By Sven Gunnar Simonsen


When the parties to the Chechen War struck a peace deal in late August 1996, the most conservative estimates held that more than 30,000 lives, nine-tenths of them civilian, had been lost since the war began in December 1994. More than half of Chechnya’s population had become refugees. As of late 1996, the so-called Khasavyurt peace was still holding, but it was clear that the parties had highly contradictory views about what should be the future status of the mountain republic.


Chechnya is located in North Caucasus and borders on the Russian federal constituents Dagestan and Ingushetia, Russia proper and the state of Georgia. The southern part of the country is dominated by mountains, and the republic’s population is mainly concentrated in villages and small towns forming a narrow belt north of these. Part of that belt are the population centres of Gudermes, Grozny (the capital) and Samashki.

The number of Chechens in the entire CIS area is today probably around 1 million (957,000 in 1989). When the war broke out in the republic, its population was an estimated 1,150,000, including some 800,000 Chechens, 250,000 Russians (living mainly in Grozny), 50,000 Ingush and small groups of other peoples. Since December 1994, however, major changes have taken place. By June 1995, 380,000 people were said to have left Chechnya as refugees, and more than 200,000 had been internally displaced.

The Chechens are closely related, linguistically and culturally, to the Ingush, with whom they shared the Checheno-Ingush Republic until 1992. The Chechen language belongs to a north-east Caucasian linguistic phylum which has no known relatives. In the 1989 Soviet census, 98% of Chechens indicated that they considered Chechen their first language. At the same time, knowledge of Russian is generally good.

A majority of Chechens today consider themselves to be Muslims and generally belong to the Hanafi school of Sunnite Islam. As many as half of the Chechen believers belong to a Sufi brotherhood (tariqa), subdivided into local brotherhoods (wirds). Two Sufi tariqas exist in North Caucasus: the Naqshbandiya and the Qadiriya. In Chechnya, the former dominates in the east, whereas the latter dominates in the remaining parts of Chechnya (as well as in Ingushetia). The Chechen Sufism remains closely linked with the clan system. This link is widely considered to have enabled Islam to survive the repression of the Soviet years. Chechnya has around 170 clans of varying sizes, and the clan remains a highly important unit of societal organization. The idea of a Chechen nation was introduced only with the nationality policies of Josef Stalin. Even today, clan affiliation is an important factor in Chechen politics, determining adherence to individual politicians.


The Nakh clans, the ancestors of the Chechens and Ingush, lived in the mountains of the region until the 16th century, when they began settling in the lowlands. This was also the time when the Islamization of these peoples began, under the influence of neighbouring peoples.

The first Russian advances towards North Caucasus were also made in the 16th century, but these efforts did not gain momentum until the fall of the Crimean Khanate in 1783. In the last quarter of the 18th century, Russia co-opted several peoples neighbouring the Chechens. In the western and eastern mountains of the region, however, they met more resistance. It was not until the first quarter of the 19th century that Russia advanced significantly towards the southern parts of Chechen-inhabited territories. Resistance was fierce, taking on the characteristics of a holy war. Only in 1864 did the last holdout fall. Several major uprisings took place both before and after that; all of them were quelled by means of deportations and massive, indiscriminate violence. The last uprising took place as late as in 1877–78.

The 1917 revolution in Petrograd brought local initiatives to establish control over North Caucasus. These came to an end as alliances split, and later as the region became a major scene of battle between Reds and Whites. Following the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, Chechnya became part of the Mountain Autonomous Republic, which was initially was governed in accordance with Shariya laws. This entity was soon dismantled, however, and several different structures were formed before, in 1936, Checheno-Ingushetia was given the status of an autonomous republic.

Under Stalin, Chechens and Ingush responded to collectivization and centralization with large-scale uprisings. From the start of the implementation of these policies until the 1944 deportation, peace was never totally restored in the area.

During World War II, the German forces were halted before entering into the republic. Nevertheless, the Chechens and Ingush were accused of collaboration with the Germans, and in February 1944 they were deported en masse to Central Asia. As many as one-quarter of the Chechen people may have died in the process. The republic was abolished, and cultural institutions and monuments destroyed.

In 1956, as part of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, the Chechen and Ingush were allowed to return, and the republic was restored. For several years, there was friction between those who returned and the Russians who remained.

During the Soviet years, some investments were made in industry in Checheno-Ingushetia, notably in the booming oil industry which mainly processed oil from other parts of Russia. However, ethnic Russians dominated this sector; the countryside, where the natives were concentrated, suffered under increasing hardships during the 1980s. By 1990, up to 30% of the rural workforce was unemployed.

Developments, 1990-1994

In November 1990, Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first-ever general of Chechen origin and the former commander of the Soviet air force base in Tartu, Estonia, was elected chair of the Executive Committee of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People (ANCCP). At this first gathering, the ANCCP, including several radical nationalist groups, called for the restoration of Chechen sovereignty, in line with the status the Russian Soviet Republic (RSFSR) enjoyed in the USSR.

The ANCCP soon rose to become the most powerful political organization in Checheno-Ingushetia, supported by criminals, radical Muslims and clan elders alike. By the time of its first congress, in fact, the ANCCP already enjoyed such support that the republican Supreme Soviet adopted a declaration of sovereignty. It did not, however, sanction the idea of secession from the RSFSR. Consequently, Dudayev declared that the ANCCP and its Executive Committee had become the only legitimate power in the republic.

The event which was to tip the balance of power in favour of Dudayev and his followers was the August 1991 attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The parliament and its chairman, Doku Zavgaev, hesitated in protesting the coup, whereas Dudayev did so from the start. This gave Dudayev the opportunity to rally the people of Chechnya, as well as the Russian leadership, against the parliament. In the process, Dudayev's supporters seized control of Chechen broadcasting and, effectively, the city of Grozny. The parliament, however, refused to succumb. On 1 September 1991, the ANCCP declared the parliament disbanded and set up its own temporary legislative body. On 6 September, the ANCCP National Guard stormed and seized the parliament building, and forced Zavgaev to sign a letter of resignation and flee Grozny.

Although Russian authorities had initially supported Dudayev, these actions made them shift away from him. A new Provisional Supreme Soviet was set up with Moscow’s backing, and elections were scheduled. The ANCCP, however, opposed the new parliament. After having tried to take over the new institution, the ANCCP declared its dissolution. In the unrest that followed, Russia’s parliament demanded that all armed formations in Chechnya disband and hand in their weapons, and that the Provisional Supreme Soviet be reinstated. Dudayev described these actions as a declaration of war, and he went on to mobilize all adults of Chechnya.

On 27 October 1991, Dudayev and the ANCCP held presidential elections in Chechnya. They later claimed that 77% of the electorate had participated, and that Dudayev had captured 85% of the votes. Following the election, Dudayev declared a law that implied Chechnya’s secession from Russia. In November, Russian President Boris Yeltsin responded by declaring a state of emergency in Checheno-Ingushetia and ordered Interior Ministry (MVD) troops to the region. In the showdown that followed, the Russians were forced to retreat as local forces that joined Dudayev blocked the MVD building in Grozny, holding 600 Russian troops. In the end, the Russian troops were forced to leave the Republic, abandoning large amounts of weaponry. Russia nevertheless continued to subsidize Chechnya’s state budget.

Humiliating the Russian forces greatly enhanced Dudayev’s popularity in Chechnya. Nevertheless, opposition to his rule was developing within the republic. A struggle soon developed between the president, who had acquired great authority, and the parliament. Within a year’s time, Dudayev, who had no experience in politicking or in running a national economy, was engaged in various struggles. These reached a peak on 17 April 1993, when Dudayev abolished the parliament, the Constitutional Court and the Grozny Municipal Assembly, then instituted presidential rule.

The parliament, which had continued to meet, scheduled a referendum on the presidency for 5 June 1993. However, armed clashes began the day before, and the result of the referendum was never to be known, although a vast majority of the votes that were counted were against Dudayev's rule.

From this point, Chechnya began to fall apart. A division developed between the mountain regions, generally supportive of Dudayev, and the lowlands. Divisions were strengthened by the poor leadership by Dudayev, which caused production to fall dramatically and political rifts to grow wider. Crime and petty trade remained as practically the only ways to make money in the Chechen economy, solidifying the republic's reputation as a haven for the organized crime groups plaguing Russia.

Within Chechnya, military challenges to Dudayev emerged in the course of 1993, as important commanders such as Ruslan Labazanov and Bislan Gantemirov abandoned the president, each taking several hundred troops. At the same time, the general population armed itself; even AK-47 guns were freely on sale in the markets, and the regime permitted all adults to carry weapons.

It took until the summer of 1994 before the clashes between government and opposition forces took a hold on the republic. In June, the forces of Labazanov and Gantemirov jointly attacked Grozny. They were fought back; some 100 people died in the battle. By this time, the federal authorities had begun to support the opposition with arms and money. Yet another actor supported by Moscow emerged at this time – the ‘Interim Council of the Chechen Republic’, led by Umar Avturkhanov.

After several attacks and counter-attacks between the government and the opposition in the summer and autumn of 1994, a joint force of opposition troops numbering some 1,500 men attacked Grozny. This time they were supported by Russian-manned tanks, jet fighters and helicopters. Again, however, the attack failed.

War in Chechnya

On 11 December 1994, 40,000 Russian army and MVD troops, supported by some 500 tanks and other armoured vehicles, entered Chechnya from North Ossetia, Dagestan and Stavropol. The official mission was to disarm Chechen criminal gangs and protect civilians.

The real considerations behind the war were probably more complex: certainly, Chechnya was in disarray after three years of poor government, and Chechens were playing a major role in crime in Russia. But economic issues also must have been considered, in particular regarding Russian oil pipes passing through the republic. Further, there was the issue of state coherence – the idea of a domino effect dismantling Russia if Chechnya was permitted to break loose.

The Russian minister of defence, Pavel Grachev, had allegedly tipped the UN Security Council in favour of an intervention by claiming that Grozny could be taken in a couple of hours. However, when the Russian forces reached Grozny on 14 December, the Dudayev forces, which counted perhaps 3,000 men by the summer of 1994, had been joined by thousands of volunteers, many of whom had earlier opposed his regime. Many of the fighters had been trained in the Russian army; some had experience from the Abkhazian War. Together, they provided resistance of a completely different magnitude than the Russians expected.

The Russians were very poorly prepared for battle. Of the 10,000 MVD troops, half had not even been trained for combat duties. Only 2,000 of the 40,000 troops involved were elite paratroopers. The commander of the Russian ground forces, General Vladimir Semenov, later revealed that a majority of Russia’s troops in Chechnya had less than one year’s military experience. Morale was low, orders were vague, and equipment and coordination were poor.

On New Year’s Day, Russian forces launched a large-scale, but tactically catastrophic, attack on the centre of Grozny. Several thousand Russian troops may have died in the assault. Following this setback, the Russian command changed tactics; now, a massive bombardment of the capital was initiated, killing perhaps as many as 25,000 civilians and laying the city in ruins. Within weeks, more than three-quarters of the population had fled Grozny. In late January, the rebels finally abandoned the presidential palace. A few days later, President Yeltsin stated that ‘the military stage of the operation is over’. It took, however, until the beginning of March before Grozny was finally, completely in the hands of the Russians.

The Russian troops proceeded to take control over lowland Chechnya; in the second half of March, they took the towns of Argun, Gudermes and Shali after weeks of bombardment by air and heavy artillery. At this point, an estimated one-third of the population had become refugees.

With regard to discussions of the legitimacy of the military intervention, Yeltsin did not fare too badly in the international community. Soon, however, the manner in which the war had been fought caused concern. Reports from journalists and nongovernmental organizations who had observed the war were, indeed, alarming. From the outbreak of the war, numerous reliable accounts told of torture in custody, deliberate killings of civilians (including women and children), widespread looting, blackmailing, establishment of ‘filtration camps’ for Chechen men, and summary executions of individuals suspected of working for the enemy. Further, it was revealed that the Russian troops had developed a new, brutal tactic in fighting the rebels: each village they encountered was faced with an ultimatum to surrender; if it did not succumb, they pounded it with shells and bombs until the fighters retreated to the next village.

It was also reported that the Russian forces would demand that villages hand over a certain number of weapons within a deadline. If the requirement was not met, the entire population of the village would be punished severely. For example, this tactic was employed in the early April attack on the village of Samashki. When the village could not hand over the weapons – the fighters had already left – Russian contract soldiers moved in. The next day, at least 250 civilians were massacred. Reports claimed that the village was littered with discarded syringes used by Russian troops to inject themselves with drugs during the assault.

By March–April, the Russian focus shifted to the southern, mountainous parts of Chechnya – the traditional Dudayev strongholds. However, the troops were wary of entering this region; topographical conditions promised to make the war more costly to them there than it had been in the lowlands. Thus, the war entered a stalemate.

The Russian forces were continually challenged. In May, rebels infiltrated Grozny, and heavy fighting took place before they pulled out. Fighting also continued in the south.

A development in the conflict with particularly great consequences for the Kremlin took place in mid-June, as some 100 Chechen fighters entered the town of Budennovsk. Their leader was Shamil Basayev, a prominent Chechen commander whom Dudayev said did not act on his orders. The fighters attacked several buildings and took hundreds of hostages to the local hospital, where staff and patients also were seized. As many as 1,500 people were held hostage by the Chechens. The crisis took a tragic turn when Russian troops, fatally misjudging the situation, started to fire on the hospital. Some 150 hostages were killed. Talks led by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin a few days later ended with a safe passage home for the fighters and a Russian promise of withdrawal from Chechnya – which was never observed.

In late July, Moscow and the rebels signed a peace agreement calling for a halt to all hostilities, an exchange of prisoners and the gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya in return for the disarming of Chechen rebels. There was, however, no mention of the crucial issue of Chechen independence. Moreover, it would soon become evident that there would be no withdrawal and hardly any weapons would be handed in.

In October, fighting again intensified. Early that month, the commander of the Russian forces, General Anatoli Romanov, was critically wounded in a bomb attack in Grozny. The Russian authorities responded by announcing a temporary suspension of peace talks. The Chechen side, in turn, suspended the July accord as a whole.

Late that month, Doku Zavgaev, the former chairman of the Chechen-Ingush Supreme Soviet, was declared prime minister of Chechnya by the Committee of National Reconciliation and the Chechen Supreme Soviet. In mid-December, the federal authorities encouraged Chechens to take part in the elections to the Russian State Duma and simultaneous presidential elections. Under highly questionable circumstances, with a turnout certainly lower than the 74.8% reported by the Russians, almost half the vote in the Duma elections went to the loyalist Our Home is Russia, and 93% voted for Zavgaev for president.

In mid-January, a new hostage crisis took place: some 200 Chechen fighters, led by Salman Raduyev, Dudayev’s son-in-law, took up to 3,000 civilians hostage in the village of Kizlyar in Dagestan. After one day, most hostages were released, and the fighters moved on towards Chechnya. In the village of Pervomayskoe, on the border of Chechnya, a stand-off developed, with the Russian forces blocking their passage. Encouraged by Yeltsin to strike hard, Russian forces bombed and shot at the village for three days, laying every building in ruins. The actual number of hostages killed was never revealed. Despite a tight blockade, numerous rebels escaped the attack.

During these events, another hostage crisis took place in Turkey, as a small group of pro-Chechen Abkhazian gunmen seized a passenger ferry on the way to Sochi. The hostage-takers, who demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Pervomayskoe, surrendered within 48 hours.

March brought both new fighting and new hopes. In the second half of the month, Russian forces initiated a violent offensive, aimed at driving the rebels once and for all into the southern mountains. The Chechens responded in Grozny, fighting the Russians for five days before retreating, having done significant damage to the capital’s infrastructure.

Then, on the last day of the month, Yeltsin announced his plan for a peace settlement. The plan implied an immediate, unilateral ceasefire, elections to the Chechen parliament, and indirect talks with Dudayev and his people. Their demands for complete independence and a full Russian pullout were not met.

As it turned out, Russian forces did not abide by the orders of the president. Rather, their war efforts intensified, and Russian military actions continued in several places in the breakaway republic. In one of their retaliatory strikes, the Chechens, never having agreed on a ceasefire, killed more than 90 Russian soldiers in an ambush on an armoured column. One target of the Russian reprisal assaults must have been the life of Dzhokhar Dudayev – on 21 April, he was killed in a Russian rocket attack near the village of Gekhi Chu.

The charismatic Chechen leader had grown increasingly extreme in his rhetoric during the conflict, and negotiating with him had become difficult. Personal enmity between him and Yeltsin further complicated matters. Thus, Dudayev’s death offered new openings for the Russian president.

The Chechen side did not, however, fall into disarray as a result of Dudayev's death. On 25 April, prominent Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev announced that he had been elected Dudayev’s successor by ‘the state committee of defence and cabinet of ministers’. Yandarbiyev, who was known as a hardliner, promised to continue the fight against the Russians.

Repercussions in Moscow

Shortly after the outbreak of war, it became a truism in Russia and the West that Yeltsin had turned into a mere figurehead with no real grip on power. It was concluded that a ‘party of war’ had taken over, nourishing a wish to re-establish Russia as a Eurasian great power. Yeltsin himself spurred such speculations by making very few public appearances in this period.

From its first day, the war served to drive a wedge between Yeltsin and his liberal supporters, notably his former prime minister, Yegor Gaydar. At the other end of the political spectrum, extremists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Aleksandr Nevzorov rushed to embrace the president. Among the few liberal supporters was the former minister of finance, Boris Fedorov.

Protests against the warfare were also heard from military quarters; Generals Aleksandr Lebed and Boris Gromov, the two most popular military leaders in the country, were extremely critical, drawing parallels to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Yeltsin’s popularity among the public reached a new low in the early months of the war. Polls indicated that the public tended to hold the president personally responsible for the war. In polls showing voter preferences regarding the upcoming presidential elections, his score was close to nil.

The catastrophically failed attempt to free the hostages in Budennovsk in June served to further undermine Yeltsin. In a showdown with the Duma, the president was forced to dismiss three actors widely considered to be hawks in the Russian leadership: Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB); Minister of the Interior Viktor Yerin; and Vice-Premier Nikolai Yegorov. Prime Minister Chernomyrdin was seen as the beneficiary of the outcome of that conflict, and he was considered to be gaining influence in Moscow at the expense of the president. This tendency seemed to be further strengthened by Yeltsin’s hospitalization for a heart condition in July, and later again in November.

Opinion polls left no doubt that Yeltsin would have to come to grips with the Chechnya issue in order to have a chance at re-election in June 1996. As it turned out, it seems that Yeltsin did manage to convince Russians that he had a genuine will to get Russia out of the quagmire. In particular, an agreement struck with the new Chechen leader, Yandarbiyev, must have served to that purpose.

Dudayev Out and Yeltsin Re-elected

By the end of May, Yeltsin and Yandarbiyev agreed on a truce and an exchange of prisoners, following talks between the two in Moscow. The agreement was to be followed by further negotiations, with the aim of concluding a peace deal giving Chechnya broad autonomy as a ‘sovereign state’ within the Russian Federation. The agreement was a major victory for Yeltsin, who seemed to have gained leverage from the Chechens’ loss of Dudayev. On 29 May, the president paid a visit to Grozny, congratulating his troops on winning the war. The agreement, however, was unpopular with Russian military leaders, who feared it would allow the Chechens to strengthen their capabilities.

Between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections, the Russian forces in Chechnya refrained from any operation. However, less than three days after Yeltsin’s victory in the second round, the Russian war machine went back to work. At least 20 civilians were reportedly killed on 9 July as the village of Gekhi was attacked. The next day, Russian forces shelled and bombed the village of Mahkety.

General Aleksandr Lebed, who had finished third in the presidential race and had been a leading critic of the warfare in Chechnya, by that time appeared co-opted by Yeltsin's regime, having been appointed secretary of the Russian Security Council: Lebed’s press office stated that he laid all responsibility for the resumption of hostilities on Yandarbiyev ‘and other leaders of armed gangs’. Russian military leaders similarly declared that the Chechens would have to either surrender or be wiped out.

With the intensification of the war in early August, the picture grew increasingly unclear with regard to the aims of, and indeed the control over, the federal forces. The Russian forces’ blatant breach of the truce in effect from 1 June may be interpreted as, at best, an effort to improve their leverage before the beginning of serious peace talks. Whatever the motivation may have been, however, the massive Chechen retaliation in early August, led by hardliner Shamil Basayev, ensured that negotiating cards were lost rather than won – the rebels effectively took control over Grozny.

By the second half of August, hundreds more had been added to the death toll of the war. Civilians were fleeing the capital once again, now under the threat from General Konstantin Pulikovsky, acting federal forces commander, of an all-out artillery and aerial bombardment of the city. His superior, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, supported the ultimatum, but Lebed, whom the president on 10 August had named his special envoy to Chechnya, did not. Thus, confrontation was intensifying among the top brass.

As the deadline neared, Lebed returned to Grozny and annulled the ultimatum, which he described as ‘a bad joke’. Lebed, who on 15 August had agreed on a ceasefire with the Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, then continued the negotiations with the rebels.

On 22 August, Lebed and Maskhadov agreed on a new ceasefire, and on 31 August, in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, they signed a wide-ranging agreement on peace. ‘The war is over!’ the Security Council leader triumphed. His popularity with the public rose even further.

The agreement implied a withdrawal of the Russian forces and a rebuilding of the republic. The parties promised to solve the conflict by peaceful means and to respect international rules on human rights. However, the decision regarding Chechnya’s future status – independent or not – was postponed for five years. In other words, peace was secured by means of neglecting the issue that had caused the federal intervention in the first place.

What Yeltsin’s opinion is and has been of Lebed’s work in Chechnya is uncertain. It is worth noting that Moscow, as General Pulikovsky was withdrawing his threat to bomb Grozny, ordered Lebed to take the city by force. Lebed, however, chose to ignore parts of that order, and at the same time publicly questioned whether the order had been given by Yeltsin himself. It was not until 5 September, in the interview in which he admitted he needed a heart operation, that Yeltsin gave Lebed credit for the agreement. But even then, he was sceptical about a quick withdrawal of the troops.

In political circles in Moscow, only independent democratic forces welcomed the agreement without reservations. Prime Minister Chernomyrdin gave an approval of sorts, but maintains that the agreement is not legally binding. Nevertheless, important elements of the agreement were being implemented in the autumn of 1996. The rebel forces were assuming control of the republic’s important cities, including Grozny. Some Russian troops, albeit not all, were pulling out.

At this point, the bone of contention was the implications of the Khasavyurt agreement, in particular concerning sovereignty and money. Russia basically wanted to keep Chechnya within the federation without having to pay for its reconstruction. Chechnya held the opposite position. For the conflict between the central government and the breakaway republic to end successfully, these issues must be resolved.

In mid-October, Yeltsin, tired of in-fighting in the Kremlin, fired Lebed. Replacing him in the Security Council was former Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin, a former communist and lately a self-proclaimed social democrat. Rybkin had earlier been a staunch defender of Yeltsin’s policies in Chechnya. Upon assuming the new responsibilities, however, he declared that he was ‘a convinced supporter of the peace process’. What influence the firing of Lebed would have on the peace process was still uncertain.

On the local level, the main issue concerned reconciliation. As we have seen, the intervention by the federal forces came after a protracted period of conflict between different Chechen actors. As of late 1996, parts of Chechnya were still beyond the control of the forces led by Yandarbiyev and his prime minister, Maskhadov. With the leaders in Grozny striving to consolidate their position, further conflicts with local opponents seemed bound to occur.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online