Possible Consequences of the Chechnya War for the General Situation in the Caucasus

Chapter One
Sergei A. Arutiunov
Senior Fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences


Today the Caucasus is one of the hottest, most potentially explosive and dangerous areas of the world. It consists of nine or ten distinct territorial formations: the seven republics (formerly autonomous and now "sovereign" within the Russian Federation) of Adygea, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardin-Balkaria, Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan; two kray or territories, Stavropol and Krasnodar; and often the territory or oblast of Rostov-Don is also included in the notion of the Caucasus or, more precisely, Northern Caucasus. There is also the Southern Caucasus, or Transcaucasia, which became a part of the Russian Empire, paradoxically, much earlier than most territories of the Northern Caucasus, but was never seriously regarded as an integral part of Russia and always maintained a separate position governed by a vice-roy. In the Soviet era it did not become a part of the Russian Federation but formed a number of initially independent republics later integrated into the Soviet Union.

The historic fates and the cultural specificity of these Transcaucasian lands were always quite different from lands of the Northern Caucasus. The proper ethnic Russian element never played any important role here, contrary to the situation in the Northern Caucasus, where Russian colonization, with the exception of mountainous Dagestan, has been very significant even long before the final incorporation of these lands into the Empire.

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence by all former constituent Union Republics, there are three so-called newly independent states of Transcaucasia, all nurturing tensions and claims to each other though nevertheless maintaining membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Two of these, Georgia and Azerbaijan, when in the USSR initially included territories which formally enjoyed national autonomy as either autonomous republics or autonomous oblasts.

These were Abkhazia, Adjaria and Southern Ossetia in Georgia, and Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaidjan. The governments of Azerbaidjan and Georgia have abolished de jure the autonomy of Southern Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh respectively, but this is in fact just wishful thinking. With the exception of the Nakhichevan Republic, all these territories today are practically independent small states. Adjaria has not proclaimed its independence but in fact successfully effectuates it.

All these territories put together are smaller than the territory of France, approximately 500,000 square kilometers, and have a considerably smaller population, but ethnically this population is extremely heterogeneous. Apart from Russians, who constitute a majority in Rostov-Don, Krasnodar and Stavropol territories and from one to fifty percent in practically all other territories and states, there are numerous relatively large ethnic entities, numbering from approximately one hundred thousand (e.g. Abkhazes, Balkars, Nogais, Dagestanian Laks and Tabassarans), to several hundred thousands (e.g. Adygeans, Kabardins, Karachais, Ossetians, Ingushes, Chechens, Kumyks, Avars, Dargins and Lezgins), to the nations of several million people (e.g. Armenians, Georgians and Azeris). There are also about thirty smaller ethnic groups, numbering from one thousand to sixty thousand people (e.g. Abazins, Rutuls, Tsakhurs, and Andis), and more than twenty significant immigrant groups (e.g. Germans, Assirians, Turks and Greeks). Three millennia of more or less documented ethnic history of the Caucasus have been filled with virtually incessant wars fought between tribes, kingdoms, principalities, clans, fiefs, warlords, barons, bishops, highland communities and other groups.

These wars were fought under dynastic, tribal, religious and other banners. Very rarely, if ever, were they fought under purely ethnic banners, but today it is exactly the ethnic banners which are the favorite tokens of bitterly opposed parties. However, the true motive for all these wars has never been religious faith, nor cultural difference, nor loyalty to a certain dynasty or sovereign, and today, too, it is not the ethnic difference per se. The real reason of these wars has almost invariably been a competition between congregated groups or powerful individuals alongside their retinues for the ownership of valuable property, primarily arable lands and pastures, which are rather scarce in this relatively densely populated, montainous and predominantly arid corner of Eurasia.

In this contradiction-ridden area, the iron rule of the Tsarist government and the ensuing communist regime maintained just for a century a shaky, forced and superficial peace that was frequently interrupted by acts of spontaneous violence. But when the USSR collapsed, the struggle resumed with a new force. There was suddenly much property belonging to unidentifiable owners, the formerly state or collectively owned property, which had to be privatized or redistributed. No solid legal base existed to govern the rules of this redistribution, nor was there any recognized, authoritative and powerful will to enforce such rules, had they existed. The competition for such decision-making authority is quite naturally aligned along ethnic lines.

Therefore, ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are not unexpected,odd or unnatural. On the contrary, they had to be expected. Some leading Russian anthropologists and ethnopolitologists well expected them, alongside with the general collapse of the Soviet Union, already in the late sixties and early seventies. But at that time no open statement on that topic was possible, and the heated disputes about possible directions of these events and their approximate timing rarely leaked outside the restricted circle of "Moscow kitchen conferences." A massive ethnic conflict between Ossetians and Ingushes broke out in 1981 in Vladikavkaz (then Ordjonikidze) that very much resembled in scope and pattern the recent ethnic clashes in Los Angeles, and was quelled by a curfew and introduced troops. But in 1981 there was no question of the mass media covering such a conflict, and it remained unknown to the broad public. The blindly over-confident communist authorities, too, failed to draw any lessons from this and several other experiences, and hence the events of 1986 in Almaaty and of 1988 in Karabakh and Sumgait appeared to them as puzzling and unexpected. Karabakh was the first territory in the Caucasus and generally in the Soviet Union where, for the first time after the Second World War, an intention to separate from a larger ethno-national body and to create a self-governing or independent state was explicitly announced. With the escalation of the Karabakh conflict, soon the same pattern was followed by Southern Ossetia, where separatist aspirations were similarly combined with and strengthened by irredentist ones. That is, Karabakh wanted not only to separate from Azerbaidjan, but to unite with Armenia. Similarly, Southern Ossetia wanted to separate from Georgia and to unite with Northern Ossetia.

It is interesting to note that while the determination to separate from initial "mother-states" (the term "stepmother states" is more metaphorically justified in these cases) not only does not diminish over time in both cases but, on the contrary, becomes more pronouncedly adamant with every subsequent stage of the conflict, the irredentist aspirations tend to become less frequently articulated and are in fact substituted by a desire to maintain and strengthen the already achieved de facto independence, autarky and self-reliance.

In 1992 the ethnic tension in the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia seemed to achieve its peak. The Soviet Union had collapsed. The Russian federation, under the well-intentioned but completely inexperienced management (mismanagement would be a much more suitable expression) of quasi-democrats Egor Gaidar et al., was faced with rocketing hyperinflation and the rapid impoverishment of the overwhelming majority of its population, as well as the tremendously increased rate of crime, pollution, catastrophes and other disasters. It seemed to everybody that to split away from this monstrous bog of moral and physical infection would be, if not a panacea, then at least a reasonable sanitary measure.

In this athmosphere, on August 14, Georgia began its aggression against Abkhazia, followed in November by the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in the Prigorodnii Raion of North Ossetia. The secessionist strife of South Ossetians in Georgia and of Karabakhtsi Armenians in Azerbaidjan found complete understanding and support only in North Ossetia and Armenia, respectively, and to some extent among the liberal Russian itelligentsia and the Orthodox Church-oriented Russian conservative patriots. These forces and strata were unhappy with the rather pronounced anti-Russian stance of the majority of Georgian political leaders. Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze then had to be more or less silent on these matters. Besides, South Ossetians and Karabakhtsi Armenians were decidedly Christian nations, the latter case also struggling to liberate themselves from Moslem domination. Both Ossetians and Karabakhtsis were demonstrating quite explicitly their pro-Russian standpoints, if not in favor of the then-existing Russian government, then at least in favor of the Russian nation. Both nations linguistically are clearly Indo-European, and their intelligentsia is very fond of emphasizing this Indo-European and subsequent Scythian-Alanian and Byzantine legacy. This contrasts sharply with the historiographical ideology of North Caucasian Mountaineers, including Abkhasians, who are predominantly and in most parts exclusively Muslim, are very proud of their non-Indo-European, but rather Pan-Asiatic, Caucasian or Turkic linguistic alignment, historically tended to be oriented toward the Ottoman rather than Byzantine empire, and at least since the 100-year long Caucasian War (1763-1864) used to cherish hidden or overt anti-Russian sentiments.

Russian attitudes toward events in Abkhazia and the Prigorodnii Raion were different. The attitude of officials and quasi-democrats towards Abkhazian separatists had oscilllated between feeble condemnation and very inconsistent, lukewarm support. The Russian military stationed in Abkhazia decided to support the Abkhazian side for several reasons: Abkhasians not only behaved correctly to them but had declared themselves in favor of a revival of the Soviet Union, where Abkhazia could be one of Union republics. Interestingly and significantly, the same position was adopted by Dudaev in Chechnya still earlier, and this may explain to some extent initially a rather tolerant attitude toward him by many Russian military, ex-military and pro-military, including such personalities as ex-KGB general and extreme nationalist Sterligov and Zhirinovsky.

Besides, the Russian military quite predictably were consumed with their hatred for Shevardnadze, whom they blamed for "capitulationist" pro-western policies, and for Georgians, who were attacking Russian military bases stationed in Georgia to seize the badly needed weapons. But in the Prigorodnii Raion, Russian sympathies were unequivocally on the Ossetian side. Ossetian national guards, local Cossacks and regular federal troops of all banners were touchingly unanimous in their determination, if not to extinguish completely, then at least to oust completely and forever all Ingushes from all villages and sities not only of Prigorodnii raion but also from Vladikavkaz, where Ingushes constituted about six percent of total population, and where an Ingush settlement existed long before the foundation of the fortress by the Russians. Only a small fraction of truly liberal and democratic Russian intelligentsia dared to raise their voices in defense of Ingushes as of objects of open genocide, and Yegor Yakovlev was very promptly dismissed by Yeltsin from the position of Chairman of Russian TV exactly for supporting this liberal stand.

Unlike the situation in Chechnya of 1994-1995, the most outrageous atrocities and violations of the human rights in Prigorodnii Raion were committed not by regular federal troops (though they too have demonstrated far from innocent behaviour) but by Cossacks and especially by Ossetian national guards, who were mostly recruited from among the badly embittered refugees from South Ossetia and other Ossetian-populated towns and villages of central and northern Georgia. In spite of this obvious difference in positions (albeit very widely ranging) of Russians in the crises of Abkhazia and Prigorodnii Raion, all the so-called Caucasian Mountaineers were unanimous in their support of Abkhazians and in their sympathies to Ingushes. In Abkhazia there were many thousands of volunteers and mercenaries who were fighting against Georgians on the Abkhazian side. This helped Abkhazians to win over Georgians, in spite of the latter's prevailing number. True, morale was rather low among the Georgian troops, who consisted largely of ex-jail-birds summoned with the consent of Russian authorities from various Russian prisons and conscripted into the army. The volunteers penetrated Abkhazia by mountain trails, which the Russian troops, summoned temporarily to this area, were unable and probably unwilling to control. There were no volunteers fighting to defend Ingushes in Prigorodnii Raion, only because the president of Ingushetia , Major General Ruslan Aushev, who enjoys enormous prestige not only among Ingushes but also among other mountaineers, took a firm position not to allow the conflict to escalate and to use only peaceful, legal methods for its solution. In a couple of subsequent years his negotiations with Ossetia's president Akhsarbek Galazov resulted in a number of agreements providing for a partial return of Ingush refugees to the Prigorodnii raion, but the Ossetian authorities have sabotaged the realization of these agreements.

The firm peaceful stand taken by President Aushev, the inconsistency and contradictions concerning Abkhazia which existed in the Russian ruling circles, the Abkhazians' achievements in 1993 and their final victory after a year of fighting prevented an outbreak of a wholesale new Caucasian war in 1993, though there was a very serious danger of it. Had Russian troops tried by force to stop the flow of volunteers to Abkhazia from Adygea, Karachai, Kabardinia and Chechnya, or had the Russian tanks, that despite Aushev's vigorous protest had entered Ingushetia after having shelled Ingush villages in the Prigorodnii raion, engaged in a conflict with Dudaev's tanks, then an outbreak of a new Caucasian war involving all Caucasian mountaineers in a fight against Russians, Cossacks and perhaps Ossetians, and later probably against each other, would have been inevitable. But fortunately this did not happen. The Russian government belatedly realized that it was in its interest not to prevent Abkhazians to win over Georgians, and then to play peacemaker, to put Georgia on its knees and to incorporate it back into Russia's geopolitical order. Besides, President Yeltsin was too busy in 1993 with his confrontation with the rebellious parliament to let himself be seduced into one more adventure.

Thus an all-out Caucasian war did not begin in 1993. Though in the eyes of the progressives and liberals, the Russian troops had been somewhat marred by their participation in the genocide of Ingushes in the Prigorodnii Raion, it nonetheless was a comparatively small blot noticed by few. On the contrary, the role of Russian troops as separating and peace-making forces along South Ossetian-Georgian and Abkhazian-Georgian armistice lines was generally appreciated by everybody, including Georgians.

Though the Abkhazian war and the conflict in the Prigorodnii raion (which was not a war but a massacre of small, poorly armed bands of Ingushes by heavily armed Ossetian national guardsmen and Russian troops) were locally restricted conflicts, their consequences were disastrous. In each conflict several thousands of people were killed, the majority civilians. The number of places deliberately destroyed, including homes, theaters, museums, animal reserves, libraries, national archives and so on in Abkhazia, by maraudeering Georgian national guardsmen cannot be evaluated in terms of money. Thousands of people on both sides of the conflict, as well as the neutral, were raped, tortured, mutilated, humiliated, robbed and expelled from their homes.

In Northern Ossetia at one time there were as many as 70 thousand refugees from Southern Ossetia and other regions of Georgia. About 40 thousand later returned to Southern Ossetia, but at least some 30 thousand from other areas of Georgia remain, too scared to return. The ethnic Ingushes of Ossetia have been squeezed out completely. The total number of these refugees was about 60 thousand. Their houses were either seized by Ossetians (mostly by the so-called Kudartsi, the Southern Refugees) or burnt and demolished. So far no more than a few hundred Ingushes were allowed to return to the ruins of their homes in the Prigorodnii Raion. Today in greatly overpopulated Ingushetia, among the present population of some 250 thousand inhabitants nearly fifty percent are refugees, including huge numbers from Chechnya, living mostly with relatives and friends. There are about 30 to 40 thousand ethnic Georgians, mostly concentrated in or around Tbilisi, who are refugees from Southern Ossetia. In Abkhazia at the beginning of the conflict there were about 90 thousand ethnic Abkhazians, more than 220 thousand ethnic Georgians, about 50 thousand Armenians, the same number of ethnic Russians, and probably some 20-30 thousand Greeks and others. The majority of Russians, Armenians and Greeks fled Abkhazia at the beginning of war, mostly to Krasnodar Territory (many Greeks fled to Greece). Some have returned, but many remain in Krasnodar or went further into Russia. As to the ethnic Georgians, there are about 200 thousand refugees, many of them living in tents in awful conditions near the Abkhazian border, eager to return but not allowed to.

All these disasters were followed in October 1994 by the outbreak of the Chechnya war, which turned to be summarily perhaps more disastrous than all previous conflicts put together. Here is probably not a suitable place to describe all the events of this ugly war, all the stages of its gradual escalation. Suffice it to say that this war, represented by the propaganda machine of Yeltsin's administration as a police operation intended to restore law and order and to disarm illegal bands, resulted in several thousands of deaths and several times more general casualties (wounded, frozen, etc.) among federal Russian troops alone. It has brought about at least 30 thousand dead, many more wounded and injured, and ten times more homeless civilians, many of them ethnic Russians. It exceeds the losses of the horrible earthquake of 1988 in Armenia, which was considered a disaster of a first grade national scale. It is several times more than the losses in the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

As a rule there are no right sides in ethnic wars, and all recent wars in the Caucasus, the Chechnya war being no exception, have been ethnic. Usually the ultra-nationalist party or leader, to deliberately or spontaneously drag their compatriots into escalating a war, manipulates such notions as a menace to the national existence of the given ethnic group, oppresion of its cultural integrity and continuity, gradual disappearance of its native language and so on. These phenomena do exist to a certain extent in reality. But the biggest fear experienced by an ethnic group or a nation is the demographic fear. When a certain group realizes that its birth rate is lower than that of the neighbouring group, it fears finding itself increasingly in a minority position and concludes that the "ethnic cleansing" of the neighbouring group is the only possible escape from the menacing situation.

This was definitely the basis of the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict. For decades, both due to the natural increase and even more so to a forced or sponsored immigration, the Georgian population of Abkhazia was growing much faster than the Abkhazian. The same can be said about Azeris versus Armenians not only in Karabakh, but also in the southern region of Armenia, Zangezur, where prior to the conflict of 1988 the percentage of Azeri population was steadily growing. In the end of 1988 they all were forced to flee to Azerbaidjan. The percentage of Ingushes was similarly steadily growing in the Prigorodnii raion and in Vladikavkaz. The same demographic correlation can be observed in Lebanon, Assam and a number of other areas stricken by ethnic conflicts throughout the world.

But certainly this was not the case in Chechnya, where the growth of the indigenous population greatly outpaced that of the ethnic Russians. The indigenous population is a minority, and the preservation of the native language and culture is seriously endangered, for example, in Mordovia in the Middle Volga Basin. Some ethnic tensions can be observed in Mordovia too, but by no means are they attaining the scale where attempts at "ethnic cleansing" and internecine warfare begin. To some extent the origins of the present conflicts in the Caucasus may be compared to the origins of the First World War. As we all know today, it was triggered by a fanatic nationalist. But the real causes of the war lay in the desires of the powers in conflict to dominate over larger territories, markets, natural resources and so on. Only the ruling classes of these powers were interested in these objectives, but the working masses had to die for them, although they might have lived perfectly in peace, as Serbs, Croats and Muslims once did in the now war-burnt Sarajevo. The current conflicts in the Caucasus all have been triggered by extremist statements, demands and irresponsible actions of local ethnic or minority patriots and leaders, but the basic responsibility lies with the governments, ruling establishments and money-making cliques. These sometimes include local elements, but basically represent larger powers, such as Russia, Georgia or Azerbaidjan, which have attempted to safeguard for themselves the privatization of property, the incomes from covert and illegal economic operations and so on. There is no doubt that Dudaev and his cohorts were involved in such operations. But there is also no doubt that such people as Zavgaev and his ilk, overthrown by Dudaev, similarly attempted to utilize the unstable situation of 1990s in their own interests and those of their friends. Definitely there is no doubt that behind the ethnically tinted Chechen front cover there have always stood much more powerful, influential (possessing the broadest Army-, KGB- and CPSU-based connections), anonymous and informal groups, organizations and personalities who had absolutely nothing in common with the so-called "Caucasian" ethnic identity.

There is no proof, but nevertheless serious reasons exist to believe that an unhindered existence for more than three years of a de facto free economic zone in Chechnya, and then a sudden determination to eliminate Dudaev, can be explained by the following reasoning. Initially to have the Chechen cover and a customs- and control-free opening between certain corrupt Russian civilian and army circles and "mafiosi" businessmen, on one hand, and the rather odious Near Eastern and other foreign partners, on the other hand, was for a time quite useful and comfortable. But when Dudaev and his group became a menace, demanding a bigger share of illegal incomes or threatening to blackmail, then the necessity arose to lure the President of Russia and the whole might of the Russian Army and secret services into an attempt to eliminate Dudaev.

At the beginning of his political and nationalistic activity, Dudaev might have been motivated by purely idealistic, quixotic values and goals. Or he might not have been. This is, after all, irrelevant. What is really important is that the main undercurrents operating in the Russo-Chechnyan war are political and economic forces and interests that in their cumulative scope and scale far exceed the scope and limits of the tiny Chechnyan Republic, an infinitesimally small part of Russia's territory, constituting less than one percent of Russia's total population. Only this can explain the extreme cruelty of this war, the massiveness of the war effort, and the readiness to ignore all protests and indignation from the world community and the liberal and democratic opposition within Russia. It would be not unheard of to say that this war is indeed extremely unpopular. Sociological surveys indicate that if the question of whether Russia should grant Chechnya independence and withdraw all troops from its territory were put on a referendum today, more than 50 percent of the voters would approve this solution, provided that the northern districts, which were part of Stavropol until 1957 and remain populated largely by ethnic Russians, remain within the Russian Federation. The reason for this lies not in sympathy with the heroic struggle of Chechnyans for this independence, not in a feeling of historical justice or of guilt for the innumerable sufferings that the centuries of Russian aggression and oppression have caused the people of Chechnya. Such motivations can be found among a very thin stratum of the liberal intelligentsia, but on the whole they are alien to the masses of Russian people who for the most part still consider Chechens if not a horde of bloodthirsty bandits, then at least an uncivilized, savage tribe that constitutes a permanent threat to the peace in Russia's southern regions. The Chechen diaspora in central Russia, Moscow and other large cities is considered the main ethnic substratum for all criminal and "mafiosi" activity, an opinion which has no basis in reality.

But the Russian population as a whole is very tired of this war and its calamities. The war has already cost the lives of thousands of Russian soldiers. Its total monetary cost amounts to some 10 billion dollars. In many regions of Russia, as I witnessed myself in Siberia during the summer of 1995, not only have policemen, army officers, and other budgeted workers not received their salaries for several months, but they are also explicitly told that the money initially designated to pay them had been pumped instead into the "restoration" of destructions caused by the war in Chechnya. It is essential to notice that all these "post-perestroika" wars in the Caucasus so far have followed one general pattern. They begin with a decisive, but peaceful declaration by a newly elected authority, like a president or a supreme council, about their intention to separate, to be independent, to change relations with the center from autonomy to confederation, or the like. Then a campaign of slander, menaces, and defamation from Moscow follows. After an indefinite period of escalation of hostile actions, the center initiates an armed invasion under a pretext. At first the smaller nation suffers great losses and is forced to retreat considerably, but it later launches a successful counter attack, which ends in a serious defeat of federal forces. Then a stalemate follows, and an armistice or temporary peace is established. In no case so far has there been a final resolution of a conflict or a formal recognition of a new status.

This was the sequence of events in Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Prigorodnii Raion of Ossetia seems to be an exception. There was no declaring government body, just a popular movement of Ingushes to secede from Ossetia and to reunite with Ingushetia. Later they were defeated and ousted from Ossetia. But in all probability, despite all sabotage by Galazov's administration, Ingushes will in the end return to Prigorodnii raion, and in the end it will be as lost for Ossetia-Alania as South Ossetia seems lost for Georgia. This is because the tombstones in this area are mostly Ingush, not Ossetian.

The main reason why the smaller nations win and much more mighty centers are defeated is simple. The Georgian troops in Abkhazia, the Azeri troops in Karabakh and the Russian troops in Chechnya are not very eager to fight for their governments' domination over lands quite different from most soldiers' native lands, with a different landscape, different tombstones, different place names and a different indigenous population. These lands are alien to most soldiers, despite all the governments' quasi-patriotic propaganda. On the other hand, the indigenous people of Karabakh, Abkhazia, Ingushetia and Chechnya are fighting to defend their own homes, their ancestors' tombstones, their native territory and their national survival. They will fight to the last, and there is no means to vanquish them but to exterminate them completely. Unfortunately, probably many years and decades of mutual mistrust and alienation will have to elapse before Ingushetians and Ossetians, or Armenians and Azeris, or Georgians and Abkhazians live peacefully side by side as good neighbors, which in principle they were successfully doing still some ten or twenty years ago, despite, or much more plausibly because of, all the intrigues, injustices, biases and oppression by their communist rulers.

What was happening in Chechnya for more than half a year and to some extent still is happening now is unequivocally genocide. Everyone who wants to be a liberal, a democrat, a humanitarian, must realize that the killing of Chechens by Russians in Chechnya is no more Russia's internal affair than the killing of Jews in Germany was Germany's internal affair. Chechnya is not Russia. Chechnya was and is no more an integral part of Russia than Algeria was an integral part of France. Though perhaps on a slightly smaller scale, Russian occupation troops in Chechnya are doing in principle, quality, form and content exactly the what the German Wehrmacht did in Belarus in 1941. The name of the little Chechen town, Samashki, sounds today as sinister as Khatyn in Belarus, or as Lidice in Czechoslovakia, and more sinister than My Lai in Vietnam. And the response today in Chechnya is the same as it was in the 1940s in Belarus. It is a cruel, bloody and pityless response, but it cannot possibly be anything but irreconciliable guerrilla warfare.

This response is not rooted in simple ethnic hatred. Chechens do not nurture any inherent hatred towards the average Russian. By their traditional ethics they are rather disposed towards good neighbourly relations with those peoples with whom they live side by side. In the history of their relations with their neighbours there have been conflicts, as have happened between all neighbouring communities in the Caucasus, but in general, at least in the recent decades, relations of mutual respect and benevolence prevailed.

But it must be born in mind that for a Chechen, more than for any other Caucasian, to be a man means, inter alia, to remember the names of seven generations of paternal ancestors: the father, the grandfather and so on. And not only their names are to be remembered and faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, but also the basic circumstances of their lives, their deaths, and the locations of their tombstones. All together, this constitutes an enormous depth of historic memory. Naturally, in so many cases the remembered deaths occurred at the hands of Russian soldiers: under Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, Stalin, and now Yeltsin. Thus, for practically every Chechen, a Russian soldier and especially a Russian general are considered to be evil incarnate, worse than the Devil himself.

Furthermore, Chechnya was and is a society of military democracy. In the development of a society, in the theoretical framework of the Russian school of Evolutionist and Marxist anthropology, the military democracy is a stage way above primitive communalism but below a completely developed class society.

This means that Chechnya never had any kings, khans, barons or princes of their own. Some parts of Chechnya were sometimes in a more or less nominal vassal dependency of Kabardin princes, but in practical terms this was hardly noticeable. There were attempts by some powerful Chechen families to proclaim themselves princes or something similar, but with very poor results: most often the families who dared to undertake such an endeavour were simply exterminated by their neighbours. Quite unlike most other Caucasian nations, there had never been any feudal system in Chechnya. Traditionally, if it was ever governed at all as a distinct entity, it was done by a council of elders on the basis of concensus. But like any other military democracy, such as the Iroquois in America or the Zulu in southern Africa, Chechens retained an institution of a supreme military chief. In peacetime,that chief had no power at all. No sovereign authority was recognized , and the nation might be fragmented in a hundred of rival clans.

However, in time of danger, when confronted with aggression, the rival clans would unite and elect a military leader. This leader might be known to everyone as a very unpleasant personality with many faults, but nevertheless would be elected just on the basis of being an experienced military leader. While the war was going on, this leader would be obeyed. This was the kind of authority enjoyed by such leaders as Sheikh Mansur (Ushurma) at the end of the eighteenth century, and even the famous Imam Shamil in the first half of the nineteenth century was obeyed by Chechens mainly along the same lines.

It must be understood then that the institution of the presidency is generally not suited to the conditions of self-government in Chechnya. Dudaev was definitely a poor president. But even the best possible president would last in Chechnya only as long as the euphoria of long-desired independence from Russia, and this in turn would be possible only as long as this independence was menaced. Dudaev understood this well and therefore did his best to maintain among his subjects a continuously heated anti-Russian paranoia.

Djokhar Dudaev is a typical example of a temporary military leader. His presidency is, in this sense, an historical accident. Many well informed Russian observers believe that in peace time, in cooperation with the corrupt Russian civil and military bosses, his circle conducted gigantic smuggling operations of arms and drugs through Chechnya from Russia to Iran, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Before the Russian invasion, he had lost a great deal of prestige and popularity. By September 1994 perhaps no more than 20 percent of the total Chechen population were supporting him, and any strong support was limited almost exclusively to his own clan and other groups related to him either by clan or business ties.

But despite all of Dudaev's misdeeds, due to the military leadership traditions and to his indisputable military talents, many Chechens have been willing to fight under his guidance or that of a similar authoritative and experienced leader as long as they feel threatened by Russian invaders. And in the future, Dudaev or no Dudaev, many Chechens will fight the Russian occupiers even if, as it is likely, all the other mountaineer nationalities in the Caucasus offer little more than lip support. Thus, the war and its atrocities in a guerilla form will probably continue for a very long time. Today the hatred and determination for vengeance by many who lost their families due to bombings and shellings by the Russian army are so great, that even when a field commander is willing to conclude an armistice with the Russian forces and cease fire, his soldiers simply desert him and shift to another commander determined to continue the fight. But the general situation in the Caucasus has changed considerably in the two years since Russia's last parliamentary elections, and it continues to change in an unfavourable direction for Chechen fighters.

As I mentioned earlier, two years ago, in 1993, there was a real danger that a minor provocation might lead to a great new Caucasian War. That war would have been launched first of all by the KNK against the central government in Moscow, against its ex-communist puppets in local governments, against much feared Cossack organizations, and against all Russians in general. The mountaineer populations had their nerves on their edge and, besides, the central government looked slow and inefficient and probably was so in fact. But this is not the case now. The October 1993 shelling of the Russian Supreme Soviet by the military loyal to Yeltsin has obviously strengthened the central government's confidence that it can do whatever it wants, uncontrolled and unpunished. There are certain limits to this overconfidence, of course, but it is still very high. On the other hand, in most former areas of fighting, a ceasefire, no matter how shaky, is more or less observed. Only in Chechnya, and to some degree in the ethnically closely related areas of Ingushetia and Northern Dagestan, is the resistance to the Russian occupation really widespread and strong. In these areas,and probably in these areas only, a situation like the conflict in the Northern Ireland may be expected to continue for many years to come.

However, all other mountaineer nationalities in the Northern Caucasus will probably continue to render only lip service to the Chechens and their struggle. There may be some fanatic nationalists and even some small organized groups that will side with the Chechens in their guerilla warfare, just as the IRA used to recruit its members not only from among the ethnic Irish, or as the PLO terrorists were represented not only by Palestinian Arabs. But a massive anti-Russian movement, which could be expected only a couple of years ago, is now impossible. For this there are many reasons. First of all, people in Russia in general and in the Caucasus in particular are increasingly sick and tired of politics. The phrases that a few years earlier would ignite a mob with "rightful indignation" now are perceived by a mass of critically minded individuals as cheap nationalist propaganda. The nationalist leaders have had enough time to largely politically discredit themselves through their inefficiency, inconsistency, lack of responsibility, and often dishonesty in money matters. Meanwhile the the former communist puppet presidents in many republics have proved that they are no longer puppets. They have succeeded in many areas to consolidate up to 70 or 80 percent of popular support. This is largely because these presidents, namely [FIRST NAMES] Djarimov in Adygea, Khubiev in Karachai-Cherkessia, Kokov in Kabardin-Balkaria, Galazov in Ossetia-Alania, in maintaining good relations with the federal government have proven very adept at soliciting considerable financial donations and other benefits for their republics. The mechanism at work is simple but efficient: some grudging criticism of government and some nationalist phrases by popular organizations to help convince the government in Moscow that carrots rather than obviously discredited sticks are much preferred by generally loyal republics. The heads of local governments, demonstrating both their loyalty and the difficulties they ostensibly experience in preserving the social peace on their territories, successfully collect the carrots.

Also, the tragic example of Abkhazia and of the Ingushes in the Prigorodnii Raion of North Ossetia has convinced the majority of the working population, especially small owners, farmers, small businessmen and the like, that any attempt to change by force the status quo to favor one ethnic group may result only in thousands of lost lives, total destruction of villages and property, and hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees. Today most people vote for the status quo. The peoples of the Caucasus do not fear the "might" of the Russian army attempted in Chechnya and if attacked will fight to the last, but they do fear the damage they may inflict upon themselves if they start a conflict.

The recent development of the situation in Kabardin-Balkaria is a striking example of this change in attitudes. The Balkarian nationalist leader, General [FIRST NAME] Beppaev, became famous by organizing a huge number of protests, like seizing public buildings, hunger strikes, meetings, demonstrations and so on, to demand a separation of Balkaria from Kabardinia. Naturally, Kabardins felt very offended by these actions and, in a less violent way, were preparing some countermeasures. At times it seemed that conflict and bloodshed between Balkars and Kabardins were inevitable. But then the government of this two-nationed republic wisely proposeed, in the very end of 1994, a referendum in which only ethnic Balkars were to participate. About 75 percent of the potential voters participated, and more than 90 percent of them voted to maintain the status quo, against a separation. This is a fine example of the ratio between silent majorities and noisy minorities in most areas of the Caucasus.

In principle, the same prevalence of peacefully minded people soon might be characteristic for Chechnya, as well. Here, too, people are growing increasingly fed up with nationalist rhetoric. Chechens have suffered from the Tsarist colonialist and Stalinist neo-imperialist policies more than any other nation in the Caucasus, and probably second only to the Crimean Tatars on the all-Russian scale, so the determination to maintain independence was nearly universal among them, but they would probably agree to some kind of associate status with Russia. In 1993-1994 the number of Dudaev's supporters in Chechnya was falling rapidly and would have very soon dropped to a very low level, had not the stupid (or criminally irresponsible) policy of Yeltsin's generals turned 90 percent of Dudaev's bitter enemies into his adamant supporters. Without this ill-fated intervention, Dudaev soon would have become, like his colleague Beppaev, a general without an army. The future of Chechnya, the whole Caucasus, and finally Russia in general is determined by many factors, some of which are stable and permanent, and others of which are unstable and subject to rapid change.

So what is stable and what is unstable in the Caucasus? The configurations of relations between ethnic groups, their mutual claims, and their basic historical aspirations are stable. They are so stable that archive materials of 1918 often seem to have been written in 1992. But at every given moment the readiness to fight or to compromise, to conform temporarily with the status quo or to strive to change it may be different and change easily, according to the prevalent conditions. The sympathies towards certain leaders are, too, extremely unstable and may change rapidly from admiration and adoration to hatred and contempt. The absolute prevalence of the role of shame over that of guilt has been stable throughout the millennia. The inability of all Russian governments (and of most rank and file ethnic Russians, as well) to understand this fact of paramount importance is also very stable. Hence the constant failures to find mutual understanding. Cossacks are, perhaps, to some extent an exception, because living for centuries side by side with the highlanders, they not only borrowed from them their traditional costume and many customs, but have acquired also some traditional values, including the overemphasis on shame and honour.

But despite difference of values and centuries of confrontations, the Caucasus needs Russia. It needs Russia and its money, technology and education much more than the present Russia needs the Caucasus. Despite all the conflicts and contradictions, the centripetal tendencies in the foreseeable future will prevail over the centrifugal ones. But the way to the structural reintegration is going to be painful and slow.

Ossetia will certainly remain loyal to Moscow, and territories west of Ossetia will remain more or less peaceful. Any violation of peace here may result not from the activity of Chechen agents or their local supporters, but from the arrogance and extremism of the Russian Cossacks. But east of Ossetia, rebellious Ingushes and Chechens will continue to cause trouble for many years and may also ignite a conflict in Dagestan, where thirty ethnic groups are at each other's throat. But because the contradictions between various highland tribes are stronger than between all mountaineers put together and Russia, it will sometimes be possible for Russia to play peace maker, as it did between Abkhazia and Georgia.

The religious factor tends to be grossly exaggerated by most authors and observers. In fact, religion plays a comparatively minor part in the events in the Caucasus. People align along ethnic lines, not religious ones. Some 20 percent of north Ossetians are Muslims, but this did not prevent them from demonstrating absolute solidarity with their Christian compatriots in their determination to expel Muslim Ingushes from Ossetia. However, in other places Islam and the law of Shariat may sometimes prevent Muslims from killing other Muslims. One has to differentiate, however, between the formally educated, sophisticated and ecumenistically oriented clergy on the one hand, and ignorant and fanatic, self-proclaimed Mullahs on the other.

The paradigms of the ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are found throughout the world. Least of all do these conflicts, however, resemble the situation in Bosnia. But there are striking parallels with Ulster, Algeria, Palestine and even South Africa. And though the Caucasus is relatively small, its unrest may be extremely disruptive to Russia in general. Considerable groups of Chechens have fled the calamities of war, even to the easternmost towns with ethnic Russian and indigenous populations, in northeastern Siberia, as far east as the Chukotka peninsula.

But regardless of Russia's political fate in the immediate future, there are only two alternatives to every trouble-stricken area in the Caucasus. One is a total extermination or expulsion (forced emigration) of the indigenous rebel populations: Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Karabakh Armenians, Ingushes. Georgians and Azeris would not hesitate to implement this alternative, as the North Ossetians did not hesitate to do in Prigorodnii raion with the Ingushes. But Russia cannot afford this, because the image of a democracy and international public opinion is much more important for Russia than it is for Georgia and Azerbaidjan.

The other alternative means that the indigenous people will become the unequivocally dominant or even the practically sole population of their respective territories. Even Ingushes may in the end return to Prigorodnii raion and gradually squeeze out Ossetians. It must be noticed that just as in the New World the black population usually succeeds in squeezing out whites and not vice versa, in the same way the less advanced minority may be successful in squeezing out the more cultured majority. This is the main fear of the Karabakh Armenians, who are unwilling to allow even a small group of Azeris back into Karabakh. They know that such a thing has already happened in Nakhichevan, where no Armenians were left by the 1980s, while they constituted 50 percent of the population in 1920s.

Therefore there is a very small probability for Georgians to return to Abkhazia or to South Ossetia, and for a large number of Russians to Chechnya. Russians return to the ruined basements of their homes in Groznyi because they have no other shelter elsewhere, but they will try to leave at the tiniest possibility. Thus, more and more territories in the Caucasus are and will be turning into ethnically homogeneous areas.

This is achieved at the expense of Krasnodar, Stavropol, and even Rostov-Don territories, which accept, albeit unwillingly and grudgingly, a huge number of refugees and immigrants, who are not only Russians, but much more (as percentage to already existing communities) Armenians, Jews, Meskhetian Turks, Tatars, Koreans, and, in the Republic of Kalmykia, also Chechens and Dagestanis. In these areas, ethnic heterogeneity is rapidly increasing, with all its accompanying problems of tension, attempts at pogroms of refugees, and so on.

There are reasons to believe that the already shrunken territory of Russia is not going to shrink any more. Chechnya will be finally forced into some kind of association, and nobody else will now try to secede. But the consequences of the Chechnya war will be felt in Russia for many years and decades (as were the consequences of Vietnam in the United States, or of Afghanistan in Russia), and they will be very grave. Even when the war is nominally terminated, the terrorists acts of small groups and vendettas carried out by individuals will continue. No pilot known to have ever participated in bombing the civilian population in Chechnya, no officer with a Chechnya war record will ever feel safe from revenge, whether he would live in Moscow or Vladivostok. And any puppet bureaucrat of the Russian-installed civil government in Chechnya will never feel safe, either.

But this is not all. The United States prosecuted Lieutenant Calley for his role in the massacre at My Lai. He was just a scape goat, no doubt, and there were hundreds much worse than Calley who never were prosecuted. But in Russia the situation will be different. Dozens and hundreds of lieutenants, corporals and colonels should be prosecuted for Samashki and scores of similar events. Certainly, very few of them, if any, ever will be. But there is enough evidence already to prosecute Pavel Grachev, Minister of Internal Affairs Victor Yerin, and a huge number of other generals, just for the irresponsible inefficiency and shameless lies at all stages of this war that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of many Russian soldiers, let alone for the brutal violations of human rights and international conventions. And if and whenYeltsin is succeded as president by someone willing to create an image of a democrat and an advocate of the state of law, this person may order to start a prosecution. It will be done, of course, not for the sake of democratic principles or human rights, but to gather political capital, to redistribute spheres of interests among one's own supporters, and for many similar practical, selfish reasons. But such prosecutions most certainly will be attempted. This is well understood by everyone constituting the present de facto military junta surrounding today the president of Russia and influencing his decisions. Therefore these people will do their best either to defraud or not to allow a new presidential election, to organize a provocation to introduce an all-Russia state of emergency, and ­p; if anything happens to Yeltsin and his pouvoire personnelle ­p; to carry out a coup d'état, to place in power a Bonapartist figure able to defend their interests and their immunity.

And this is not yet all. The Caucasus possesses all necessary resources to be one of the prosperous areas of the world, like Spain or Greece. But for this it needs to develop its tourist industry, to create a stable, numerous and influential stratum of small and medium owners of private property, of farmers, shopkeepers, restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs. The main obstacle for this is instability, absence of firm peace, and the rule of post-communist bureaucrats who are the least interested to allow a middle class to appear. The consequences of the Chechnya war will provide favourable conditions for an indeterminately prolonged rule of these bureaucrats, for more authoritarianism and voluntarism in economic matters, and thus create the prerequisites for a painfully long economic stagnation in the Caucasus and, perhaps, in Russia in general.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online