The Chechens always despised being ruled by the Russians, likewise, Russia loathed them ranked them among the most ruthless and severe criminals of the former Soviet Union (Roskin 285). Stalin deported the Chechens to Kazakhstan in 1944, claiming they were “German collaborators”. When the remaining Muslim Chechens were permitted back into their homeland, they returned feeling bitter and helpless without any available resources on which to survive. Since their repatriation, the people of Chechnya have had a particular bone to pick with Russia (Fielding).
Animosity between the Russians and Chechens eventually exploded into a brutal bout of ethnic fighting leaving the present-day status extremely sketchy. The entire issue is complex and volatile. In order to gain a sense of what is currently happening in Chechnya, this paper will explore a number of aspects of the conflict: what caused the war, who was involved and why, and what, if any, developments are being made towards peace. After examining those topics, we will try to decide if there is any hope for the future; will recent events will lead us towards peace or further hostility and warfare.
In 1991, immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechen rebel leader Jokar Dudayev hopped on the bandwagon with other seceding republics, and ceased an opportunity to declare independence from Russia, or “Mother Moscow”. “Most Soviet nationalities did not like the Russians, whom they saw as a colonial, or occupying power” (Roskin 284). Contrary to places like Estonia, Armenia, and Ukraine, Chechnya did not fully succeed at seceding and was still legally a member of the Russian Federation (Dyer). In practice, they were as independent as you could get, and they lived quite peacefully for a couple of years, despite the formal connection to Russia.
The arrangement might have worked out if it wasn’t for Russia’s persistent paranoia. They began to fear that these Republics would serve as an example for other areas contemplating secession, and they were experiencing difficulty coming to terms with their shrinking borders. A mere two years after Chechnya made their declaration for independence, President Boris Yeltsin decided he could not let them go. Subsequently, he prescribed a remedy for their suppression which was sending in the troops (Dyer). Apparently Yeltsin made this hasty decision without any consultation with the military, in the absence of parliamentary debate, and with next to no publicity (Roskin 285). These actions would later come back to haunt Yeltsin, as this horrific ethnic war begins to materialize.
Yeltsin’s plan was to enter Chechnya and erase any notion of independence. He promised this would be a quick and painless victory for Russia, taking only a few days. Some were even audacious enough to boast that the attack would amount to a few hours. Of course, no one had any reason to doubt him; after all, Russia still has one of the world’s largest armies, “with more soldiers than Chechnya has people” (Dyer). But, ten weeks following their entry into Chechnya, the utterly humiliated and demoralized Russian troops started to realize just how badly they underestimated belligerent Chechnya.
With a stark 5000 combatants, no official government support, and minimal weaponry, the Chechens managed to stave off the massive numbers of Russian fighters in this “pocket gazavat” or Holy War (Gee). The Chechens lacked any real structure. “They’re about as coordinated as a demolition derby, but equally as destructive and resourceful” (Fielding). Regardless of their weaknesses, they used their rugged, mountain terrain to their advantage, and fashioned homemade artillery from whatever materials they could get their hands on. Chechnya absolutely hated even being associated with Russia, mainly because their lifestyles were dramatically different. “They were as far from the socialist, there-is-no-God, one-size-fits-all Soviet model as one could be” (Fielding). They figured since Russia initiated this war, and given their history together, they were going to give all they had to avoid defeat.
To say that Russia’s tactics were pathetic seems to be an understatement. It was only after they had deployed thousands of troops and bombed Chechnya’s capital, Grozny to absolute ruin, that they could claim to have somewhat stifled the Chechen clans. “The most feared army in the world turned out to be shivering, underfed, stoned, and mostly prepubescent” (Fielding). Reports describe the soldiers as depraved and crippled by the deplorable fighting conditions. Minus proper food and clothing, and without water or warmth, they were vulnerable to nothing but destruction. Yeltsin’s plan for a short, and easy war, failed miserably. Gruesome guerilla-warfare continued throughout Chechnya for twenty-one months, and certain estimates claim the death toll stands in the 18,000 to 100,000 range (fielding).
During wartime, Russia and Chechen insiders all defended diametrically opposed viewpoints as to whether events were under control, and who maintained the upper hand (Trickey Aug10th/96). Russia did not want to admit their losses, while Chechnya was likely overestimating their winnings (if you can call it that). In spite of these discrepancies, there were a few issues that both groups of citizens agreed upon; they both hated the war. Most Russians could care a less about Chechnya or if they separated, and all the Chechens were diligently striving for was local autonomy.
There was also a division among the Chechens, as there were those who were far more extremist than others. Although there were various opinions on how to accomplish their goals, they somehow became united in their cause; total independence from Russia, and replacing Russian law with Islamic rules. “They are united only in their opposition to domination by Christians” (Fielding). The ironic thing that arises here, is that Muslim Chechens, so adamant about enforcing Islamic law, do not adhere to any of the fundamentalist Islamic rules. Smoking and drinking is commonplace among men, and virtually no women comply with the “covering your head” requirement (Fielding). For a group of people who spend a great deal of energy appealing to their God “Allah”, it seems odd that they ignore basic rules of the Muslim religion. Obviously this contradiction did not affect the Chechens, because they still relentlessly persevered to achieve their objectives. (However, this divergence from fundamentalist rules is certainly not isolated to just the Chechens. It is understandable how people’s morale becomes clouded when they are expending so much energy fighting for their country in a Holy War.)
Chechnya simply wanted the armed forces expelled from their homeland so they could conduct their own elections (Naudet), start to rebuild their ruined republic and get on with being independent. No matter how much Russia persisted, the only viable solution to ending the war was for them to leave. “They started this war. As long as they remain on our territory we will fight them” proclaims one Chechen rebel, demonstrating just how tenaciously they fought, and were willing to continue to fight, in their plight for freedom. (Womack).
In 1996, the conflict finally began drawing to a close. Russia’s National Security Chief, Alexander Lebed, spearheaded negotiations with rebels in the republic, that led to a peace agreement ultimately ending the conflict, or as some would say, a “prolonged cease-fire” (Specter). Some people criticized Lebed’s swift movements towards peace, and cautioned him to take it slow, but, observing the malady in Chechnya, Lebed was anxious to advance at a much faster pace. “We know that all wars, even those that last 100 years, end with talks and peace. So why wait?” Lebed was quoted as saying in the Calgary Herald. (Trickey Aug13th/96 ). Unlike a majority of politicians in the Kremlin, Lebed was not in the mood for stalling.
Lebed’s image quickly rose to “cult status” among the people after being credited with “single-handedly” ending the unpopular war. Unfortunately, he was not too popular in Russia’s political arena. Yeltsin fired Lebed following the signing of these “Khasavyurt Agreements”, and accused him of sympathizing with the Chechens, therefore making him a traitor (Fielding). People were outraged at Lebed’s dismissal. He is widely viewed as an honest man, who’s main intentions were to stop the slaughtering and return to peace. Most analysts say this was another bad move for President Yeltsin, and those same individuals speculate that regardless of Lebed’s removal, he will remain a crowd favorite and will be next in line for President. With the way events are going today, Russians and Chechens alike are all searching for leaders who are committed to implementing peace. Despite whatever measures Russia might take to impede the peace process, like firing politicians dedicated to the cause, they will be forced to face reality sooner as opposed to later.
Even though Russia’s military have now retreated from Chechnya, prospects for the Chechens do not look promising, as conditions are not at all what they hoped for. While their political status remains in limbo, their capital, Grozny remains a pile of rubble. Not only do they have to deal with trying to rebuild their territory, but they are faced with coming to terms with the death of thousands of their fellow civilians. The whole state of affairs is leading to dire circumstances, so even though official fighting has come to a halt, certain “armed groups” in Chechnya continue to be quite active (Fielding).
“Full-scale warfare in separatist Chechnya ended almost a year ago, but a series of recent kidnappings and bombings there and in neighboring regions signifies that the aftershocks of the conflict have not subsided” explains Daniel Williams in the Washington Post July 9th, 1997.
Similar reports from inside Chechnya are definitely not rare. “Galloping
lawlessness” prevails while violence runs rampant. The Chechens are absolutely destitute. “The war has devastated their economy” (Shargorodsky). They are living each day not knowing when and where their next meal will come from and they have resorted to kidnapping journalists, photographers or essentially anyone they believe they can receive ransom for. “The Economist figures Chechen warlords made $8 million from ransom last year” (Fielding). Russian military bases are often targets for attacks and civilians are usually robbed for all they are worth (Sachs). With an atmosphere like this, it will be difficult to start running their own country effectively.
When the Russian Army had withdrawn their troops, and soldiers were allowed to return home, their predicament did not turn out much better than the Chechens. Many soldiers possess little clothing, are forced to beg for food and money on the streets, and have no place to live. “Thousands live in boxes or forage for space in abandoned factories” (Specter). “Unpaid, hungry and hung over, the soldiers were known to sell their weapons on the street to the highest bidder” (Fielding). Suicide rates are astronomically high, and draftees now harbour so much hatred for Russia, that many are refusing to serve. They too saw many of their fellow people die. At least the Chechens had a reason to fight; many Russians are having a difficult time figuring out why they were even in Chechnya in the first place. They feel like they have been lied to, and they are confused as to why Russia, more specifically, Yeltsin, would allow them to enter into a war that they had no business getting involved in and were not prepared for (Williams Jan.26th/98). The humiliation that they suffered following their defeat by the Chechens surely adds salt to their already wide open wounds.
While some Russians would love to go into Chechnya, and finish off what they started, so to speak, moderate politicians are opting for more civil and realistic approaches. “Some people in power want to settle the problems in Chechnya according to the old Bolshevik principle…strike first and think later” (Williams Jan 26th/1998). Obviously this type of reaction is not going to prove effective. Either they will be forced to accept Chechen independence or continue fighting. Since the latter option is growing increasingly undesirable, hopefully they will at least lean towards granting independence.
Moscow is losing its grip on Chechnya. They are desperately avoiding the thought of independence and are continually putting off making any official decisions. As it stands now, a statement on their status will be announced in the year 2005 (Sachs). This date is for all intents and purposes, is irrelevant to Chechnya. These Muslims say they are already independent. “Independence is a reality on ground if not yet on paper” (York).
It seems to me that this stalling will lead nowhere but backwards. Alexander Lebed appears to be on the right track when he pushes for peace talks and opts for quick steps forward. Chechnya has already proved that they can hold their own when it comes to defending their country. Russia is fooling themselves if they think they can re-enter Chechnya and somehow redeem themselves by attempting some sort of a comeback. This is not even an option; there is no way that Yeltsin could muster up enough support from his humiliated army to go back anywhere near Chechnya. Putting off decision a until 2005 is a ridiculous move. It is only going to create worse feelings among Chechens who are anxious for the status they fought for, and it is simply delaying the inevitable.
Russia has their own problems to be concerned about. Coupled with the harsh reality that they themselves are economically going down the drain, it would be an enormous feat to try and convince Russians that it is in their best interest to spend precious time and money trying to win back the Chechens; people they do not particularly care for and likely do not want hanging around anyway.
Yeltsin is suddenly trying to be congenial, even referring to Chechnya as Ichkeria, a new name they have bestowed upon their beloved republic (York May 13th/1997), but this is coming too little too late. The fact that he “single-handedly” decided to march into Chechnya in the first place, kept the forces there for 21-months, and then turned around and canned the man who was leading them to the end, were a few too many strikes against him. Critics speculate that Yeltsin attacked Chechnya to regain support for his “waning popularity” (Dyer). It is blatantly obvious that it achieved exactly the opposite. His recent façade, is not going to achieve much of anything either; it will take a lot more than a few kind words to make up for all that he has done wrong.
Just like killing won’t solve the problems, waiting around for 6 years won’t either. Action must be taken soon, before there is the risk of another explosion between Russia and Chechnya. When the International community recognizes Chechnya as separate, and independent, maybe it means it is time for Russia to recognize it as well. Lately the word secession is considered a taboo; countries like Russia have difficulty coming to terms with its ramifications. Nevertheless, especially when countless other countries have already departed, is it really worth immense bloodshed just to keep Chechnya around? The only hope for the future is that someone will come to their senses and realize that secession is the solution, like it or not.