Chechnya: Russia, get out now

Date: April 2002
Source: Le Monde diplomatique
By Vicken Cheterian
Translated by Malcolm Greenwood



Moscow is still stuck in the Chechen quagmire, despite all its claims that it is dealing with the 'terrorism'. Russian army atrocities have failed to crush resistance, Chechens no longer collaborate; both sides will have to return to negotiating a settlement, and better sooner than later.

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A Russian military patrol hits a mine and is targeted by machine gun and rocket fire. Young soldiers fall to the ground, dead and wounded, with their trucks and tanks in flames. Chechen fighters withdraw. A few hours later Russian reinforcements search neighbouring villages, arrest men and sometimes women. Some of the arrested "disappear"; others are beaten and released but only if their families can pay a ransom. Everyday life in Chechnya.

According to the Russian government, the "antiterrorist" operation it launched in 1999 was to have ended in March 2000, but it still continues. This war of attrition has killed tens of thousands of civilians, and destroyed and depopulated much of the Caucasian republic. Unofficial sources say that the population has fallen from 1.2m in Soviet times to 400,000 now. Russian losses have also reached an unsustainable level. In September 2001 two generals and eight colonels were killed when their helicopter was shot down; in January this year Russian deputy interior minister Mikhail Rudchenko and 13 high-ranking officers died the same way. Russia is caught in a trap and its leaders have no way out. In a long guerrilla war such a situation should have been foreseen. In 1999 the northern Caucasus was a security problem and Russia had to do something in Chechnya. Even without bomb attacks on apartment blocks in Moscow and other urban centres (which some people believe were actually the work of Russian security services), the invasion of Dagestan by several hundred (mainly Chechen) rebels demanded a response. But to try to solve the problem by military means alone, declaring total war, was absurd. It shows that Russia's leaders do not even know their own history; they have not read Lermontov or Tolstoy; and that they failed to learn the lessons of the first Chechen conflict between 1994 and 1996.

It is said that the second conflict is part of a vicious Russo-Chechen hostility going back 200 years and more. This is a mistaken, dangerous analysis, since it implies that Russians and Chechens are in a permanent state of war. But in the 19th century Russia was not at war with the Chechens as an ethnic group, but with a resistance front of Caucasian peoples; their figurehead was Imam Shamil, an Avar from Dagestan. The Avars are as pugnacious as the Chechens, but they have not rebelled against Moscow since the early 1900s. Neither have other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus: Kabardians, Circassians, Ingush or Lezgins. Chechnya could have reached an accommodation with the new government in Moscow.

Russia's argument that losing Chechnya would lead to the break-up of the Russian federation, as had happened to the Soviet Union, is also unfounded. Since the federal authorities came to an agreement with Tatarstan in 1994, Chechnya has been the only subject of the federation to claim total sovereignty. Moscow's massive human rights violations and its military and political impotence have done the most to undermine Russia's authority in the Caucasus.

It is not in Russia's interest to be bogged down in a conflict in the Caucasus. But twice in 10 years Russia's leaders have tried to use the explosive situation in the northern Caucasus to solve political problems in the Kremlin. The December 1994 invasion was ordered to improve Boris Yeltsin's prospects in the 1996 election. In 1999 the conflict helped to create popular support for the then unknown Vladimir Putin. True, the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen forces under Shamil Basayev and his ally, the Jordanian Habib Abdul Rahman Khattab, was a serious threat (Khattab belongs to the conservative Muslim Wahhabi sect). But by responding with all-out war, Russia chose not to confront the problems of the northern Caucasus.

In thinking that they could deal with Chechen resistance again by concentrating more military resources in the country, the Russian generals were clearly refusing to learn from their 1996 defeat. They sent 35,000 troops to Chechnya in 1994; in 1999 they sent 90,000, which is as many as served in the Soviet task force in Afghanistan. The authorities also tried to silence media criticism. Following hostile takeovers of the independent NTV network, whose coverage of the previous conflict had been critical, and the purchase of the weekly Itogi by gas giant Gazprom, a new scandal highlighted the threat to press freedom in Moscow. TV6, the last national television network to escape Kremlin control, was closed down by court order.

United in resistance

The Russian generals were also mistaken about the divisions between Chechens. It is true that Chechnya was in a state of civil war in 1999. But the same was true in autumn 1994, when President Dzhokhar Dudayev's authority did not in fact extend beyond the presidential palace. That did not stop the Chechens putting their differences aside to resist the invading Soviet forces; they have not forgotten the mass deportations of 1944.

The antiterrorist campaign has failed to neutralise the main leaders of the Chechen resistance. Basayev and Khattab are still leading military operations against Russian forces. And while the Russians have managed to get Chechnya's former mufti, Ahmad Qadirov, on their side, their attempt to set up a local administration is unlikely to succeed. He is the sworn enemy of Wahhabi Islam and a supporter of the traditional Sufi tariqa or spiritual path; any government headed by him will not survive a Russian military withdrawal. There have already been several attempts to assassinate the former mufti and his right-hand man Adam Deniyev was killed in a separatist bomb attack in April 2001.

Russian army atrocities are enough to make any kind of collaboration with Moscow out of the question for the Chechens. We are no longer in 1999 when the Chechen people would have welcomed any attempt at stabilisation, even by Russia, after years of chaos and conflict and the reign of warlords. But Russia's decision makers do not take Chechen public opinion into account. How can Russia claim the Chechens are federation citizens when its army behaves as an occupying army?

The sound of gunfire used to presage change at the head of the Russian state; but pursuit of the conflict is becoming painful, as a constant reminder of Russia's weakness. It is in Moscow's interest to end the conflict. An initial meeting between Ahmed Zakayev, representing Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, and President Vladimir Putin's representative, Viktor Kazantsev, at Moscow airport on 18 November 2001 came to nothing; despite the rigours of winter, the military operations intensified. Any talks will have to tackle the difficult issues of political representation and military control in the Caucasian republic, in particular the disarmament of rebel troops or their absorption into the local police, and the withdrawal of the Russian army. And even if the difficult question of Chechnya's political status can be left out of any initial accord, there will at least have to be agreement on it in principle. According to Russian sources, President Putin has set two conditions for negotiations with Maskhadov, disarmament and talks on a return to peace.

Maskhadov has said he is willing to negotiate with Moscow and has distanced himself from the more hard line Chechen partisan chiefs. "Basayev provoked the war with Russia by attacking Dagestan," he told the German radio station Deutsche Welle.

The Chechens' warrior spirit has won them remarkable victories over superior Soviet firepower, but at the same time it has brought tragedy for ordinary people. The 1994-1996 resistance failed to produce an integrated and unified command, and that is why the warlords were able to take over, bringing a permanent instability that plunged Chechnya into chaos. From Russia's 1996 withdrawal to 1999 the independent republic was in complete collapse. The only economic activities were illegal, not to say downright criminal: hostage taking, arms trafficking or the theft of oil from the Baku-Novorossisk pipeline.

Wanting to avoid civil war and unaware of Russian intentions, Maskhadov did not even try to rein in the different armed groups, the Wahhabi revolutionaries and other criminal bands. But after years of disturbance and war most Chechens are looking for normalisation and are deeply disappointed by this independence with a powerless president and warlords having their own way. While the Chechen resistance fought for national independence in 1994-1996, today it is fighting more against the Russian invasion than in favour of any political objective.

The antiterrorist war now being waged by the United States has put Russia in an even more difficult position. True, President Putin is trying to draw a parallel between the war in Chechnya and the US offensive, stressing the links between the Chechen resistance's Islamic faction and the al-Qaida network. But the Kremlin knows that once the Afghanistan campaign is over, a new balance of power will emerge in Central Asia, hence the sense of urgency in the Caucasus. Despite the president's silence, some Russian politicians are openly opposed to the long-term stationing of US forces in Central Asia, while the media are already speculating about a resurgence of Russo-American rivalry over Transcaucasia. The honeymoon is over, as one analyst has said.

Pressure is mounting for Moscow to end the war. The conflict is causing enormous losses; it has also paralysed the military reform that Putin had promised. Moreover, it is swallowing up all of Russia's military resources.

The only solution for Moscow is to withdraw militarily yet again. That is its dilemma. Abandoned to unoccupied chaos and uncertainty, post-war Chechnya is likely to be just the same as it was before; and a Russian president who had made military victory there the centrepiece of his election campaign will be affronted. Despite the obvious limits of the military option, Russia's leaders have not considered any other policy for Chechnya for 10 years now. But a military withdrawal seems the only way to stop the chaos. Between the Russian imperialist mindset and the bellicose Chechen spirit, history continues to repeat itself in the Caucasus.


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