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Issue Date:  August 25, 2006

Edited by Richard Sakwa
Anthem Press, 300 pages, hardcover, $75; paperback, $25
The forgotten war in Chechnya

Essays examine the complex, messy issue of Chechen independence from Russia

Reviewed by GREG GAUT

The most provocative question raised by the G8 meeting held July 15 through 17 was whether Russia was even qualified to be in this exclusive club of industrial democracies, much less hosting its summit. Critics inside and outside Russia argue that President Vladimir Putin has led Russia down an authoritarian rather than a democratic path. They point to the centralization of his power, the collapse of a free press, the restrictions on nongovernmental organizations and political dissidents and the massive human rights abuses in Chechnya, among other things. A group of public figures including Vaclav Havel, Mary Robinson, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on the G8 to put the Chechen war on its agenda in St. Petersburg, and on the world community to “end the silence over Chechnya.”

Why this concern for a small, land-locked territory in southern Russia, a region whose pre-war population was about the same as Phoenix? The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union into its 15 constituent republics, each named for a particular nationality, didn’t completely solve the nationalities problem because there were far more than just those 15 nationalities. Smaller nationalities had autonomous regions within the 15 republics, and Russia, or the “Russian Federation,” the largest of the new states to emerge from the U.S.S.R., has 21 autonomous areas where non-Russian peoples live. The political leadership of two of those -- Tatarstan and Chechnya -- made serious bids to become independent states after 1991.

Russia negotiated a deal with the former, but Moscow’s relationship with Chechnya disintegrated into violence, marked by two wars. Federal troops invaded Chechnya in 1994 and took a beating, leading to a truce between Moscow and the Chechen rebels in 1996. In 1999, Russia invaded again and subdued the insurgents, which now included both Chechen separatists and Islamic jihadists. Since then, a low-intensity war has continued, appearing in the news only when insurgents pull off an unusually gruesome terrorist act. In the meantime, the civilian population has lived through a terrible tragedy, caught in the crossfire of these two brutal wars.

A rich collection of essays edited by British political scientist Richard Sakwa called Chechnya: From Past to Future demonstrates that Chechnya is a kind of awful laboratory in which many of the toughest questions facing modern society can be studied. When does a nationality have the right to secede from an existing state, and when does a state have the right to unleash a modern army to stop them? Can a “just war” degenerate into an unjust one if a state’s army treats civilians too brutally? Should support for the U.S.-led “war on terrorism” give such a state more leeway in dealing with civilian populations? Faced with a humanitarian disaster, should outsiders (Western governments, human rights organizations) intervene, and if so, how?

Dr. Sakwa assembled a multinational group of academics, journalists and human rights activists, mostly British and Russian, along with a few Australians, an American and a Chechen, to examine the conflict from various angles. Their essays challenge the image of noble Chechen warriors fighting for freedom from the imperialist Russian bear. For these writers, the “good guys/bad guys” approach oversimplifies to the point of uselessness. John Russell, a lecturer in Russian studies at the University of Bradford in Britain, argues here that Western public opinion is prone not only to “compassion fatigue” but “complexity fatigue” as well. We tend to be overwhelmed when confronted with conflicts such as the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Kashmir and Chechnya that are unresponsive to simple analyses or quick fixes. Anyone willing to fight through “complexity fatigue” searching for a morally responsible outlook on this part of our messy, violent world will find these essays helpful.

All the essays hinge on the central question of Chechen independence. Dr. Sakwa’s introduction describes two competing narratives. Is Russia a post-imperial state that can no longer retain its colonial possessions, similar to the British in India, or the French in Algeria? If that is true, then the Chechen nation has the right to independence. Or is Russia an emerging democracy fighting to preserve its territorial integrity, and hence its very existence, against an insurgency, similar to the Union during the American Civil War? If that is true, then Russia fights a “just war” in Chechnya.

Although Western governments tend to the second view, Mike Bowker, a specialist in Russian foreign policy at the University of East Anglia, notes here that Western media leans toward the first. After all, it brings to mind the heroic Chechen resistance to the Russian Empire in the 19th century, the romantic tale immortalized in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Hadji Murad. However, as John Hughes of the London School of Economics argues, self-determination is not so simple. International law recognizes the right to secession, but it also abhors the unilateral redrawing of borders. A nation seeking independence must show that it is viable, that it will preserve the rights of minorities and that it can win recognition from the international community. Serious questions are raised about Chechnya on all counts. In fact, neither narrative points to what would have been the best result, that is, a negotiated compromise in which Chechnya became an autonomous self-ruling entity within the Russian Federation, following the Tatarstan model.

In the final years of the Soviet Union, competing forces struggled for power in Chechnya. Doku Zavgaev, the local communist leader, tried to lead Chechnya to a position of greater autonomy under Gorbachev’s evolving regime. Meanwhile, clan leaders from the mountainous south organized the Chechen National Congress led by Dzhokhar Dudaev, ironically enough, a former Soviet air force general who had served in Afghanistan. Shortly after the attempted August 1991 coup against President Gorbachev, Mr. Dudaev overthrew the Zavgaev government. With little support among the educated urban population, most of whom probably preferred citizenship in a democratic Russia, Mr. Dudaev then issued a unilateral declaration of independence.

Russia withdrew its troops from Chechnya but left behind its weapons, which were quickly confiscated by Chechen militias. An economic blockade then hastened the descent of the new Chechen republic into lawlessness (arms and drug smuggling, money laundering, and so on). When negotiations went nowhere, President Yeltsin tried to remove Dudaev by funding a proxy insurgency. When that failed, he launched a full-scale invasion of Chechnya in December 1994.

Several contributors are skeptical of Chechen claims to independence. Robert Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern Illinois University, argues that Chechnya is “a proud but self-destructive nation” that was not able to form a functioning state because of its chronic social fragmentation. More surprising is historian Dzhabrail Gakaev, the only Chechen contributor to the volume, who argues that “the reality is that Russia is in Chechnya and Chechnya is in Russia, and they are destined to remain together.” Representative of the educated elite left in the dust by the Dudaev coup, Dr. Gakaev believes that a genuine movement for a democracy was hijacked by a criminal elite masquerading as Chechen nationalists. Dr. Gakaev and several others point to the fact that an educated Chechen elite came to power in Chechnya only in the final years of the Soviet Union. As a result, Mr. Zavgaev had little experience and a narrow base, which made him vulnerable to Mr. Dudaev’s challenge. The development of an educated Chechen elite was undermined by the deportation of the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan in 1944, the result of Stalin’s horrific decision to collectively punish several nationalities for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Although the Chechens were eventually allowed to return home, Chechen social development was set back at least a generation.

In the face of the Russia’s 1994 invasion, Chechens rallied to the nationalist militias, and Russia faced a brutal war for which the Russian military was ill-prepared. Mr. Dudaev was killed but his successor, Aslan Maskhadov, was able to retake Grozny in August 1996. Since the war was extremely unpopular in Russia, President Yeltsin decided to negotiate, and the result was the Khasavyurt Agreement, which granted Chechnya de facto independence.

As the Russian army withdrew, Mr. Maskhadov was elected president. Although he had a popular mandate, he was unable to control his field commanders, and especially Shamil Basaev, who had aligned himself with international Islamic fundamentalism (popularly called Wahhabism in Chechnya, after the radical Saudi sect). Mr. Maskhadov failed to build a functioning state and criminals ran wild. Educated Russians and Chechens who had fled had little incentive to return to a country descending into warlordism, kidnappings and theocracy.

Then things got worse. Basaev and the Wahhabis invaded neighboring Dagestan in August 1999 in an attempt to create a broader Islamic state throughout the region. Vladimir Putin, at the time Yeltsin’s prime minister, sent federal troops to Dagestan to chase the Islamic rebels out and then, after several apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere, ordered a full scale invasion of Chechnya. With no evidence, Mr. Putin claimed that Chechens were responsible for the bombings, and in this way gained broad popular support for a second war against Chechnya. Some analysts suspect Russian security forces of setting the bombs since Mr. Putin seemed to be the main beneficiary, but Dr. Ware argues here that the Wahhabists are the guilty parties.

Although these writers disagree about whether Russia had the moral right to start the first war (jus ad bellum), they acknowledge that Russia had a stronger claim in the second. Even if both began as “just wars” however, most agree that the way Russia prosecuted the wars (jus in bello) failed any moral test. In December 1994, for example, the Russian military bombarded Grozny with no attempt to evacuate the civilian population, which ironically was largely Russian. When the second war began in 1999, the Russian military bombarded Grozny again. After it had driven Chechen forces out of the city, the Russian military unleashed a vicious counterinsurgency war which subjected Chechens to mass detentions, torture, “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions. Russian perpetrators of these atrocities have mostly gone unpunished.

Not only did Russia’s brutal tactics negate its moral right to invade Chechnya, but it was also counterproductive, as several writers argue, at least if Russia’s goal is a stable Chechnya on its border. In the most passionate essay in the collection, journalist Tom de Waal argues that the key to understanding the conflict was the massive Russian violence which made Grozny “the most destroyed city in Europe,” more devastated even than the Balkan cities of Sarajevo and Vukovar. He points out that these bombings killed or alienated the very people who most supported a negotiated settlement with Russia. If this was Russia’s solution, Mr. de Wall concludes, the problem was to be preferred.

These events occurred against the background of considerable Western angst about “humanitarian interventions” or the lack of them in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Western governments did little to encourage a negotiated settlement or to curb Russian violence in Chechnya. At first, this was because the United States and Europe did not want to weaken Mr. Yeltsin or, subsequently, Mr. Putin. When the United States suffered the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Putin saw that he had been handed a great opportunity. He skillfully shut the door to any outside “interference” by retroactively presenting the entire Russian adventure in Chechnya as part of the “war against terrorism.”

To be sure, Basaev’s forces staged spectacular terrorist acts that played into President Putin’s hands. In October 2002, Chechen terrorists laid siege to a packed theater in central Moscow just as the second act of a popular musical began. Federal security forces gassed and stormed the theater, leaving 139 hostages dead. The most horrible single event occurred in Beslan, a small town in the Russian republic of North Ossetia where in the fall of 2004 gunmen burst into a public school and took 1,100 hostages. Security forces attacked on the third day of the siege, and when it was finally over, at least 331 hostages were dead, about half of them children. In both cases, the boldness of the terrorists was matched by the ineptitude of the police. After each of these events, President Putin reiterated that no negotiation with Chechens was possible.

With Western governments averting their eyes from the Chechen problem, only human rights organizations actively monitored events in Chechnya. Nevertheless, several of these essayists criticize human rights organizations for being too one-sided in their criticism of Russian atrocities and for demanding that Russia negotiate with terrorists. Dr. Sakwa includes a careful and thoughtful piece by two researchers from Memorial, the Russian organization that was formed during the Gorbachev era to uncover Stalin’s crimes, and has gone on to deal with contemporary human rights abuses in Russia. They demonstrate their commitment to accuracy (for example, they work hard not to exaggerate Chechen civilian deaths), and acknowledge Russia’s right to intervene to guarantee its security, at least in the second war. However, they insist that negotiation should be the preferred method for resolving the larger conflict, even if they seem to think that the opportunity for peaceful agreement has all but been lost.

Having rejected negotiation, President Putin chose the path of “Chechenization.” He imposed a new constitution on Chechnya, and then manipulated an election to bring Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow Sufi cleric, to power. After Mr. Kadyrov was assassinated, Mr. Putin passed the mantle of leadership to Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, a well-known warlord. The number of Russian troops has been reduced, but human rights groups report that Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces are treating the population with the same brutal tactics. The insurgents retreated to the mountains, where they harass the pro-Moscow Chechen government, build a base for Islamic jihad and occasionally stage terrorist acts. On July 10, Russia announced that it had killed Shamil Basaev, and time will tell whether this will fatally undermine the insurgency.

Several essays outline policies that could lead to a better future for Chechnya. Russia should rein in its military and prosecute those who have terrorized the Chechen population. The government must prove to average Chechens that they are full citizens of Russia whose fundamental rights will be protected. President Putin should stop manipulating Chechen elections, which encourages Chechen apathy and postpones the development of democracy. Several writers also argue that economic aid to Chechnya should be a priority, because otherwise Chechnya will continue to be a hopeless land where only jihadists and criminals thrive. Western governments could help by making a significant investment in economic aid to Chechnya and by encouraging Russia to pursue more enlightened policies.

Nothing in these essays encourages one to think that either the Putin government or the larger world community will move on these proposals. At the G8 meeting, President Bush did meet with pro-democracy activists critical of President Putin’s policies. One gave him a photo of Chechen children killed by Russian bombing as a way of calling attention to civilian war victims. President Bush promised to discuss their criticisms with President Putin, but only privately. In the end, the G8 summit passed without public discussion of Chechnya.

Greg Gaut is associate professor of Russian and European history at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona.

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2006

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