacked any type of support in its post-war reconstruction.
Ilyas Akhmadov (former Chechen minister) wrote a book describing, among other things, the Islamization of a secular republic of Chechnya once the foreign fighters started arriving during the second war.
He also explained that, during the short-lived independence of mid-1990’s, the democratically elected president Maskhadov tried the impossible task of pleasing all sides, including the radical islamic opponents, who represented a minority but nevertheless, were constantly interfering in all issues.
Quote from Akhmadov’s book “Maskhadov expected that they would make similar compromises and the experience of doing so would teach even the radicals to become responsible. Instead, because they did not make similar compromises, his compromises became one-sided concessions and every concession Maskhadov made emboldened them to become increasingly more brazen and rebellious.”
To this day, there is conflict of ideologies between Caucasus nationalists and Islamic extremists.
In the meantime, favored by post 9/11 international politics and the US “war on terror”, Russia changed its official position towards Chechnya – from keeping control of its borders, to fighting “Islamic terror”.