Chechnya and the Left
By Tim Bousquet
At what point do we care?
A major war is being waged in Chechnya, complete with NATO-style bombings of hospitals, TV stations, oil refineries, and the similar necessary facilities of a modern society. Hundreds of thousands of refugees pour across borders, but no international relief operations are even contemplated. As this article is going to press, tens of thousands of Russian ground troops are descending into the area, and it seems likely that the carnage of the 1994-96 war, which left 80,000 people dead, will be repeated.
The military operations would not be possible without massive financial assistance of the International Monetary Fund ($20 Billion has been loaned to the Russians since 1992), and the Clinton administration has urged yet more aid. Moreover, US officials have yet to voice any criticism whatsoever of the violence. The few government statements so far issued reflect Clinton’s statements during the 94-96 War; Russia, said Clinton while pushing for approval of a $10.2 Billion loan, half of which went to the Chechen campaign, needs to "maintain its territorial integrity."
Clinton, of course, picks and chooses which war-ravished peoples he cares about. Judging by the administration’s varied response to conflicts in Kosovo, East Timor, Sudan, Chiapas, and Chechnya, among others, it’s fairly plain that US diplomatic and military intervention exactly coincides with the interests of western economic elites. The continued profitable extraction of natural resources from the Indonesian archipelago, for example, is more important than the lives of a few hundred thousand Timorese, but three thousand Kosovars are justification for expanding the global investment market into the formerly closed economies of the Balkans. So it should come as no surprise that the massive Russian economy, and especially potential Russian oil field development in the Caspian Sea, is placed above tens of thousands of Chechen lives.
More complexing, though, is the silence of the American people, especially in progressive political circles. A search of liberal and progressive news and commentary sources came up empty. The massive Z Magazine website, which has extensive material on the Russian labor movement, as well daily updates on East Timor and Kosovo, and pretty much any other issue you can think of, ignores the current Chechen crisis. The Nation hasn’t mentioned it. None of the other two dozen or so mailing lists that the Examiner is part of has made mention of Chechnya.
For once, the mainstream press has provided more information than its critics have, albeit that information is spotty and relegated to the back pages.
A Brief History of Chechnya
The Chechen people have distinct cultural origins and a language that dates back at least 6,000 years. They are now predominately Islamic, and have a particularly strong self-identity. Chechnya, along with the rest of the Caucasus under Moscow's rule, was conquered by the Russians after the Crimean War (1853-1856), at roughly the same time that the United States was conquering the Navaho and other indigenous peoples of the American southwest, and as European imperialist states were slicing apart Africa. Russia annexed Chechnya outright in 1859.
While Russian suppression of the Caucus area peoples waxed and waned with the fortunes of the various regimes in Moscow, with a particularly brutal war in 1920-21, there was a more of less continual resistance movement of Chechens against Russian domination. During World War II some 800,000 Chechnyans (as well as the Ingush, the Karachay-Balkar, Crimean Tatars, and other nationalities) were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1944. Perhaps as many as 400,000 Chechens died as a result of the relocation.
The post-Stalin years saw a relative easing of ethnic tensions, and in 1956 Chechens were "rehabilitated" and allowed to return to the province in 1957. Through the ordeal, however, they had lost about half their population, as well as considerable control of the land and economic resources of the province.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a Soviet Air Force General by the name of Dzhokhar Dudayev gained considerable notice and acclaim for his refusal to attack Estonia, which had declared its independence. In the general chaos in the wake of the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, Dudayev, an ethnic Chechen, flew back to Chechnya and conducted an election; he was named President of an independent Chechnya in October of 1991.
Curiously, western nations recognized the newly declared nations that had been Soviets because they had been occupied by the Soviet Union, yet Chechnya was denied recognition as it had been occupied by the tsars.
At any event, by 1994 Boris Yeltsin had consolidated power in Moscow to such a degree that he was willing to confront the de facto independence of Chechnya. A Russian-backed rebel group attacked the capital city of Grozny in November of that year but was repulsed. In December the Russian military began a full assault on the nation.
The 1994-96 War
The Russian assault on Chechnya was terribly brutal. Grozny was more or less obliterated by bombing, and a hundred thousand refugees left the city in the middle of winter. About 80,000 people died in the war.
But Chechen resolve was stiff, and the resistance was blessed with military genius. Twice cities within Russia proper were taken by resistance troops, and opposition to the war was strong among the general Russian population.
Although Russian attacks were brutal, the Chechens prevailed, retaking Grozny and handing an embarrassing defeat to what was once billed as the world’s strongest army. The war demonstrated the overall weakness of the Russian military, the fact that an obscure group of separatists in the Georgian highlands could defeat the Russian military giving the lie to fifty years’ worth of Western Cold War propaganda. Alexander Lebed, a former general appointed as Russia's appointed by Boris Yeltsin to the post of national security adviser toured the Russian military camps in Chechnya and described the army as "hungry, lice-ridden, and underclothed weaklings."
Lebed arranged a truce with the Chechens, and Chechnya became independent in all but name. The Chechen government controls all resources, and makes all decisions within the territory, with one exception: under the terms of the 1996 peace treaty Russian oil pipelines through the territory remain in Russian control.
The Current Conflict
Russian domination of the entire Caucasus region has been answered with a revitalized devotion to Islam. Predictably, as the Russian suppression becomes increasingly violent, the resistance movements become more radicalized, and a fundamentalist brand of Islam has gained hold among the fighters. As Chechnya provides an area free of the Russian military, resistance fighters from nearby provinces, especially Dagestan, have established camps there, and make raids from there to free their own homelands.
Thanks to the earlier war, Chechnya is a devastated place, with a ruined economy and broken infrastructure. The government has made attempts to bring the various militias into the governing process, but centralized power is still weak, and independent militias control entire districts.
Moreover, in the past couple of months there have been a series of terrorist bombings in Moscow, killing about 300 people. These bombs have been blamed on the southern separatists and Chechens, and public opinion in Moscow calls for action.
As a result, Chechen nationals throughout Russia have been arrested and deported, and the Russian military has advanced. About ten days of aerial bombing preceded the current army advance, which seems designed to carve out a Russian-control district in the northern lowlands of the territory.
Bombing targets around Grozny include oil refineries, a TV tower, a telephone exchange, and the residential neighborhood where Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov lives.
Russian Generals are appearing on Moscow TV news programs, talking about "pinpoint" strikes that spare the civilian population. One press briefing featured cockpit video shot by an attacking Russian Su-25 bomber as it bombed Grozny's TV tower.
But there is a huge difference between bombing to liberate a territory, and bombing to conquer a territory. Chechens have already proven to be a formidable force, and it’s doubtful that the Russians can take the territory without high causalities.
Given the regional aspects of the conflict, it’s also possible that nearby countries could be pulled into the war, perhaps even Iran.
The Oil Connection
Radio Free Europe reports that the current fighting followed a meeting between Maskhadov and Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin on June 11. On the same day, Chechnya's national guard tried to take control of its 150-kilometer section of the Baku-Novorossiisk oil pipeline. Three days later, the pipeline was blown up, and Russia suspended its shipments from Baku.
Indeed, says Radio Free Europe, the 1994 Russian invasion of Chechnya came "just three months after Azerbaijan signed its landmark Caspian oil contract with the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, setting off the race for pipeline routes. Most experts believe the pipeline issue was at least a contributory cause of the war.
"As a sign of oil's importance, Moscow's first task after the war was to negotiate a transit deal and rebuild the pipeline. Reconstruction of the line remains one of the few commitments to Chechnya that has been honored since hostilities ceased." Although not the only issue in the conflict, the oil question, concludes Radio Free Europe, "may be critical to all the other countries and territories in the region that Caspian pipelines must cross."
The Responsibilities of the Left
What should be our response?
Surely progressives should advocate for human rights in whatever region of the world where they are violated. Russia raises particularly difficult issues with Americans in general, but especially among leftists. The baggage of support for the murderous Stalinist regime is still carried by segments of the left, while the general collapse of state socialism leads many to avoid the subject entirely. But the political difficulty should not translate into abandonment of an aggrieved people.
Moreover, the Chechen issue should resonate with general leftist critiques of American hegemony. Certainly the massive, multi-billion dollar assistance given to Russia by the US government enables the current onslaught. Just this week Russian military planners have estimated that the Chechen campaign will cost $1 Billion, a cost that simply would not be possible without Western aid. It should be relatively easy to build an analysis of the effects of an expansive global Capitalism, sponsored by US government grants and IMF loans, on minority peoples in the old Soviet Union, and to analyze the policy goals of government and economic planners.
And Chechnya is yet another cog in the oil economy, another instance of our reliance on that resource resulting, at least in part, in subjugation of an entire nationality.
Perhaps most important, though, the Chechen situation illustrates the complete and utter moral bankruptcy of the emerging Capitalist Russia. It should come as no surprise that the abrupt death of the centralized economy should result in Mafia control, massive poverty, and military adventurism.
At a minimum, leftists should be discussing the issue.
I would argue that we further work to tie US, IMF, and World Bank assistance to Russian human rights policies, and the Russian withdrawal from the Caucuses generally. Ultimately the Western world needs to make its peace with the Islamic peoples, and support for the basic rights and welfare of the people of Chechnya is as good a place to start as any.