Crisis in Chechnya

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, September 04, 2004

A mountainous region, Chechnya has important oil deposits, as well as natural gas, limestone, gypsum, sulphur, and other minerals. Its mineral waters have made it a spa center. Major production includes oil, petrochemicals, oil-field equipment, foods, wines, and fruits. For centuries, the Chechen people's history and relationship with the regional power, Russia, has been full of turmoil.

Map of Chechnya

Maps courtesy of ITA's Quick Maps

The recent crisis during the past decade or so has seen numerous human rights violations and draws parallels to many other conflicts around the world. For example:

  • It is similar to the situation in Africa, where small nations have been trying to break free from their regional superpowers and colonial rulers.
  • It is similar to Kosovo or the Gulf War, where allied and NATO forces used humanitarian reasons and mass bombings with precise military technology to wage a high-tech war; here Russia attempts (and has attempted in the past) similar measures, albeit with less success compared to their NATO counter-parts.
  • It is similar to East Timor, Kosovo, various African and other recent conflicts where, again, the civilians are the main casualties who suffer most from this conflict.
  • It is similar to the above-mentioned conflicts as various international conventions, treaties and laws are violated by powerful nations in their sphere of influence.
  • And, as with most other conflicts throughout history, there are trade and access related reasons for this conflict as the issue of geopolitics, Caspian Sea oil and control of it comes to the fore.

Of course, that is not to simply degrade this conflict to “yet another conflict” as each war has unique situations and terrible consequences. However, it is another indication of how power struggles are at work throughout the world and throughout history.

Background

Recognized as a distinct people since the 17th century, Chechens were active opponents of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus during the period 1818-1917. In 1858 Russia defeated leader Imam Shamil and his fighters who were aiming to establish an Islamic state. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, a declaration of independence by the Chechens was met with occupation from the Bolsheviks who later established the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Region in 1924. In the mid-1930s, it became an autonomous republic. Like their Ingush neighbors, Chechens are predominantly Sunni Muslim. As well as different cultural and religious beliefs, as for any group of people throughout history subdued by external rule or empire, external rule first by the brutal Russian Czarist empire and then by the Soviets, was unpopular and tenuous.

During World War II, Chechen and Ingush units collaborated with the invading German Nazis. As a result, in 1944 Stalin deported many residents to Central Asia and Siberia. The context of the deportation and hostility towards the Chechens is important.

  • Since the Soviet's came to power, many Western competing imperial powers cooperated to try to overthrow the regime, including direct intervention in their revolution, a world trade embargo, and Hitler's attempt to destroy them, (as well as the Cold War that followed which, as is slowly being uncovered, included training and flying in assassins and saboteurs). From the perspective of the Soviets then, a ring of steel was surrounding them preventing implementation of their system.
  • Perceiving a threat to their nation by “external powers manipulating internal ethnic groups”, Stalin's reaction was brutal.
  • Stalin believed Chechens would welcome Nazi-Germany in return for an independent Chechnya.
  • The mass deportation of Chechen people, among others, is estimated in the range of 400,000 to 800,000 with perhaps 100,000 or more of these people dying due to the extreme conditions.
  • With the death of Stalin in 1953, deportees were repatriated in 1956, and the republic was reestablished in 1957.
  • This legacy helps explain why Chechen nationalism has been more radical and anti-Russian than that of Russia's other Muslim ethnic minorities.

With the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, a number of regions managed to break away and gain independence. Ingushetia voted for separation from Chechnya in a referendum and became an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation the following year. General Dzhokhar Dudayev, seizing power in the capital Grozny in 1991, led Chechnya's drive for independence. The president of the newly formed Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, refused Chechnya's declaration of independence, sending in troops instead, only to withdraw when confronted by armed Chechens.

Chechnya was probably not granted independence for geopolitical and economic reasons. For example:

  • Russia never accepted Chechnya as a separate republic and was determined not to encourage other areas to secede (perhaps similar to how many have pointed out that western imperial countries were trying hard to prevent “their” colonies from breaking free in the aftermath of the Second World War);
  • The resulting anarchy in Chechnya strengthened Russian belief that the region should not become independent and undermine its territorial integrity;
  • Furthermore, oil is a significant factor in this region.
    • A major oil pipeline carries oil from fields in Baku on the Caspian Sea and Chechnya toward the Ukraine;
    • Grozny's major oil refinery along this pipeline and Russia's interest to ensure their oil needs are also met has led them to be more concerned that pipeline discussions by major western oil companies have not involved them;
    • As long as Chechnya is a part of Russia, Moscow would have a say in the oil flowing through it.

Tensions between the Russian government and that of Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev escalated into warfare in late 1994. When Russia invaded Chechnya, a bloody war ensued. Intending to crush separatist forces, this was Yeltsin's first major confrontation. However, the supposed awesome Russian military strength inherited from the Soviet Union, turned into a humiliating disaster. Grozny was devastated. Some 70-80,000 people died, mostly Chechen civilians, and in 1996, Russia withdrew defeated. In a move that looked as though Russia was trying to do to Chechnya what the U.S. had done to Iraq in 1991, the war instead revealed how poor Russian military capabilities were.

The aftermath of the 1994-96 war further eroded the Chechen government's control over the militias, while local warlords gained strength. The destroyed Chechen economy left armed but unemployed Chechens. Brutalized by war and atrocities committed by Russian troops, they were easily radicalized.

The Soviet-Afghan war had attracted Islamic militants as well as resistance fighters to Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, emboldened because the area was free of Russian military. Side NoteIt is a sad irony that some of those foreign militants would later form part of the terrorist groups alleged to have taken part in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., leading to the “war on terrorism”. Furthermore the United States' CIA had trained and aided some of those terrorists groups to help weaken the Soviet Union, and had “funneled more than $2 billion in guns and money to the mujaheddin during the 1980s.” Even Osama Bin Laden himself was trained by the CIA. For more on these aspects, see this site's section on the war on terrorism.

Dudayev, killed in a 1995 Russian rocket attack was replaced by Aslan Maskhadov, elected in 1997. At the beginning of 1999, Maskhadov declared Islamic Shari'ah law, to be phased in over the next three years. Some former rebel commanders announced a rival body to govern Chechnya, also based on Shari'ah law, calling on Maskhadov to resign, hinting at internal conflicts.

Side Note

While it is generally believed that Islamic militants have come into Chechnya, after September 11, 2001, it was claimed by the Bush Administration and others that they specifically had ties with Al Qaeda and even fought in Afghanistan against the U.S. Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, assistant professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, vehemently denies this, pointing out that prior to September 11, 2001, Chechens were seen as moderate, but shortly after were claimed by U.S. President George Bush to be full of terrorists with links to Al Qaeda:

[After September 11, 2001] President Bush now declared that “Arab terrorists” linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization were operating on Chechen territory and ought to be “brought to justice.” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went a step further and proclaimed “Russia is fighting terrorists in Chechnya, there is no question about that, and we understand that.”

This reassessment in Washington [would now see] the Chechens, a Sovietized nation of moderate Muslims that arguably knew the words of Marx better than Muhammad, ... suspected of being tied to Wahhabi-fundamentalist Arabs at war with the West and modernity. In the process, the Western media and government officials began the character assassination of an entire nation, one that had no previous history of animosity toward the United States or the West.

... [As Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan to route out Al Qaeda] Chechen-watchers and specialists on conflict and ethnicity in the Caucasus were stunned to hear a variety of newly discovered media “talking heads” matter-of-factly proclaim that, in Afghanistan, the United States and Coalition soldiers were confronting hordes of Chechens....

If one were to swallow uncritically the “expert” testimony of the media “pundits,” the outgunned Army of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (currently considered by Russian sources to consist of 1,200 mountain fighters engaged in a life-and-death struggle with 80,000 Russian Federal troops) had somehow developed the logistic capacity (and the desire) to project “hundreds” of apparently unneeded fighters across Eurasia and through American-controlled air space over Afghanistan to defend illiterate Pashtun-Deobandi-Taliban puritans.

Dr. Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, Shaterring the Al Qaeda-Chechen Myth, The American Committee for Peace In Chechnya, October 2003

Citing a number of journalists who tried to investigate, it turned out that it was not likely that Chechens were in Afghanistan.

It does seem plausible that while Chechnya may have attracted foreign terrorist members, Chechen rebels themselves were generally more interested in fighting for their own self-determination. However, it is a complex area, and militant or extremist groups are thought to now be influential there. Furthermore, as detailed further below, it is believed that Russian policy is now, ironically, breeding terrorists, potentially. This would almost be like a sad self-fulfilling prophecy.

Around mid-1999, Moscow accused the Chechen leadership of supporting extremist Islamic militants in Dagestan. While denied by the government, local warlords (mostly independent of the central government) did support militant Islamic groups there. Former members of the Chechen republican legislature established a Moscow-based State Council of the Republic of Chechnya, affording Moscow a reason to recognise it as the sole legitimate Chechen authority and to refuse negotiation with Maskhadov. In this manner, war could then be legitimized if needed.

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Current Conflict

Following the Chechen defeat in Dagestan, Moscow and other Russian cities suffered bomb blasts killing more than 300 people. Chechens were blamed for the attacks, though it was never proven. This has also led to a rise in racist sentiments against people mainly from the Caucasus regions. The response by the new Russian President, Vladimir Putin was brutal. Some analysts believe that Putin had calculated this response would help his 2000 election.

Russia' full scale war with Chechnya led to many bombing raids by Russian forces. Some one third to half of the 1.3 million Chechen people are said to have fled from Chechnya. Slowly Grozny and other parts of Chechnya were being pounded and destroyed, while civilian population were caught in the middle of the conflict. Civilian casualties were high and there was an international outcry at the brutal Russian crackdown and indiscriminate bombing and targeting of civilians.

Human Rights groups raised concern at the rampage that the Russian forces were on after having issued what appeared to be an ultimatum for citizens in Grozny to evacuate. (The previous link is to a report that admits that the Russian government tried to give an opportunity for citizens to leave but criticized how Russia would assume that those left behind would be considered terrorists.) The Russian troops were accused of looting and burning homes and buildings, even executing those who resisted. The rest of the G8 and the European Union had even threatened to isolate Moscow if they continued their campaign.

On April 20, 2000 there was an offer of a cease-fire by the Chechen President, Ashlan Mashkadov. But it was not clear at the time if it could have been maintained. Russian demands were stern and it was not certain if all factions would abide given the increasing number of criminal gangs and factions of warlords. And by June 2000, there was more rebel fighting, suicide attacks and increased guerilla warfare by Chechen combatants, indicating that the conflict was far from over.

As Human Rights Watch further reported, in April 2001, “the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution on Chechnya that condemned serious human rights violations by Russia's forces, and raised concern about forced disappearances, torture, and summary executions. Sponsored by the E.U., and with strong U.S. backing, the resolution called for U.N. special rapporteurs to investigate these abuses in the war-torn republic and for credible criminal investigations by domestic agencies into all human rights and humanitarian law violations. Russia rejected a similar resolution adopted by the commission last year, and refused to comply with its requirements. It has vowed to do the same this year.”

In May 2001, they also reported that Russian authorities covered up evidence of extra-judicial executions.

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The Spoils of Oils

A major oil pipeline carries oil from fields in Baku on the Caspian Sea and Chechnya toward the Ukraine. Grozny has a major oil refinery along this pipeline. For Russia it is important that the oil pipelines and routes they take so oil can be sold to the western markets also meet their needs. However, there are various pipelines in discussion that does not involve Russia.

Major Western oil companies and the American government managed to keep out Iran from the picture. In addition, by also getting oil pipelines routed through Georgia, Russian influence was reduced. As a result, Russia want to do what they can to control the spoils, while the West do the same, leaving Chechnya in the middle being fought for by the two.

There are accusations that external (Western) forces have been used to promote and help destabilize the region, to promote succession to ensure a split from Russia. This would allow them to benefit from a smaller, weaker nation (if Chechnya is successful) that will also make it easier for the West to ensure the resources they want can be further controlled. It has also been suggested that Islamic extremist terrorist groups such as Al Quaeda and others have been involved in some aspects of the Chechen war, and earlier, when such terrorist groups were supported by the west to destabilize the former Soviet Union. (Breaking down larger regions been a successful strategy used throughout history by Europe, the US and others, when they divided and ruled various colonial states. Keeping other nations small works to the advantage of powerful nations. For example, look at the resulting maps of Africa on this web site's Africa pages.) Yet at the same time, more recently, with Russia claiming to fight its own war on terrorism, it seems as though western leaders have been giving tacit support.

For more about oil related issues, check out the following:

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A Comparison with Kosovo

  • Russia complained at NATO's actions against Milosevic. Yet various rights groups have accused Russia of doing the same thing.
  • NATO told its populations that it bombed Serbia on humanitarian grounds. Russia did the same regarding Chechnya.
  • As was revealed during the Kosovo crisis that some NATO members (e.g. the U.S.'s CIA) had long trained the KLA against Yugoslavia. That other western-trained Islamic terrorist groups have also been operating in Chechnya in the past, adds an interesting twist to the geopolitical ramifications. In that context, both the destabilization of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union can be seen as part of the on-going struggle in the 20th century for western powers to maintain control. That is,
    • World War I signified a beginning to the end of colonial and imperial world rule as those rulers fought it out even more so amongst themselves.
    • This culminated in a second World War. The end of World War II saw the third world finally begin to break free.
    • Post World War II geopolitics (the Cold War) by the U.S.-led West against communism and non-aligned nations (often unrelated to communism, but breaking free of western imperial rule) saw various destabilization attempts in Latin America, Middle East/Central Asia, Africa and Asia.)
    • This is too big an issue to cover in this section, and for now, therefore direct you to the Institute for Economic Democracy web site, for example, for more details on this crucial issue.)

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Does Anyone Care if Russian Campaign is Breeding Terrorists?

British journalist Lindsey Hilsum notes how the Russian hard line in Chechnya is breeding terrorists.

Furthermore, she suggests the west doesn't really seem to care. Contrasting British Prime Minister's strong support for a war on Iraq, Lindsey notes:

Tony Blair maintains that intervention in one place where people are tortured and oppressed doesn't mean we can or should intervene everywhere. But Chechnya is a shameful example of western leaders refusing to confront another government on human rights abuses and war crimes because, in the end, strategic and political issues matter more. Chechnya is complex and dangerous and miserable, and we just don't care enough to try to make a difference.

Lindsey Hilsum, The conflict the west always ignores, New Statesman, January 26, 2004

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The Challenge Ahead

In March 2003, a Chechen referendum was approved favoring a new constitution stipulating the republic as part of the Russian Federation. However the referendum was met by criticism of not being truly representative of the desires of the Chechen people as conflict had still not been resolved.

In October that year, Akhmad Kadyrov won the presidency. But that election too was condemned by some Chechens as a sham, and international observers said the poll was questionable because of a lack of pluralism. Furthermore, Kadyrov was seen by Moscow as their key to their continued influence in the region. Kadyrov has actually been appointed deputy mufti (a Muslim legal expert who could give rulings on religious matters) in 1993, and in 1995 had declared a Jihad against Russia. But in 1999 he did an about turn, condemning warlord Shamil Basayev's attempt to forge an Islamic state by force in Dagestan. He was then sacked by separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov when he was the separatist leader. Kadyrov's critics saw him as too cozy with Moscow and he had many enemies as a result. Yet, according to the BBC's obituary for Kadyrov, he was very critical of Russia's policies towards Chechnya.

Propaganda has naturally accompanied the conflict. In an attempt to avoid the humiliation of the 1994-96 war, and trying to emulate NATO's spin on the Kosovo crisis, propaganda techniques such as media management of images and of views seen in debates, were employed in an attempt to convince a sceptical population for the need for war in 1999. Now Russia uses the “war on terrorism” for actions in Chechnya, gaining apparent tacit support from nations like the U.S. and Britain. On the other hand, Islamic militancy has called for a jihad, thus finding many recruits.

According to the BBC, since Putin came to power, political debate in Russia has become severely constricted. In addition, “The broadcast media is mostly under government control, political chat shows have been dropped and the newspapers are almost devoid of commentary.” A series of terrible terrorist attacks in late August and early September 2004 may change that, but the risk of such media control on political debate is less understanding, more propaganda, more hate, and continued conflict.

Around a third to maybe even half of the Chechen population have become refugees in neighbouring regions such as Ingushetia, many refusing to go back. Russian troops have been accused of torture, summary executions and large-scale extortion and looting while Chechen fighters kill many Russian soldiers each month.

On May 9, 2004, on the Russian national holiday to celebrate the World War II victory over Germany, Kadyrov was killed in a bomb blast at a stadium in the Grozny, which also killed a number of other people near him. For Russia, his death is seen as a huge blow in their attempts to restore control in the region.

Between the end of August and the beginning of September 2004, a series of terrorist attacks shook Russia, roughly coincided with presidential elections in the Chechen republic. There was a near-simultaneous crash of two Russian jetliners believed to be cause by explosions. In Moscow a suicide bomb attack outside a subway station killed around 10 people.

The worst episode in Chechen terrorism perhaps was the hostage-taking of a school filled with hundreds of children. The stand-off ended in violence as hundreds of adults and children were killed. In the main gymnasium holding the hostages, some explosions caused part of the building to collapse, killing many. As some hostages took a chance to flee, militants fired, and Russian commandos stormed in (as well as residents who had their own weapons) and after a 10 hour gun fight, secured the building. However, some militants escaped, which was quite shocking in itself given Russian troops should have had the surrounding area completely secured.

The Chechen terrorist acts are clearly unacceptable. The Russians too have been overly brutal as human rights organizations have noted for years. This most horrifying of terrorist attacks by Chechen separatists is likely to turn many people against their cause. It may also fuel regional conflict and ethnic tensions. Political turmoil in the Kremlin has already increased.

The conflict of an Islamic democracy versus Islamic militancy within Chechnya is further complicated by Russia's desire to prevent secession. Numerous challenges must be overcome as well as determining the status of Chechnya, including security, return of refugees, reconstruction, rebuilding the economy, and dealing with corruption. Under these circumstances, it will be difficult to achieve a prompt resolution of the conflict, especially since there are various nations jostling for influence in the region.

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More Information

For more on the crisis in Chechnya, the following links may be useful:

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An edited version of this article appeared in the May 2004 edition of PIC Press, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, November 22, 1999
  • Last Updated: Saturday, September 04, 2004

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Document Revision History

DateReason
September 4, 2004Update about the school seige
May 11, 2004Update about the assassination of Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov; A small update about terrorism links.
April 2, 2004Updated with more history and background, as well as more information on recent events.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.