The Russian government believes that the controversial referendum of 2003 has validated Russian sovereignty over Chechnya and claims that the country is now entering an era of peace and stability. However, the facts on the ground suggest otherwise. In May the President of Chechnya, who worked closely with the Kremlim, was blown up by separatists. On the 12th of July, Chechen nationalists attempted to kill the interim President and 42 people were killed in battles on the same day. There are regular attacks on Russian troops in the region and Chechen Islamic extremists have been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks outside of Chechnya.
Conflict between Chechens and Russians dates back to the Russian invasion of the Caucasas region at the end of the 18th century. The Chechens were only one of many culturally and ethnically distinct peoples forcibly absorbed into the Russian Empire. The Russian state has never fully subdued the Chechen people and there have been sporadic armed uprisings in the region but Russian military might and forced cultural assimilation has kept Chechen separatism in check. The darkest chapter of Russian misrule in Chechnya was the forced deportation of the entire Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944. Over 30% of these people died within a year and those who survived faced legal restrictions on their language and culture. This extraordinary act of ethnic cleansing didn't fully succeed and the Chechens moved back to their homeland in 1957 after their "rehabilitation" by Khrushchev.
As the USSR crumbled in the early 1990's, the Chechens made several botched attempts to establish an independent state. Squabbling amongst various Chechen factions and Russian policies in the region led to war between 1994 and 1996. The conflict blew up with even greater ferocity in 1999 after bombs were set off in several Russian cities. The Russian government claimed it was the work of Chechen separatists - although this continues to be disputed - and launched an invasion. During this crisis Putin emerged as a major political figure by advocating war as the solution to the problems in Chechnya. In fact, Putin's zeal for war ensured his victory in the presidential election that year. One bloody year later Putin declared victory in Chechnya but the conflict has ground on ever since - albeit at a lower level of intensity.
The human cost of the war has been truly appalling. The Russian state has never shown a great deal of respect for human rights either inside or outside its borders and the war in Chechnya has been prosecuted with unrelenting brutality and with absolutely no concern for civilian casualties. The Russian army has used rockets and aerial bombardment to reduce towns and cities to rubble. It has been estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians and between 13,000 and 20,000 combatants have died since 1994 (out of a population of one million). Human rights groups have also found evidence that the Russian army is guilty of torture, illegal detention, extortion, looting and rape.
Putin's warmongering has also cost tens of thousands of Russian lives. The majority of soldiers sent to Chechnya are badly trained and ill-treated working class conscripts and are clearly regarded by the Russian state as little more than battlefield offal. The Kremlin has consistently shown scant regard for the men sent to die in Chechnya to defend the geo-political interests of the Russian elite and to ensure their continuing control over the Transcaucasian oil pipelines.
Predictably, Putin has, in the wake of September 11th, been quick to use the self-righteous and bloated rhetoric of the "war on terror" to defend Russian state terrorism in Chechnya. Just as predictably, Western leaders have, for reasons of political expediency, chosen to ignore the destruction of Chechnya. The pattern is depressingly familiar; as in Iraq and Palestine the simplistic and self-serving actions of the global elite has exacerbated complex ethnic and political conflicts and encouraged the growth of Islamic extremism. Its clear that the likes of Bush and Putin will happily wade through blood while talking about morality.
There is no end in sight for the Chechen people who are caught between the blind militarism of the Russian state and a resistance movement increasingly dominated by the nihilistic politics of Islamic extremism and world leaders who believe in "moral massacres" or tactful silence in the face of brutality.
by Jimmy Finnegan
[This article was written before the Breslan massacre]
This edition is No82 published in September 2004