Chechnya and Russia: A War of Succession

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Post-Soviet Russia →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188906480

The Conflict

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1992, Chechnya declared independence. Russia viewed Chechnya as an integral part of Russia, and there was a significant minority of Russians within Chechnya. Chechnya and Russia went to war over the issue of Chechnya's independence from Russia.

Chechens view themselves as distinct from Russians.


Chechens believe they have a right to self-determination.
Russians believe they must protect the Russian minority in Chechnya.
Russian officials believe that if they let Chechnya become independent, other ethnic groups in Russia will rebel.

In February 2000, Russian military forces retook the city of Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Chechen separatists, who had declared Chechnya's independence in 1991 from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as it was dissolving, fled once again into the surrounding Caucasus Mountains. Anxious to restore a sense of normality to the besieged capital, Russian officials quickly began to plan a government to replace the one established by Aslan Maskhadov who had been elected to the Chechen presidency in 1997 and who had also fled the capital. The recapture of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was a significant victory for Russia whose army had crossed into Chechnya in October 1999 and restarted a war that the outside world had hoped was ended three years earlier.

The Russian army, which had been run out of Grozny in August 1996 by a much smaller band of Chechen separatists, effectively reversed what had been an embarrassing loss. Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to declare Grozny liberated from the "Islamist militants" whom he claimed had been responsible for the series of terrorist bomb explosions in Russia and in Chechnya's eastern neighbor Dagestan. The victory also allowed Putin to temporarily quell mounting international criticism of Russia's handling of its renewed war with Chechnya. Promising immediate relief for the civilians of Grozny, Russian officials rapidly delivered a water purification system and established a number of food kitchens and medical centers. The supplies were desperately needed by Chechen residents, who had endured aerial attacks and a ground assault that retook the Chechen capital street-by-street. As one of only two major cities in Chechnya, Grozny has long been the focal point for both wars between the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic and Russia, which has never officially recognized Chechen independence. Bombarded by both sides as it has changed hands repeatedly, its infrastructure has collapsed, its buildings have been reduced to shells, and its citizens relegated to the cellars.

Moscow's public display of humanitarian aid was not enough to stem the tide of international censure. Since the resumption of hostilities began in October 1999, more than 250,000 civilians have fled to Ingushetia, Chechnya's smaller neighbor to the west. With the flood of refugees came tales of Russian atrocities perpetrated on civilians including stories of mass murder, rape, and torture at detention centers located outside of Grozny. Additional reports have surfaced of villages near Grozny where Russian soldiers have been accused of killing and raping civilians. The steady stream of reports has prompted international organizations including the United Nations (U.N.), the Council of Europe (CE), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to urge Moscow to allow an independent investigation into the alleged human rights crimes. Russian officials have denied committing any abuses and have countered the accusations by saying their troops were only responding to attacks by Chechen terrorists. Russian stonewalling has led the Council of Europe to temporarily suspend Russia's voting privileges. Hoping to pressure Russia into calling a cease-fire in Chechnya and to negotiate a new peace settlement, the CE's actions have instead angered Russian officials who have described the suspension as evidence of "Cold War stereotypes and double standards." The vote, which was approved by a clear two-thirds majority of the forty-one-nation body, was meant to embarrass Putin, whose election in March 2000 was in part due to Russian public opinion that he was a "tough leader" and a "heroic winner." Whether or not Putin and the Russian government will respond to the international pressure remains unclear. The scope of the conflict is, however, widening from simply punishing the separatists for alleged terrorist acts against Russian citizens to bringing Chechnya firmly back under Russian control and silencing its 1991 declaration of independence. The Russian government appears to be reasserting its authority over a region it has claimed rule of for nearly three hundred years.

Historical Background

Chechen People and Geography

Chechnya is one of six Russian provinces located in the Caucasus Mountains which stretch between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. All six Russian Caucasian provinces, which in addition to Chechnya include Kabardino-Balkaria, Karacheyevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, are part of the independent Russian Federation, commonly known as Russia, which came into being when the USSR dissolved at the end of 1991. These Caucasian provinces were previously formed into autonomous regions of the USSR. The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, comprising Chechnya and Ingushetia, was established within the USSR in 1936. It was a somewhat artificial arrangement as the Chechens were at the time more closely allied with the tribes of Dagestan, and appeared to be designed to prevent either Chechnya or Dagestan from becoming a political threat to Soviet power.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the borders of the Caucasus territories were reformed. The three Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan became fully independent countries. The former so-called autonomous regions were kept with Russia and reformed into provinces. When Chechnya declared its independence from this newly formed Russian Federation, it was arguably taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the Soviet Union's collapse. This opportunistic declaration was, however, what the newly formed Russian Federation feared the most--ethnic groups splintering from the whole and taking with them valuable resources needed by the struggling federation. If they did not prevent Chechnya from becoming fully independent, then how were they to prevent other regions from following suit? To date, Chechnya's declaration of independence and its secession from Russia have not been recognized by either the United Nations or by Russia. The Russian government continues to claim sovereignty over the territory under international law, and the rest of the world considers Chechnya a part of the Russian Federation.

Some one million strong at the end of the twentieth century, the people of Chechnya claim to have lived in the region for six thousand years. They are ethnically and culturally very different from Russians. Chechens are Sunni Muslims who converted to the Islamic faith in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They are also practitioners of Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism. Russians are Orthodox Christian and speak a Slavic tongue. The Chechen language is part of the Nakh-Daghestanian family of languages, which is indigenous to the Caucasus Mountains and is unrelated to any other language group in the world. Because of their strong historical ties to the land, and the substantial differences between their society and the Russians, Chechens view Russia as a foreign invader on their land.

Chechen society is traditionally divided into family-based clans (called taip); there are roughly 150 taips in Chechnya, each representing three to four villages. During peaceful times, these clans will maneuver for power between themselves; during times of external threat or invasion, they unite to repel foreign invaders. Because of their social structure, Chechens have almost never been effectively governed by a central power, although charismatic leaders have been able to unite the region.

Geographically, Chechnya, along with Ingushetia, occupies seventy-four hundred square miles on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, north of the Republic of Georgia. Although small, Chechnya is strategically important. Its border with Georgia controls some of the key mountain passes to the southern Caucasus region. More importantly, Chechnya sits on the only existing oil pipeline route out of Baku, a Caspian Sea port in Azerbaijan; it carries oil to Novorossiisk, a Russian port on the Black Sea. International authorities have estimated that the Caspian sea floor may hold as much as two hundred billion barrels of oil which is nearly twenty percent of the world's oil reserves. This capacity makes the Caspian basin nearly as important an oil producer as Saudi Arabia, and twice as large as any other Persian Gulf country including Iraq and Kuwait. The pipeline, built during the Soviet era, can carry twelve million barrels of oil per year and passes directly through the Chechen capital of Grozny. In addition, there is a network of oil wells and refineries within Chechnya itself, which used to provide petroleum products for much of the former Soviet Union. These oil wells and refineries give the region tremendous economic potential today, if they can be put to work on the open market.

Chechnya in Czarist Times

Russian involvement in Chechnya and the North Caucasus region began under Russian Czar Peter the Great. In 1722, Peter laid claim to Dagestan (then a broad region only roughly defined) for the Russian empire. However, Peter was not able to control the area, and Caucasian mountain peoples, including the Chechens, drove out his armies. Nearly a century later, Russia fought a nine-year war with the empire of Persia, which ended with the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813. In that treaty, Persia ceded much of the Caucasus region and the broad north Caucasus territory of Dagestan, to Russia. To establish control over the region, Russia built a fortress at Groznaya (the word means "dreaded" in Russian) in 1818. This fortress would become the modern city of Grozny. From that point, Russian armies fought a prolonged 40-year war with local peoples, including the Chechens, to secure their control over the region. The southern mountainous section of Chechnya was the last area to be conquered around 1859. This first Russian-Chechen war established a familiar pattern for later conflict. Frustrated by the Chechen army's ability to blend into the civilian population, Russian troops used repression and force indiscriminately against local villages. This tended to create new recruits and a desire for revenge among Chechens. Although the last resistance was wiped out by 1860, the Chechen population continued to chafe under the rule of the Russian czars.

New Rulers, Same Rules: Chechnya Under the USSR

When the Russian Revolution of 1917 toppled Czar Nicholas II and placed the socialist Bolsheviks in power, Chechens and Dagestanis took the opportunity to declare their independence from Russia and proclaim a new "mountain republic" in the North Caucasus. The rebellion initially challenged pro-Czarist Russian forces and was aided in some places by the Bolsheviks. But, in 1920, after their position was secure, the Bolshevik government turned on the Chechens and the new Soviet Red Army moved to reestablish control over the region. Chechen resistance was largely stamped out by 1923.

Low-level rebellion against Soviet rule continued, however. Over the next twenty years, there were four to five anti-Soviet uprisings, each one suppressed by the Soviet military. In 1944, fearing that the Chechens were collaborating with the Nazi regime of Germany during World War II, Stalin tried to "solve" the Chechen problem by annulling the Chechen-Ingush Republic and deporting almost five hundred thousand Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia--nearly the entire population of both regions. Up to one hundred fifty thousand people--more than twenty-five percent of the population--died during the deportation or in the harsh conditions of the camps in Siberia and Central Asia. In 1957, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reversed Stalin's orders, allowing the remaining Chechens to return to their homeland, and again conferred autonomous status to the Chechen-Ingush Republic within the Russian Republic of the USSR. But the damage to Russian-Chechen relations had already been done. The Chechen people have not forgotten their exile and what they perceive as an attempted genocide. Indeed, many of the current and recent leaders of the Chechen independence movement, including Dzhokhar Dudayev and current Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, were born in Kazakhstan during the period of separation from their homeland.

New Rulers, New Rules? Chechnya and the Breakup of the USSR

The breakup of the USSR brought new hope that relations between Caucasus peoples and Russia might finally change. In 1988 and 1989, the Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia began agitating for their independence as the Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev demonstrated it was increasingly unwilling to intervene with force to restore Moscow's control. In June 1990, the congress of the Soviet Russian Republic passed a declaration of Russian sovereignty over its portion of the USSR. This posed a serious threat to continued Soviet central control as Russia was the largest Soviet republic and controlled roughly seventy-five percent of Soviet territory. In November 1990, the legislature of the Chechen-Ingush Republic passed a similar resolution declaring sovereignty over its own territory and proclaiming independence from Russia. This was the first declaration of Chechen independence since 1920 and is the beginning of the current crisis.

The USSR continued to struggle to hold itself together until August 1991, when hard-line Soviet generals and leaders attempted an abortive coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Soviet Russian Republic, successfully rallied forces that defended the central government in Moscow, earning tremendous popularity. When the coup collapsed, the remnants of the Soviet Union collapsed with it; Gorbachev returned to Moscow to negotiate the breakup of the USSR into fifteen independent republics. During the coup, some Chechens (including current separatist leader Shamil Basayev) went to Moscow to aid in Yeltsin's defense of the White House (the Russian Parliament building) even though in Chechnya itself, the communist leaders of the Chechen-Ingush Republic supported the coup. With Yeltsin's blessing, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen and a former Soviet air force officer, organized a coup against the local communist leaders, ousted the pro-Moscow political forces, and declared independence for the republic. Dudayev called for immediate elections to establish a democratic government in Chechnya. Those elections were held in October 1991, although only in those parts of Chechnya controlled by Dudayev's forces. The significant territory that was under the control either of pro-communist or pro-Yeltsin forces did not support the move for independence and did not participate in the elections. The elections resulted in Dudayev's movement winning control of the parliament, and Dudayev himself being proclaimed president.

The Russian government in Moscow seemed willing to let the issue stand through 1992. But in March 1993, the Russian government encouraged dissention among the leadership of the Chechen-Ingush Republic. The result was a political division between the Chechen and Ingush portions of the republic. In Ingushetia (the newly-created entity to the west of Chechnya), General Ruslan Aushev, who was initially appointed by Moscow, won elections and became president of the Ingush republic within Russia, leaving Chechnya as a separate autonomous province under the leadership of Dudayev.

The New Russia and the New Chechnya, Round One

The competing claims over who ruled Chechnya could not be ignored forever, and some form of direct contest of power was undoubtedly inevitable. The Chechen government under Dudayev continued to face opposition to its rule in parts of Chechnya as pro-Moscow forces resisted the move for independence. In addition, the Chechen economy suffered severely as Dudayev's anti-Russian policies drove both skilled Russian workers and their money out of the region. After some eighteen months of low-level fighting and counter-accusations between Grozny and Moscow, Russia moved to recapture its authority over the wayward Chechens. On November 26, 1994, a Russian armored column moved into Grozny in hopes of sparking an uprising among Chechen groups opposed to Dudayev's rule. The expected uprising never came, and the Russian forces were captured with little fighting by Dudayev's troops. A few days later, Russian president Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to the Chechen government to disarm and surrender. At the same time, aircraft (possibly from the Russian military, possibly under control of Chechen opposition groups) began bombing Grozny. Less than two weeks later, Russian forces launched a serious ground offensive to retake Chechnya. By the end of 1994, Russian forces deployed in Chechnya numbered near forty thousand.

Despite significant resistance by Dudayev's forces, the Russian army took control of Grozny in January 1995. Over the next several months, Russian troops pushed Chechen fighters southwards; by the summer, Russia had reoccupied most of Chechnya and forced separatists into the mountain strongholds of southern Chechnya. However, these military gains came at a significant cost. While unable to hold territory, the Chechen forces inflicted significant numbers of casualties on advancing Russian troops. During the first half of 1995, protest and dissent against the war increased among Russian citizens, as a free Russian press reported the horrors and damage of war back to Moscow and other large cities. The dissent became so serious that some began to label Chechnya a "Russian Vietnam." The economic costs of war also mounted, pushing an already-ailing Russian economy further into recession.

By the summer of 1995, a stalemate of sorts had developed, with Russian troops holding the plains but unable to dislodge Chechen forces from the mountains. The stalemate was only in conventional military terms, however. Chechen commandos continued to operate behind Russian lines, causing significant damage and sapping the morale of both Russian troops and the Russian public. The most important of these operations came in June 1995, when Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev led one hundred heavily-armed commandos seventy-five miles past Chechen borders into Russia to the town of Budyonnovsk. Once there, his forces attacked several sites throughout the town of 100,000, seized a hospital, and took over fifteen hundred people hostage. Russian forces initially counter-attacked, killing ninety-five and wounding 142 civilians before halting. After a series of negotiations, the commandos were allowed safe passage back to separatist-held portions of Chechnya, and Russia agreed to resume peace talks in Grozny with Dudayev's government. Although the negotiations did not begin immediately, the incident seriously demoralized Russian troops and sent domestic support for Yeltsin's Chechen policy plummeting as Russian citizens worried about their safety from future attacks.

The latter half of 1995 and the first half of 1996 saw little change. Chechen commandos continued to stage occasional raids outside their mountain strongholds. Attacks similar to the Budyonnovsk hostage crisis occurred across the Chechen border in Dagestan, and on a Black Sea ferry--the latter apparently conducted by Turkish citizens of Caucasian descent sympathetic to the Chechen cause. By the middle of 1996, Russia had committed fifty thousand troops to the fight in Chechnya and was using extensive artillery and aerial bombardment in vain attempts to dislodge rebel forces. Their only success came in killing Dudayev in April by homing in on the cellular phone he was using to negotiate with Russian officials. Dudayev's death however, had little effect on either the Chechens' willingness or their ability to continue fighting.

The tide of the war finally shifted in August 1996. On the sixth of August, the day of Yeltsin's inauguration after his victory in the elections earlier in the summer, Chechen fighters launched an offensive to re-take Grozny. Their effort was wildly successful, reaching far beyond the expectations of most military analysts. Russian forces, despite their advantages in heavy armor, air support, and numbers, were driven from Grozny by the end of August and forced to retreat from the surrounding region. In response, Yeltsin sent former Russian general Alexander Lebed to negotiate a cease-fire with the Chechen forces at Khasavyurt. The negotiations were successful; the resulting agreement stopped the fighting, pledged the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Chechen territory, and promised further negotiations to settle the issue of Chechnya's independence within five years. Russian troops had completely left the region by the end of the year, and in May 1997, Yeltsin and new Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov signed the Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Interrelations Between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria. Chechnya had achieved independence at least in practice, if not by legal right. This came, however, at a high price: by the August 1996 cease-fire, between fifty thousand and eighty thousand people (mostly civilians) had been killed.

Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist and a former Soviet army colonel of the same generation as Dudayev, was elected president of Chechnya in January 1997. The primary opposition candidate was Shamil Basayev, a hard-line Islamist who had led the raid on Budyonnovsk. Maskhadov had been a commander under Dudayev during the war and had broad support among Chechen voters. After the cease-fire, however, his government had difficulty controlling the region. Organized crime was a serious problem and kidnappings, assassinations, and smuggling became commonplace. Despite Maskhadov's support at the ballot box, much of Chechnya devolved to the control of armed warlords who included in their ranks Shamil Basayev and other separatists.

The initial relationship with Russia appeared promising. Less than two months after the May 1997 treaty was signed, Russia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan signed an agreement on the shipment of oil from the Caspian port of Baku through Grozny to Russian ports on the Black Sea. But in April 1999, Chechen government officials cut off the oil pipeline between Baku and Novorossiysk, arguing that Russia owed them ten million dollars for pipeline repairs under the 1997 agreement. Russia, in turn, became increasingly concerned about the state of lawlessness within Chechnya, which they claimed threatened Russians still living in Chechnya.

Recent History and the Future

The most recent round of fighting was sparked by the events of August 1999. Armed Islamist groups based in Chechnya and led by Shamil Basayev, moved into neighboring Dagestan which was still part of Russia. Their intent was to defend Dagestani Muslims from perceived Russian aggression and to establish a larger Islamic state among area Muslims. Basayev's forces were driven back into Chechnya by Russian troops after a few weeks, although the Russian army was unable to keep them from escaping as it claimed it would. A month later in September, a series of deadly explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Volgodonsk killed a total of three hundred civilians. The attacks came without warning and no group claimed responsibility, but the Russian government laid the blame explicitly on Chechen extremists.

Using the incursions, bombings, and increasing lawlessness within Chechnya as justification, Russian forces moved across the Chechen border on October 2, 1999. Their initially stated aim was to take a portion of territory in northern Chechnya in order to prevent further attacks like Basayev's incursion, and to protect Russians living on the northern plains of Chechnya. Over the next few months, however, the emphasis shifted to taking more Chechen territory, and then eventually to recapturing Chechnya altogether, despite previous pledges both to avoid using force and to seek a negotiated solution to the question of Chechnya's future status. On December 25, Russian forces begin a new full-scale assault on Grozny, which included extensive artillery shelling, and aircraft assault and was backed by some 80,000 Russian military troops. By the end of 1999, Russians and Chechens appeared to be fighting exactly the same war they had fought three years earlier.

Militarily, this second Chechen war has looked remarkably like the first. By early February 2000, most of Grozny had been recaptured by Russian armed forces, but pockets of resistance remained in the city. By mid-February, Russian armed forces had ordered the city evacuated and its buildings destroyed in an attempt to root out the last rebel forces. As before, the Russians face an additional eight thousand to ten thousand rebel forces in the southern mountains.

Despite similarities, there are important differences between the first and second Chechen wars. The second war in Chechnya has been far more devastating than the first. The Russian offensive has created a new wave of refugees; by the end of 1999 some two hundred fifty thousand Chechens (about twenty-five percent of the population) have been driven from their homes to towns or camps across the border in Ingushetia. An unknown number--estimates are around forty thousand--remain in Grozny, unwilling or unable to leave despite massive Russian bombardment of the city.

For the Russians, this second war has garnered more public support than the previous. An opinion poll taken in November 1999 found that sixty-six percent of Russian respondents thought the war was "successful." The increase is due partly to the genuine fear aroused by the apartment bombings of September and partly to the increased government control of the media, which has resulted in a tempered view of the war. Similarly, although the war is expensive for Russia--by the end of 1999 it had already cost over one and a half billion dollars--it comes at a time when, because of high oil prices, the Russian government has more revenue and more economic stability. However, the indiscriminate bombardment of Grozny and Russia's apparent lack of concern for civilians in the war zone has cost the Russian government some foreign aid. In December 1999, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put scheduled loan payments on hold, and a number of European countries have threatened sanctions if the war continues. Still, Russia appears both more willing and more able to prosecute the war this time, although it is unclear whether they will be any more successful on the battlefield.

The outcome of this Chechen-Russian conflict is currently unclear. Russia appears to be incapable of controlling Chechnya by force as was demonstrated during the first war. But, given increased domestic political and financial support, it may take the Chechen separatists a long time to convince the Russian government to stop trying. In addition, the factionalism that characterizes the current Chechen leadership (demonstrated by the independent actions of President Maskhadov and rebel leader Basayev) make it difficult for Russia to find a negotiating partner who can deliver peace--a fact which the government in Moscow uses to justify its lack of negotiation efforts.

In the long term, there are three possible solutions for Chechnya. One possible outcome is a return to the way Chechnya was governed in the nineteenth century with Russia in nominal control of the region but facing ongoing resistance at a variety of levels. This is probably not a viable long-term situation for Russia unless its economy recovers on more than just temporarily increased oil revenues. Russia simply cannot afford a prolonged and costly struggle; sooner or later, costs will mount, media and public opinion will turn against such a strategy, and the government will be pressured to change course. Another possibility is full Chechen independence. As this would require a near-total collapse of Russian power or a serious crisis in Russia that forces them to redirect their resources elsewhere, this solution is also unlikely. None of the current political parties and factions in Russia support Chechen independence, so even a simple leadership change will not make full Chechen independence any more likely. Russian stubbornness on this point is unsurprising. In addition to the remaining five north Caucasus regions, which could potentially desire to secede from Russia, there are significant separatist sentiments among other non-Russians living elsewhere in the Russian Federation (particularly in Tatarstan, which occupies an important area in the central region of Russia). Full Chechen independence would also take away some of the anticipated oil revenues from Caspian Sea pipelines and this is money, which the Russian government desperately needs. Absent some fundamental change in Russian politics, any future Russian government will be extremely unwilling to recognize the independence of Chechnya as a separate country.

The third, and most probable, alternative is some form of autonomy within the Russian Federation that provides for substantial local government. This would maintain Moscow's titular control over the region and help it to resist secessionist pressures elsewhere, while satisfying at least some Chechen demands for self-government. Were such an agreement to be created in the next five years, it would probably include a clause on leaving the possibility of future independence open. If, over time, autonomy within Russia is beneficial to the Chechens, particularly if Russian money helps rebuild Grozny, demands for independence may fade. For this solution to last, however, a future Chechen government will have to devise better strategies for dealing with crime and armed opposition within its own government, both of which Maskhadov's government failed to do between 1997 and 1999.

For the rest of the world, the Chechen conflict has two serious consequences. First, its location puts it in the center of efforts to bring more Caspian Sea oil to the international market. If long-term stability can be brought to the area, more oil will flow out of the Caspian basin, through Russia, and onto the world market. This would benefit both Russia, which desperately needs the oil revenue (providing of course that it passes through Russian territory), and the U.S. and European economies, where greater supply would likely lower prices. This prospect insures that the United States and Europe will continue to be interested in a long-term solution to the Chechen crisis.

The second consequence of the outcome of the current Chechen war is in the area of human rights and international law. Chechnya, along with ethnic conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and East Timor, are shaping the world's understanding of the role and limits of international law and its ability to impose standards of conduct on particular countries. Russia's alleged human rights abuses against people it claims as its own have been harshly criticized by international powers, but to date, only moderately punished. If this present war drags on for a long time, as seems likely, the amount of external pressure put on Russia to moderate its behavior will send a powerful signal to other countries with similar problems. If the international community unifies its criticism of Russian tactics, and punishes the Russian government for any abuses, it will strengthen the hand of those who seek to protect human rights globally and increase the likelihood of world leaders using their power to enforce international norms of behavior.


1813 With the Treaty of Gulistan, Persia gives much of the Caucasus, including Chechnya, to Russia. Russian armies fight a forty-year war to secure control over the region.
1917 As the Czarist government falls and the Soviet government rises, Chechnya declares independence.
1920 The Soviet Union reestablishes control over the region. There are several uprisings over the next twenty years.
1936 The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR is established.
1944 Joseph Stalin deports five hundred thousand Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia; about twenty-five percent of the population dies on the way.
1957 Nikita Khrushchev allows the remaining Chechens to return home to Chechnya.
1988 The Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia begin to assert their independence.
1990 The Russian portion of the disintegrating Soviet Union declares Russian rule of the Russian portion of the USSR, including Chechnya.
1991 With the dissolution of the USSR, autonomous regions become provinces within Russia. Dzhokhar Dudayev organizes a coup against the local Communist leaders and calls for elections. Elections are held in areas held by Dudayev's forces.
1994 The Russian army enters Grozny, capitol of Chechnya, and is captured by Dudayev's troops.
1995 The Russian army establishes control of Grozny. The Chechen rebels lead a mission into Russia, where they attack a town of one hundred thousand. Later, Dudayev is killed when the Russian army homes in on a cellular phone he was using.
1996 Chechen forces launchs an offensive to re-take Grozny.
1997 Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov sign the Treaty of Peace and the Principles of Interrelations Between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Public Ichkeria.
1999 Chechen government officials cut an oil pipeline to Russia, arguing that Russia owes ten million dollars for repairs. Explosions kill three hundred civilians in Moscow; the Russian government blames Chechen extremists. Russian forces invade Chechnya. The IMF puts scheduled loan payments on hold; European nations threaten sanctions if the war doesn't end.
2000 Russian military forces retake Grozny.

The Politics of Language

Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 726 million people. Four hundred twenty-seven million people use English. Chechen, the language of Chechnya, is today spoken by just under one million Chechens. Chechen is part of the Nakh-Daghestanian language family, a diverse collection of thirty-four languages that have evolved in the north Caucasus Mountains. With six distinct dialects and nearly a million speakers, Chechen is the largest of the Caucasian languages. Unlike the Indo-European group of languages--which spawned English, French, and Russian--Chechen and the Nakh-Daghestanian languages were not brought from other areas of the world as people migrated. They are the unique to Caucasian peoples and the Caucasus Mountains and are unrelated to any other language group. Despite numerous invasions over the centuries by various groups including the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Turks, the Chechens, like the other peoples of the Caucasus Mountains, have kept their language pure. In part, this is due to the geography of the region. A culture located within hard-to-reach mountain passes remains relatively isolated from outside influence. Indeed, part of the distinctiveness of the Nakh-Daghestanian languages is their dissimilarity from other language families and even from each other. While Ingush is close enough to Chechen to be generally understood by Chechens, speakers of Chechen do not understand Dargins, or Avars, or many other Caucasian tongues even though all are part of the same language family and all co-exist within an area roughly the size of France.

Like most of the languages in the Nakh-Daghestanian language family, Chechen was not traditionally a written language. It wasn't until the 1930s that an orthography, a method of representing the sounds of language by letters, was created using the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Unlike many Caucasian languages, Chechen is used in schools, on the radio and television, and in print. The Russian alphabet has allowed Chechens to use their language both publicly and privately, turning their language into a powerful and unifying cultural tool.

Today, ninety-seven percent of Chechens claim Chechen as their first language, their mother tongue. But, like most other cultures of the Caucasus Mountains as well as most cultures of the former Soviet Union, they also speak Russian, which has become the common language of the region. Because the Caucasus Mountains are home to thirty-three languages in addition to Chechen, Russian is used by Chechens to communicate with most other Caucasian cultures. While Russian is the common tongue, it is also frequently a common target of newly independent countries. After the USSR dissolved in 1991, many of its former republics have used language to revive their ethnic and cultural identities. In the former Soviet republics of Estonia and Latvia, local language tests effectively deny citizenship to residents who only speak Russian. Uzbekistan has made Latin script, rather than Cyrillic, the script for their language Uzbek. In Chechnya, three months after the formal peace treaty ending the first war was signed in May 1997, the newly elected Chechen parliament made Chechen its official language.

Chechnya's War of Words

As the conflict in Chechnya has evolved, so too has its portrayal in the news media. During the first war, the newly independent Russian news media was instrumental in turning public opinion against the war in Chechnya. Daily reports tallied the heavy Russian losses for its viewers and showed gruesome scenes of street fighting whose victims were primarily civilian. Detailed and sympathetic coverage of Chechen leaders soured Yeltsin's public support and brought about widespread demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg calling for an end to the war.

When the hostilities resumed in 1999, the Russian government went on the offensive early. The recently formed Media Ministry forbade all Russian television networks to publish interviews with Chechen leaders and warned all journalists working in Russia that they would be criminally prosecuted under anti-terrorist legislation if they broadcast interviews with or quoted Chechen leaders. Currently, access to Chechnya by domestic and foreign correspondents requires military credentials, which are highly restricted. Only reporters from pro-Moscow stations are allowed in and then only for carefully orchestrated military tours that toe the line of official reports. Journalists are lectured on how to write and broadcast about the conflict--Chechen fighters for example, must be called terrorists--and those of them whose reports criticize the military operation are subsequently banned from Chechnya. Foreign reporters are rarely given permission to cross into Chechnya and those who attempt to enter the region illegally are arrested and detained. Andrei Babitsky, a reporter from the U.S. funded Radio Liberty that broadcasts to Russia, was arrested and held for six weeks.

Officials at the Media Ministry claim they are trying to prevent terrorist propaganda from being published. They complain that western journalists rarely report on Chechen criminal activities and cite the recent bombings of Moscow apartment buildings and the epidemic of civilian kidnappings as examples. Between the two periods of armed conflict, many Chechen militants did indeed become criminals, and abductions for ransom were a favorite ploy. Over one thousand individuals were kidnapped between 1997 and 1999. At least twenty-one of them were journalists.

The Chechen fighters have countered by setting up information centers outside of both Chechnya and Russia. There are also Chechen information centers in Kiev and in Odessa, Ukraine, and in Poland. They have also established their own web site where they regularly publish what they claim is official documentation of Russian atrocities perpetrated against Chechen civilians. Vladimir Putin acknowledged that their government had "some catching up to do if it was to use the web as effectively as the Chechens." The Russian Media Ministry has declared the documents on the Chechen web site to be forgeries.


Imam Aver Shamil (1797-1871)

The legacy of Imam Aver Shamil is a popular subject in the Caucasian Mountains. Claimed by numerous ethnic groups as their own cultural hero, Shamil has become an icon representing different sides of the same story. Although the significance of his life changes depending on the cultural group doing the telling, one point remains consistent--his thirty-year revolt against Czarist Russia foreshadowed every aspect of the current Russian-Chechen conflict.

Imam Aver Shamil was born in 1797 to a noble Avar family of southern Dagestan. A scholar and poet who was respected for his knowledge of the Arabic language, Shamil studied under Muhammad Yaraghi, a Sufi mystic who taught Shamil that the shari'a, Islamic divine law from the Koran, must be the ruling law of the Caucasian Mountains. Responding to a call to arms in 1827 by Ghazi Mollah, another student of Yaraghi's, Shamil joined the jihad, or holy war, against the Russians. Mollah's jihad had come in response to the establishment of Russian military forts, like the one at Grozny, and the repressive regime of Russian General Alexey Ermolov. The revolt was unprecedented as it succeeded in banding together the tribes of the Caucasus Mountains who put aside their legendary vendettas to fight against their common enemy, the Russians. After Mollah was killed in 1834, Shamil was proclaimed Imam (leader) and he continued the revolt for twenty-five years. Although his spiritual leadership was significant--the Russians told stories of Shamil's army singing the religious chants he composed for them--his talent as a general was greater. He was famous for swift elusive attacks that often divided the enemy and lured troops into remote mountains and forests where their superior numbers were less of an advantage. While his tactics were successful when meeting the Russians in pitched battle, they were less effective when it came to protecting the aouls (villages) against Russian sieges. It was this inability to maintain control over the settled areas that was to eventually lead to his capture in 1859. After his surrender, Shamil was banished to a small town near Moscow. He was kept there until 1869 when he was allowed to leave and travel to the Middle East where he died in 1871.

Shamil's legacy is significant. In addition to unifying the tribes and clans of Chechnya and Dagestan and defending them against constant Russian attack for twenty-five years, he created a state that was united in Islam and strongly Sufist. His legacy has however, come to have different meanings for each culture. After the USSR dissolved and Chechnya declared its independence, Russian scholars reversed their silence on Shamil and adopted him as a Russian hero. They emphasized the years after he surrendered when he became an admirer of all things Russian. The Dagestanis, of course, still claim him as their national hero but they emphasize the man rather than the struggle and the poet rather than the soldier. For the Chechens, Shamil is a hero and a symbol of what they consider to be their three hundred year-long struggle against the Russians. They frequently point out that even though Shamil was Dagestani, Chechens made up the majority of his army and the capitals of his Islamic state were located in their territory. He is a "legendary Chechen fighter" and an important role model. So significant is Shamil to the Chechen national identity that when Chechnya produced their first series of postage stamps, Shamil's portrait was placed on the 500-ruble stamp.

-- R. William Ayers



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Опубликовано на Порталусе 04 сентября 2007 года

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