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Russia is a country of great ethnic diversity, consisting of more than one hundred ethno-linguistic groups. Chechnya is just one of Russia’s 21 ethnically defined republics, but it is only here that one of the most ghastly conflicts in the recent times has flared up (Sakwa 2003). What are the reasons that provoked Chechnya to seek secession, while other areas remain relatively stable and within the existing constitutional order? What factors have prompted Chechnya to embark on a tragic and self-destructive path?
There are seven autonomous republics in the region of North Caucasus: Dagestan, Chechnya, Inghushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Blakraia, Karachai-cherkessia, and Adygea.
The population of this region is around 5-6 million. On first impressions, many of these regions look like other non-ethnic Russian regions, with a long history of “Russification. ” Russian is the official language in all these places. However, just beneath the surface, the people of these regions are highly conscious of their separate identity and are fiercely proud of their differences from Russia and its culture.
Local languages thrive even after a century of intense Russification. According to 1989 census, 98 per cent of Chechens spoke their own language (Smith 2006). The Ingush, Kabardians, Avars and other North Caucasians are very fluent in their native tongues, although these languages themselves bear an imprint of Russian influence. Although people of Caucasus originally belonged to different tribes, the Caucasian mountains became a melting pot, and over the centuries, most of the people in this region ended up adopting Islam. They also found a common cause against Russian colonisation.
However, for various historical and political reasons, the trend of separatism has been much more pronounced in Chechnya than in any other regions of Russia. The fundamental reason behind the ruthless and protracted conflict in Chechnya is simply the unrelenting desire of Chechens to achieve total independence and liberation from Russian control – at any cost. At heart, the Chechen conflict graphically represents the age-old clash between the coloniser and the colonised, even as seen in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.
From the perspective of Russia itself, it has been deeply motivated to retain Chechnya under all circumstances. Russia is embroiled in a complex political quagmire in regard to Chechnya and was engaged in two major military conflicts in the past 15 years. At the root of Kremlin’s obsession with Chechnya are concerns of broad national security and geo-strategic concerns. Besides, there are also narrow interests of internal Kremlin politics that come into the picture. Chechnya and the Caucasus region surrounding it have always been strategically significant for Russia, and other major powers in that region such as Turkey and Iran.
The Caucasus forms a crossroads between Asia and Europe – and therefore has been much coveted down the centuries. Although the bloody conflict between Russia and Chechnya emerged into public awareness world-wide only during the recent years, particularly during the ‘first’ war on 1994-1996 and the second war that began in 1999, these are in fact only the latest manifestations of a continual conflict that has been going on and off across the whole region for many centuries now, including the two centuries of Russian-Chechen bloodshed.
According to reliable estimates, more than 100,000 Chechens have been killed in the last 12 years of escalated tensions, and several hundred thousand others have lost their homes or been forced to flee. A few hundreds of thousands of Chechens are harboured in relative safety but deplorable living conditions in Inghushetia. In between 1991 and 1999, the population of Chechnya declined from around one million to around 300,000 (Hughes 2001). The Chechen capital Grozny, once a thriving city, is nearly reduced to rubble.
And on the Russian side, as per some unofficial yet reliable estimates, more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. It is an ongoing human catastrophe of appalling proportions. Although the tension between Chechnya and Moscow had been persisting for a very long time, it was only in the early nineteen nineties, with the collapse of the USSR, that the geo-strategic issues came into new focus. The Southern Caucasian states managed to secure independence from Russia, but Russia could not relinquish its hold on the northern states which soon developed into its most troubled frontier.
Oil is a key issue here. In the context of Caspian Sea oil boom, Moscow had to face intense diplomatic and economic competition from the Western countries in the newly independent states to the south of Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (Smith 2006). The struggle to decide the pipeline routes from the Caspian was a key factor in triggering the Chechen conflict. Russia simply had to secure Chechnya from the militant separatists in order to preserve and safeguard its oil export route.
Though there is very little oil in Chechnya itself, and its entire infrastructure including a mammoth refinery in Grozny has been heavily bombed, Chechnya serves as an important route in transshipment of Russian oil to the West. Another strategic factor that drove Russia to war with Chechnya and take extreme measures in suppressing its people is the legitimate fear in Moscow that Chechen separatist movement, if successful, could inspire other similar conflicts in the rest of the region, and even in Tartarstan in the centre of Russia.
Although some regions within Russia seem to be content with autonomy and are not clamouring for independence in the manner of Chechnya, once Chechnya is granted independence the mood could alter in these other parts of Russia. A chain reaction could be set off in the ethnic republics of North Caucasus where there is even now a palpable undercurrent of unrest. Consequently, Moscow adopted a policy of terrorising Chechnya and crushing the political will of its people to assert their independence.
The internecine warfare which resulted from this enduring conflict has been particularly gruesome. Chechnya is an isolated instance where Russia deployed its military power to resist decolonisation in the post-Soviet era, but Chechnya is deemed very critical for the development of Russia’s state-building project. The campaign of intense destructiveness that Russia has waged may surprise most people, but subduing Chechen secessionism is vital to preserve the sovereignty of the Russian Federation (Hughes 2001).
The impossibility of Russia maintaining the Soviet Union’s global role was obvious even before the USSR collapsed; what Chechnya has shown is that even the Russian effort to maintain itself as the hegemonic power with the former Soviet space will, for the foreseeable future, labour under very severe constraints of strength and, even more importantly, of will. – Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. (1999) In the latter years of Chechen conflict, Chechnya has become a stage for Russia to brutally impose its political will out of pure spite, more than any other valid reason.
The first war between Russia and Chechen separatist forces, lasting from December 1994 to August 1996, brought failure to Russia, weakened its image abroad, completed the process of alienation of Chechens and fuelled Islamic revolution (Smith 2006). But it also strengthened Russia’s resolve to go to any length in using force to quell Chechnya’s nationalist revolt, simply in order to show the country and the whole world who is in charge. Chechen independence forces almost never had more than 3,000 soldiers actually in the field at any one time, compared to fifteen times that number on the Russian side.
Yet Chechnya tasted victory in its first definite engagement with Russian military in the recent times (Lieven 1999). The humiliating Russian pullout in 1996 granted Chechnya de facto independence, but made another and even bloodier conflict almost inevitable. If Chechnya was fighting to gain its identity, Russia was fighting to preserve its integrity, territorial, political and moral. The conflict in Chechnya could be understood as a shift from imperial disengagement to the rediscovery of imperial nerve in Russia, first under Yeltsin and then Putin. James Hughes. Chechnya : The Causes of a Protracted Post-Soviet Conflict. (2001). On the other side, however, the antipathy to Russian imperialism and naked cruelty is deeply embedded in the consciousness of all Chechen people, going beyond mere political echelons. In 1944, at the height of the Second World War, Stalin perpetrated genocide on these people, and it naturally rankles in their collective memory, transforming itself into implacable hate towards Russian authority.
Stalin suspected the people in the North Caucasus to be either supporting or collaborating with the Nazi forces, and therefore deported over 600, 000 people, the majority of whom were Chechens, to regions in Kazakhstan. The deportation and exile resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths (Pbs. org 2006). This tragic episode is considered by many to be a defining event in the reinforcement of Chechen identity and the resistance of Chechen people to rule from Moscow. However, the conflict between Chechnya and the Russian regime had been raging much longer before the mass deportation and genocide of February 1944.
Seen from a historical perspective, the conflict between Chechnya and Russia can be seen not merely as a clash between people of different ethnic origins but as a clash between the religions of Islam and Orthodox Christianity. Today, the radical wing of Chechen separatism under the command of Shamil Basayev, for example, uses the pretext of Islamic self-righteousness to justify its terrorist acts such as hijackings, taking hostages and car bombings (DerLugian 2003).
In an attempt to cover up its predominant and political and economic interests in securing Chechnya, Russia portrays its tooth and nail battle with Chechnya as fight against the threat of Islamic terrorism. Religion has indeed always played a key role in the conflict between Chechnya and Russia. The most notable uprisings of Chechen people against Russia, beginning in the late 1700’s, were led by Islamic Imams who waged a holy war against the Russian infidels. The rebellion of Sheikh Mansur in 1785-91, the Caucasian War from 1817, the revolt led by Avar Shamil in 1840’s prompted by religious considerations.
In all these cases, Russia resorted to ruthless military suppression and ethnic cleansing by expelling the Muslim peoples of Caucasus into Islamic Turkey, then known as Ottoman Empire. However, with the advent of the twentieth century, the religious impulses of Chechen people receded into background, overtaken by the pace of modernisation and secularisation (Hughes 2001). Subsequent to the 1917 October Revolution, an unsuccessful attempt was made to create a North Caucasus emirate with a theocratic government.
From 1922 onwards Chechens had territorial autonomy, and 1936 witnessed the creation of Checheno-Inghushetia Autonomous Republic. However, Chechen nationalism was remobilised in the wake of Stalin’s atrocities. Between the post Second World War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991, there were attempts made by Moscow to transfer a considerable number of ethnic Russians into the regions of Checheno-Inghusetia, in order to dilute Chechen ethnic identity. There was a large-scale migration of Russian workers and technical specialists into Chechnya during the Soviet oil industry expansion of the 50’s and 60’s.
In 1960, ethnic Russians constituted half the population of Checheno-Inghusetia, though this level fell to one-third in the later decades. By 1989, during the late Soviet period, Chechnya was largely urbanised, Sovietised, securlarised, and was dominated by a younger generation that was not much into history or religion. However, all this was set to change with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Within no time, there was a phenomenal recrudescence of separatism along with religious fundamentalism and the memories of a long history of Russian oppression.
In March 1991 Major-General Dzhokhar Dudaev, a former general in the Soviet air force, was elected leader of the Chechen National Congress (Sakwa 2005). Dudaev radically broke away from the earlier Communist party line and pushed Chechnya to make a move towards independence. At the same time, the newly elected President of Russian Federation, Boris Yelstsin, adamantly refused to grant Chechnya independence, since Chechnya is of major strategic and economic importance to Russia (Shah 2004).
As it happened many other times in the past but on a vastly more intensified level, this latest bid to Chechen independence devolved into interminable guerilla war between the Russian army and militant separatists, even as Chechnya’s meagre population got continually decimated (Pbs. org 2006). A major war two-year war ensued in 1994, in the aftermath of which local warlords gained strength. Chechen economy was destroyed. The whole region was ravaged and reduced to a desolate war zone (Shah 2004).
Poverty-struck and unemployed men of region are very easily lured by militant Islamic fundamentalism and thus the cycle of violence and devastation continues unabated. Chechnya remains the most unstable region in the volatile Caucasus. The Chechens simply want peace and stability. But their republic has rapidly descended into anarchy. Russia may not see great success in crushing the rebels and warlords in the near future either (BBC News 2006). There seem to be no real prospects of peace in sight.
BBC News. 2006. Q&A: The Chechen conflict. Bbc. co. uk. 0 July 2006. Available from http://www. pbs. org/newshour/bb/europe/chechnya/history. html. Accessed on March 01, 2007. Sakwa, Richard. 2005. Chechnya: From Past to Future (Anthem Russian and Slavonic Studies). London : Anthem Press Shah, Anup. 2004. Crisis in Chechnya. globalissues. org. Available from http://www. globalissues. org/Geopolitics/Chechnya. asp. Accessed on March 01, 2007. Smith, Sebastian. 2006. Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya. London : Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
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