Behind Chechnya's bloodbath

By Alexander Buzglin and Andrei Kolganov (Moscow)
Date: Feb, 25, 1995


During the time we take to write this article, several dozen more people will almost certainly be killed or maimed in the North Caucasus. Dozens of mothers will cry out their unending grief; no-one can give them back their sons or daughters. Dozens of wives will have become widows, and their children, orphans. There are already thousands of dead and wounded, sick and homeless. And there are hundreds of thousands for whom the horror of bombing raids, the agony suffered by comrades, and the need to shoot at people who are citizens of the same country have become part of everyday life. At one pole in this conflict are several thousand fighters and hundreds of thousands of peaceful civilians. At the other are several divisions of Russian troops, together with hundreds of tanks, aircraft and armoured personnel carriers. Almost a month of senseless bloodshed - this is terrifying and amoral, monstrous and disgraceful.

However, human beings need to do more than simply to show indignation and compassion. They have to understand what is happening, why, and where the blame belongs. They have to understand what can and must be done, and by whom, in order to stop the slaughter, to prevent the renewal and spread of fratricidal conflicts.

The causes of this senseless war on Russia's southern border, a war which has now become the epicenter of pain and anguish for our homeland, unfortunately run very deep.

Russia for a long time has been proceeding along the road of bloodshed and official arbitrariness. Starting with mass beatings of demonstrators on the streets of Moscow in 1993, the Yeltsin administration finally abandoned all restraint in October of the same year, trampling on the constitution and not only dispersing its own parliament, but also opening fire on it with tank artillery and machine-guns.

Tanks on city streets - we have already experienced this, a year ago. The people behind that episode were the same Yeltsin, Grachev, Yerin and Co. who are now directing the carnage in Chechnya. At that time, however, they still had with them a number of people who now seem to have regained their powers of sight - people like Yegor Gaidar and Gleb Yakunin. Even Sergei Kovalev, now showing genuine heroism defending human rights in Chechnya, looked on passively in October 1993 as hundreds of defenseless Moscow citizens were murdered, as deputies were arrested and beaten, and as police savagely bashed their fellow citizens. shock without therapy

Both then and now, the violence was no accident. The authorities in Russia have been implementing socio-economic and geo-political strategies which cannot possibly be put into practice through peaceful, democratic methods. These are the strategies of shock without therapy,' which have resulted in a steep decline in output, disorganization of the economy, government corruption, legal arbitrariness and a terrifying increase in crime.

Can a president and government who are incapable of enforcing a minimal degree of order in their own home restore order' in Chechnya or anywhere else? Is it any surprise that the peoples of Russia should not want to take a different road from the one of inflation, decline and disorganization that is typical of Yeltsin's Russia?

And what about the impoverishment of the majority of working people as social inequalities increase? Yes we are now seeing a rise in average real incomes following their collapse in 1992. But this normalization recalls the normal' average body, temperature of patients in a hospital. One person has already, died, another is tossing about in a fever, and their average is - normal!

So it is in our country. The 'new rich' in Russian are bloated with wealth, and have become living legends among the big spenders on the international scene. Meanwhile the 'new poor', who include almost half the population, pine nostalgically for the Brezhnev era - which only a short time ago was condemned as a time of low living standards. How could the policies of the present regime fail to provoke citizens to indignation, and the authorities to violence?

And what about the government's policy on the national question? When Yeltsin still needed to oust Gorbachev, he told the republics of the Russian federation: "Take as much sovereignty as you can handle!" Then when he came to power the screws were tightened, and any attempt at independent behaviour was met with the rattle of automatic weapons fire. How are the nationalities and ethnic groups of Russia supposed to see this? As another of the lies of the center'?

Speculation, corruption, violence

These questions have a rhetorical character because power in Russia today lies with socio-political forces that benefit from instability, disorganization, unjust methods of rule, and violence. Those who make up these forces are the new Russians', who unlike normal' Western entrepreneurs do not aim at stable profits of 10 to 20 per cent, but at rapid enrichment. Their goal is profit rates of hundreds of per cent a year, the super-concentration and centralization of capital through extra-economic means - speculation, corruption and violence. These people stand to benefit from an atmosphere of arbitrariness and coercion.

There is, to be sure, a sector of Russian private business today in which the primitive accumulation of capital' has already been carried out. In this sector, a point in the concentration of wealth has been reached at which stability is more important than rapid enrichment. This explains the fact that some of the right-wing parties which at first gave their silent assent to a police action' in Chechnya later came out against an escalation of the war. They need stability and order, not the chaos of an ill-prosecuted conflict.

Another sector of these forces is made up of corrupt bureaucrats who can only receive their privileges and bribes in a general context of lawlessness and institutional chaos.

Unfortunately, very similar processes are under way in the autonomous republics and regions of Russia. The power wielded by Dudayev is a small piece of mirrorglass in which our general problems are reflected. In Chechnya we see the same low level of legitimacy (three years ago Dudayev, with support from Moscow, dissolved his own parliament).

Yeltsin's fascist backers

Yes, we now have a ruling layer which finds incessant armed conflicts unavoidable. The more savagely the Yeltsinite centre behaves, the greater will be the wave of local separatism. The stronger the nationalism in the Russian borderlands, the more powerful will be the outbursts of great-power Russian chauvinism at the centre, and the more real will be the danger of an authoritarian, semi fascist regime in our country.

With the developments in Chechnya, this tendency has been manifested to the full. Who are the people supporting Yeltsin today? Zhirinovsky, notorious for advocating a push to the south' (an expansionist policy aimed at creating a Greater Russia'), and Barkashov, the leader of the semi-fascist organization Russian National Unity. In addition, there are a few jingoist patriots, as well as former members of Yeltsin's administration and government. And that is all. Even Gaidar and his colleagues have turned their backs on the president.

This is no accident. Four years ago we were shouting at the top of our lungs: "Yeltsin is not an alternative, simply a pedestal for Zhirinovsky and Co. to climb up on!" Then a year ago, after the bloody events of October, the president began openly trying on the cloak of Russian chauvinism, borrowing the vocabulary and slogans of the Prokhanovs and Zhirinovskys. It remained only to be seen when Yeltsin would try his own push to the south,' or begin struggling against a non-existent Jewish-masonic conspiracy.' The first outburst came in Chechnya. But Russia and its army were in decay, so instead of the hammer-blow of a great-power fist, what we saw was the clumsy groping of fat, blindly spread fingers.

The result was the corpses of our young men.

Opposition to the war

And what about civil society? To give them their due, the majority of Russian political organizations criticised the conflict, - though in different ways - almost as soon as it began.

For Gaidar and his associates from the Russia's Choice party, until recently the president's best-known supporters, denouncing the war served (in our view) as no more than a means of distancing themselves from an obviously disastrous campaign by their hero of earlier times. The right-wing liberal-Westernisers, exiled from power by a president who has turned increasingly to Russian nationalism and great-power chauvinism, decided to try to conduct an independent policy, gently kicking the president (but not too hard, in case he fell). Meanwhile moral considerations (why not call them to mind, when doing so poses no danger to one's prestige and capital?) played a certain role. As a result Gaidar and his colleagues, who had supported the use of tanks to pacify Muscovites in the autumn of 1993, spoke out against using tanks in Grozny in the winter of 1994-'95.

The centrists (Yavlinsky and his colleagues) adopted a much firmer position, struggling consistently both against the war and against the high-handedness of the president and his administration. The majority of human rights organizations, including the Movement for Democracy and Human Rights in Russia, Memorial and others, took a similar stand. Among the most active individuals was the above-mentioned Sergei Kovalyov, the president's commissioner for human rights. After spending several weeks in Grozny, Kovalyov returned to Moscow, and did a great deal to tell the truth about Chechnya to the citizens of Russia and to the whole world.

Social democratic parties took a somewhat ambiguous stand on the conflict, on the one hand calling for the integrity of Russia to be maintained, and on the other pleading the necessity for the defence of human rights. By contrast, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation forgot (thank goodness!) its usual great-power rhetoric, bluntly condemning the war and the authorities who were responsible for the massive destruction and the large number of casualties.

The relatively small democratic socialist tendencies such as the Union of Internationalists, the Party of Labour and the Russian party of Communists were extremely active. For us, organizing something like a dozen pickets, rallies and round-table discussions, as well as issuing press statements and collaborating with human rights defenders, was a matter of conscience and civic duty.

The real point, of course, is not who was the first to move into action. Far more important is the fact that practically all of the country's major political forces, with the exception of the right-wing national-patriots, were lined up on one side of the barricades. On the other side was a bloc of Yeltsin, Zhirinovsky and Barkashov.

Limited unity

The opponents of the war, however, were far from agreeing on a united set of demands for resolving the conflict. All the anti-war forces, thank goodness, were in favour of a halt to the bombing and to military actions, and supported the opening of negotiations. But beyond this point, disagreements began to appear.

The Gaidarites were opposed in principle to calling for the president to resign, while many of the social democrats forgot this demand. Democratic leftists were demanding that Russian forces be withdrawn from Chechnya, and that the Russian government respect the right of the peoples of Chechnya to decide independently and on a democratic basis whether they would remain in the Russian Federation, and if so, with what degree of autonomy. However, this demand received only feeble support. Many rightists argued that a rapid and professional police action' in Chechnya was desirable, condemning not so much the use of the big stick' as the unprofessionalism' of the army's actions.

This kind of discord within a context of positive positions is not surprising. In our country advocates of the strong state' and supporters of great power' concepts are winning increasing popularity for their ideas. In domestic policy, these people call for free market' economic strategies together with moderate authoritarianism and strong police forces. In the broader sphere, they favour expansionist geopolitics backed by patriotic' ideology. There is reason to fear that if the war in Chechnya had been organized professionally - that is, if the killing had been quick and silent - only the democratic left and a few human rights defenders would have spoken out against it.

No end in sight

The war is continuing. Every hour of every day it is taking lives.

On January 29 the Presidential Palace in Chechnya's capital of Grozny was seized by Russian troops. But only the half of Grozny has since been occupied by Russian troops, who continue a brutal artillery bombardment of those parts still controlled by Dudayev's forces. Predictably, the s have switched to guerrilla tactics. Despite routine claims by Russian officials that the military stage of the operation has been completed, no end to the war is in sight. Moreover, there are growing signs the conflict is spreading to other regions and peoples of the northern Caucasus.

But the anti-war struggle also continues. Protest actions, rallies, pickets, and critical publications are proliferating. Diverse political forces have begun coming together to challenge state policy in Chechnya. For example, in December the Anti-War Coordinating Committee was formed by representatives of several left parties and groups. On January 28, an accord "on common actions in defence of peace and freedom, against the slaughter in Chechnya" was signed by a number of right and centrist parties and movements.

The citizens of Russia are more and more beginning to understand that the slaughter in Chechnya is a crime whose consequences will remain for a long time to come on the conscience of our authorities, a crime whose evils are a warning to all the peoples of Russia.

This is a crime in the moral sense. The war is also a political crime. It is strengthening the authority of Dudaev and his supporters, who are far from representing a democratic, popular force. The war is strengthening separatist tendencies not only in Chechnya but throughout Russia. It is exacerbating a situation in Russia that is already fraught with conflict. The war is further discrediting our army, already stained by punitive actions against its own people.

The war is also an economic crime. Billions upon billions of rubles have already been spent on senseless slaughter. The cost, in fact, is now in the trillions. Already high inflation is beginning to edge up still further, and there are signs of alarm on the money markets. The budgets for health care and culture are being cut (military needs!). It is already obvious that the realistic 1995 budget will have to be recalculated, cutting back even further the present miserly spending on social needs, and drawing still tighter the already suffocating noose of inflation and economic collapse.

International solidarity

The solidarity of people of good will in Russia and abroad is now all the more important. It is necessary to overcome one's own indifference and to say "No!" to the war and to the authorities who have unleashed it. This must be done by military personnel, refusing to carry out illegal orders. It must be done by civilians participating in acts of protest in their neighborhoods, their villages, their workplaces. It must be done by politicians, casting off their petty factionalism and uniting, at least temporarily, for the sake of peace. The world community must understand that the killing of thousands of people is neither a police action' nor an internal affair of Russia', but a crime against humanity.

If we can stop this slaughter, if we can learn to struggle together at least against such obvious crimes of the authorities - if this can be achieved, then at least to some degree the sufferings and sacrifices of this winter in Chechnya will not have been in vain.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online