Murphy's Law: March 30, 2002


The Lexicon Of War- As of March 2002, Russian was 28 months into it's Second War in Chechnya. Despite inflicting substantial casualties on the Chechen and Islamic fighters, there is no real end in sight. As with any conflict, both sides have taken how they refer to each other into a 'war of words'. The terms frequently used in the western press - "Federals" and "Rebels" - give the casual reader a mental image of clear-cut sides, as in America's Civil War. However, reality is far grayer than that and the semantics used by both sides are worth studying.

Some of the terms used by the Russians are leftovers from their war in Afghanistan (1979 - 89); "Muj" or "Muji" for Mujahadeen. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000) defines Mujahadeen as "Muslim guerrilla warriors engaged in a jihad". The etymology is from the Arabic or Persian "mujhidn" (plural of Arabic "mujhid", one who fights in a jihad). The abbreviation "muj" has become popular usage by both supporters of the fighters and their foes in other conflicts. The Indian Army refers to the terrorists operating out of Pakistan as such, while Pakistan's President Musharraf has called the mujahadeen "freedom fighters," not terrorists, and castigated the West for confusing jihad with terrorism. Indians also use the term "jehadis".

"Mercenaries" is a very popular term in both Grozny and Moscow these days. The rebels consider any of the Kremlin's contract soldiers to be mercenaries, while in fact the "kontraktniki" (contract soldiers) are under-paid and frequently not paid (which leads to frequent looting). They were paid more than 20,000 rubles ($643) a month, and are unhappy about now getting 5,500 rubles ($176) when they are paid at all. 

On the flip side, consider the reward system the fighters have in place; the `salary` of a guerrilla is about 1, 000 rubles ($32) a day. Shooting down any federal plane is worth $10,000, a helicopter $5, 000, a killed or captured officer is worth $1,000. Lately, guerrilla leaders increased the payment for carrying out an attack. According to the North Caucasus headquarters of the federal forces, the reward for a successfully detonating a landmine that causes considerable damage to the federal forces has increased from $100 to $400. 

By comparison, a Russian platoon leader makes 1,600 rubles ($51) and a company commander 1,800 rubles ($58) per month. Russian troops believe that no matter what the `Islamic warriors` say about themselves, the main thing that motivates them is financial self-interest. "Bandits" became a popular label during the First Chechen War. This refered to the pre-war organized crime syndicates that existed in Chechnya and were a stereotype of Chechens throughout Russia (much as Italians used to be pigeonholed as Mafia members in America). Many of these organized crime groups were armed and did fight on the rebel side. 

"Extremists", "Guerillas", "Gunmen", "Militants" and "Terrorists" are fairly self-explanatory and were frequently found in Russian press accounts. Another Russian term is "Dukhs" or "duhi", for ghosts or phantoms, as well as "boyeviki" (roughly equivalent to the urban American rap-gangsta's term "boyz".

"Wahhabites" is a lesser-used term, making reference to the Islamic sect based on the teachings of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab Najdi (born in 1699, died in 1792). In 1932, the Wahhabis founded the state of Saudi Arabia. When applied with a broad brush to the anti-Moscow Chechen rebels, it's a misnomer.

There are, of course, more common examples of name calling that have little to do with defining the conflict in Chechnya. When denying a videotape that the Kremlin claimed he had made, rebel Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev quipped that he would have refered to the Russians "peds" (for pederasts - AKA pedophiles). - Adam Geibel


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