Russia, Chechnya and the international community
by Dmitry Furman April 2002

When the outside world looks at Chechnya at all, it sees a hotbed of extremism and terrorism. Yet the more the Chechen ‘problem’ becomes just another forgotten crisis or one more target of US anger after 11 September, the more forcefully it will impose itself later.

The current Chechen crisis began either in 1991, when the Chechens declared their independence from Russia, or in 1994, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided to put the separatists down. The roots of the conflict are deep. In the nineteenth century, Chechen opposition to Russian imperial expansion led to a series of wars and uprisings, which were brutally suppressed; where an estimated 1,500,000 Chechens lived in Chechnya at the start of the nineteenth century, the 1926 Soviet census listed just 400,000. This sequence of revolt and repression continued into the ‘second’ Russian empire, the Soviet Union. During the civil war that followed the Revolution, the Chechens fought against ‘White’ forces. The Bolsheviks initially promised the Chechens self-government according to Islamic law, and promoted Chechen culture and the development of the nation. However, the bureaucratic and totalitarian character of the Soviet state was at odds with Chechen values and traditions, and uprisings continued during the Soviet period. Under Stalin in 1944, Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakstan and Central Asia and Chechnya ceased to exist as an entity within the Soviet Union. Up to a quarter died during resettlement, or were murdered. Under Khruschev, Chechnya was reconstituted as an ‘autonomous republic’ within the Russian Federation, and surviving deportees returned. For the Chechens, the deportation represents not only an episode of great suffering, but also a humiliation – a trauma which has made it impossible for Chechens to live within Russia as a national minority.

Post-Soviet Chechnya

As the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Chechnya declared independence from the Russian Federation. However, unlike the Union republics such as Georgia and Moldova, Chechnya’s status as an autonomous republic within Russia placed it in a different position under international law. The Union republics, whatever their position in practice, were legally considered to be sovereign states within the Soviet Union. Chechnya, by contrast, did not have sovereign status, and its declaration of independence has not been recognised internationally. Perversely, this has meant that Union republics that never attempted secession, such as Belarus, were in effect forced into independence, while a region like Chechnya, that the Russian and then Soviet state had striven to wipe out, was compelled to remain within a political framework that it rejected.

Post-Soviet Russia is the third incarnation of Russian statehood with which the Chechens have had to deal. The experience has turned out to be no better than the previous two. Immediately after the Soviet collapse, when democracy and anti-imperialism was in the air, the Russian authorities came close to recognising Chechen independence; on their side, Chechens were prepared to accept a compromise formula such as ‘associate membership’ of the Russian Federation. However, as Russians became disenchanted with economic reform and increasingly nostalgic for the certainties of the Soviet Union, and presidential elections approached, Yeltsin seized upon the Chechen issue as a useful distraction. Positions hardened, and conflict began. Following his victory in elections in 1996, Yeltsin had no further political use for the war. Under the Khasavyurt agreements, Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya, but the issue of Chechnya’s status was deferred.

After three years of relative calm, the second phase in the Chechen conflict began in late 1999, and is linked with the emergence of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, who became acting president when Yeltsin stepped down in December. Following incursions by Chechen fighters into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan, and a series of bomb blasts in Moscow and other Russian cities which left almost 300 dead and which have never been fully explained, Russian troops re-entered Chechnya in September 1999. As with the earlier episode, some commentators have suggested that the latest round of fighting may have more to do with the political objectives of Moscow’s élite than with Chechen separatism; certainly, there is suspicion that the bombings in Moscow and elsewhere may have been the work of provocateurs, rather than Chechen militants.

The two wars have devastated Chechnya. The capital, Grozny, is as ruined as Stalingrad after the great battles of the Second World War. No one knows how many people now live in Chechnya, but it is clear that the majority of the pre-conflict population are now refugees in Russia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. As was the case with the first conflict, the authorities no longer have much need of it, and ordinary Russians are beginning to weary of it. However, achieving an agreement along the lines of Khasavyurt will be much more difficult than it was in 1996. Public opinion is much less important today than it was then, given the stronger control Putin is exerting over the media and the electoral process. Moreover, Putin has staked more on the conflict than did Yeltsin, and would find it more difficult than his predecessor to step down. Conversely, the Chechens have not been able to grasp why, given the end of the Soviet Union and the supposed emergence of democratic politics in Russia, they have not been accorded the same rights as other nations. In fact, independence per se is not the aim; rather, Chechens see independence as the best way of protecting their nation against a second deportation, and to secure themselves against the vicissitudes of Russian history. While the Chechens do not have the forces to defeat Russia militarily, by reason of their history they will also never consent to Chechnya remaining part of the Federation. Even if the fighters, exhausted and depleted, surrender, a new generation of Chechens will eventually emerge to take up the struggle again, and perhaps in more virulent form. Thus, for Russia victory in the short term may in the long term be worse than defeat.

The impact of international neglect

The Chechens’ sense of injustice lies, not only in their treatment at the hands of successive Russian regimes, but also in the attitude of the outside world to what is an extremely bloody and amoral conflict. In Kosovo, Serb suppression of Kosovar Albanian separatism, which was much less cruel than Russian suppression of Chechen opposition, prompted a full-scale military response and significant Western action. Even though no one has been prepared to grant Kosovo legal independence or condone its integration into Albania, Kosovo is de facto independent from Belgrade, and under NATO protection. Macedonian Albanians have also achieved the most that they could in a unified Macedonian state. By contrast, pressure on Russia from the world community during the Chechen conflict has always been exceptionally weak.

Why is the international attitude to the Chechen conflict so strikingly different from the attitude to the Kosovan war? First, the Kosovan conflict is in Europe, and directly affects the major European powers. The Chechen conflict, on the other hand, is taking place in the world’s backyard; refugees from Chechnya are not heading for Germany, but Georgia and Ingushetia. Second, Russia is still a nuclear power, and remains a large and powerful nation despite the changes that have taken place since the Soviet collapse. To offend it by, for instance, raising the issue of human rights abuse against Chechens by Russian forces, would be dangerous. And third, Russia has successfully presented the conflict, not as a political contest for power, but as a fight against extreme Islam and the forces of ‘global terrorism’. Russia’s position has become virtually unchallengeable in the wake of 11 September, and Moscow’s support for the US-led ‘campaign against terror’. However, the picture is more complex. At the start, Chechen separatism was modelled on the independence movements in the Baltic states around the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conflict became ‘Islamised’ only later, not least because Islamic extremism is the only force to have shown any sympathy with the Chechen cause.

It is unrealistic to expect that Russia will grant Chechnya independence in the near future; international law and current global conditions militate strongly against this, even if, eventually, independence is the only workable outcome. Nevertheless, the international community can help to devise some formula, even if it is only partially acceptable to the parties, which would allow Russia to save face, while giving Chechens real guarantees for self-government. The Khasavyurt formula of ‘deferred status’ is not entirely a bad thing. However, international guarantees for the agreement are crucial (and were missing in the Khasavyurt agreements, which meant that they were dead from the start), with international monitoring of their implementation. Securing Russia’s consent to such guarantees and monitoring will be extremely difficult, though not impossible. However, this requires immense, single-minded effort. To achieve any degree of success, what is needed above all is a real concern for the problem.

The future

Even before 11 September, the Chechen conflict was no more than a minor embarrassment to Western leaders. Now, the West has stopped thinking about it altogether except as a cauldron of extremism. If continued Western indifference to the realities of the conflict confirms the Chechens in their sense of isolation and injustice, the war will only become bloodier and more gruesome. Even Russian victory will prove short-lived unless steps towards real self-government are taken. For the international community, helping both Russia and Chechnya to find a way out of their present deadlock is not only a moral obligation, but an act of self-interest.

Dmitry Furman is director of the Commonwealth of Independent States Research Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe, Moscow.

References and further reading

Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

Carlotta Gall and Thomas De Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

Greg Hansen, Humanitarian Action in the Caucasus: A Guide for Practitioners (Providence, RI: Watson Institute, 1998). Also available in Russian.

Austen Davis, ‘The Misery of Chechnya – and the Failure of Humanitarianism?’, Humanitarian Exchange 18, March 2001.