The tough talking Russian leader Vladimir Putin may drag the militants “out of the sewer” and “rub them out in the latrine”, however, the recent blasts in Moscow and Dagestan are grim reminder of the Russia’s failure to preserve control over Chechnya – a volatile tinderbox of ethnic tension and secessionist movements. Despite Russia’s two devastating wars against the Chechnyian separatists that killed tens of thousands of militants and civilians in the massive ground and aerial attack, Russian armed forces not only failed to quell the separatist movement but faced humiliating defeat. The continuing saga of violence and death underscores the impossibility of a purely military resolution of the conflicts in the restive North Caucasian republic; it calls for a political settlement, but the Russian leaders want to keep the region subdued through military occupation and local henchmen.
The North Caucasus is a broad isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian, crisscrossed by high mountains. The region is array of semiautonomous republics, many of them Islamic. The mountainous expanse is home to some 5 million people of several diverse ethnic groups with each having its own distinct language, customs, costumes, and architectures. The region fell prey to many invaders in the distant past, and after the Caucasian War of 1817-1864, also known as Russian conquest of the Caucasus, it was conquered and forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire. The aggressive expropriation of land, Stalin’s attempt to cleanse the North Caucasus of the natives, deportations and forced exile bore the bitter fruit of everlasting resentment of all things Russian. Kremlin’s attitude towards the region has ensured that North Caucasians, especially from Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, have no love lost for their Russian master.
Chechen tribes and other ethnic groups of the region never acquiesced to Czarist, Soviet or Russia’s acquisition and rule over their land. From the early days of occupation to today, foreign domination is resented and resisted. After several low-key resistances, full-blown guerrilla war against the Russian occupation started in 1824 that lasted for over 30 years. An Islamic state in Chechnya and Dagestan was established in the aftermath of the guerrilla war; however, it was short lived. The guerrilla war and the subsequent resistances were responded by Russians with fierce brutality that came close to genocide. Joseph Stalin accused Chechen of collaborating with the Germans during the Second World War and dissolved the republic, dispossessed them of all their properties, deported the entire Chechen and Ingush population to Kazakhstan and Siberia, and their land was redistributed among the neighboring peoples, Thousands of deportees died from the cold, hunger and fatigue and thousands disappeared while on route or after arrival. After Stalin’s death the republic was reestablished and survivors of exiled camps returned home.
During the Soviet Union period, Chechnya was designated as an autonomous region – a notch below an autonomous republic in the Soviet hierarchy of different regions. Most of the autonomous republics, such as Ukraine and Uzbekistan, were allowed full independence after the Soviet break-up. Autonomous regions were denied independence. However, Chechen President of the time Dzhokhar Dudayev declared Chechnya an independent nation in 1991. In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Russia would take "harsh measures," including breaking off diplomatic relations, against any country which recognized Chechnya. Indeed, no country, including Muslim countries, with the exception of Afghanistan under Taliban and neighboring Georgia recognized Chechnya’s independence, lest it angers the mighty Russia.
Chechnya’s declaration of independence put Russian Federation in peril; the Kremlin feared a "domino effect" in which other autonomous republics would copy Chechnya’s demands. In Lieven’s words, Chechnya was becoming the tombstone of Russian Power. Chechnya’s secession not only had political consequences –” challenge to territorial integrity – but it also had the potential to economically impact Russia. North Caucasus is a corridor for the lucrative Caspian Sea oil pipelines and also provides important access to sea trade routes. It was these two considerations that made Russia to fight back and keep Chechnya in its fold.
For three years, from the time Chechnya unilaterally seceded from Russia in 1991 and Russian invasion in 1994, tension with Russia steadily grew as Chechnya asserted its independence and took step to build a national army. Moscow first tried to unseat Dudayev through coups to undo the declaration of independence. After Kremlin inspired coup attempts failed, in December 1994, Russian troops marched into Chechnya, and thus the first Chechen war of independence started. After an estimated ten of thousands people died, and the 1996 ceasefire agreement, Russia withdrew its troops, and granted Chechnya significant autonomy but not full independence, only to return in 1999 for the second round of the war.
The second war ended in 2000 with complete destruction of Chechnen capital Grozny, compared only to the horrific annihilation of Dresden in the second world war. For three months Russian forces bombed Grozny everyday until it was totally destroyed. The end of the second war saw the fall of the pro-independence government and the restoration of the Kremlin’s authority over Chechnya. The two wars brought unspeakable death and destruction to the tiny republic with little over a million population.
After Grozny capitulated and independent fighters were subdued, just as the Czechs capitulated in 1968 when the Soviets entered Prague, Russia installed pro-Moscow regimes under men reviled by Chechens as a traitors. These men, with the blessing of the Ruusian government, ruled the country with their own reign of terror –” for Chechens acts of terror remained the same, only the actors changed.
Embittered by the scars of two hundred years of Russian campaign to deny them the right to run their own country, suffered by the prolonged and hopeless conflicts and fearful of political annihilation and economic servitude, largely consisting of guerrillas who fought Russia in 90’s and thereafter Moscow installed regimes formed a group of underground fighters and militants. These militants taken over by the feelings of anger, grief, humiliation and eventually, desire for revenge, conveyed a grim message to the Rusian leadership that the resistance against Russian occupation continues, taking ever more insidious, and underground forms.
Jerry Muller (Us and Them, The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism) writing about the ethnic nationalism, says, "Whether politically correct or not, ethnonationalism will continue to shape the world in the twenty-first century.” The breakup of the Yugoslavian Balkan states into separate ethno-nationalist entities is point in case. He further argues, “The creation of a peaceful regional order of nation-states has usually been the product of a violent process of ethnic separation. In areas where that separation has not yet occurred, politics is apt to remain ugly.” Russian-Chechen forced political marriage is an example where “politics is apt to remain ugly.”
When we search for any commonality between the giant Russia and tiny Chechnya, we find none. Russians and Chechens are two distinct people divided by religion, language, customs, culture, architecture and the great economic disparities between the two have further fuelled the divide. Chechnya never enjoyed equal weight with the equitable claims in the Russian system of government or even given a staus of a junior partner in the affairs of the federation. The ground reality is that Chechnya has been politically mutiliated and humiliated under the Russian colonial rule since the Czars took over the mountainous region; Chechens are mere pawns caught up in the Russian pursuit for the Caspian Sea oil.
Mr. Putin may not agree, but repression and political machination and installing puppet regimes in Chechnya will not work in the long run. He may recoil from a political solution now but in the end Russians will have to sit on the other side of the table and talk to Chechens about a political settlement, possibly a referendum monitored by international election observers. If the majority of Chechens vote for independence, Russia should concede and accept the will of the Chechens, and it should be internationally recognized immediately.