Crosslines: Chechnya - How best to express concern

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Chechnya: how best to express concern
Even if a prolonged military ceasefire is achieved in Grozny and other parts of Chechnya, it will not necessarily mean an end to the fighting. Tamara Dragadze, a London-based analyst of Georgian origin, seeks to explain some of the reasons behind Russia's invasion of the territory and the challenges facing a peaceful resolution to the conflict

The sheer brutality of the war against the Chechens makes it difficult to see a way forward, how to play our part as concerned human beings, let alone specialists in the fields of Caucasian studies, politics, humanitarian aid or peace movements. Should our anger or concern be directed towards galvanizing Western governments into paying more political attention to the facts presented to them? Or should the warring parties themselves be confronted in their faraway lands?

One of the problems facing potential mediators is that it will prove difficult to decide where and with whom real peace talks should take place. There is certainly no enmity between local Russians and Chechens. Both have suffered from Russian army assaults. A majority of Russians polled have declared themselves against fighting the Chechens. Nor is the current war in Chechnya an "ethnic conflict" -- a buzzword which should be kept out of every reference to the invasion. So it seems that Western charitable organizations seeking to promote conciliation and dialogue, at least at the grassroots level, are not needed. The more one learns about the background of this war, the more complex it becomes to determine whom to target to bring an end to the fighting.

As one Russian journalist put it, Yeltsin is now a pseudonym for the unelected clique presently ruling Russia, which has emerged as the furtive instigator of this war. It is therefore difficult to expect such a secretive band to be willing to receive delegations of peacemakers composed of the world's great and good, however imposing or colourful, seeking to persuade Moscow to negotiate with the Chechens. Yet there are Russian politicians, journalists and citizens-at-large who are equally concerned about these developments. They are attempting to resist them and have demanded Western support to help bring about reforms and an end to the fighting.

For the war to stop, however, this clique will either have to be disbanded entirely, preferably by democratic means, or persuaded to relinquish its current military operations. It is perhaps in this context that human rights advocates, pressure groups, and other concerned individuals must seek a way forward.

The Russian military onslaught on Grozny has revealed an underbelly of authoritarian and belligerent structures in certain parts of the central government in Moscow which are genuinely threatening. The conditions prevailing in Chechnya prior to Moscow's decision to invade, particularly its timing and the way the war is now being handled, reveal ominous developments within the Russian body politic.

The Chechens, a mountainous people of just over a million, are indigenous to the Caucasus. They speak a language unique to the region and closely related only to the neighbouring Ingush. They have recently adopted the Latin alphabet although throughout the Soviet period they wrote in Cyrillic. They are Sunni Muslims with Sufi practices in which their folk customs and beliefs are deeply embedded; one of their forms of worship is called the zikr, where they dance and chant. Theirs is not an "imported" fundamentalist Islam from which the present Russian government has to save civilization. Chechen war cries of "Allah is Great" should be seen in their proper context. The fact that the pledge of allegiance in the United States includes a reference to "one nation under God" does not mean the American people are fanatic Christian fundamentalists.

The Russian justifications seeking to legitimize the assault are weak in the extreme. First, the economic argument that the three years of self-declared independence by the Chechen government leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, has been costing the central coffers in Moscow dearly in lost revenues, is not borne out by the realities. Chechnya is only around 50,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Costa Rica or slightly larger than Denmark. It has a little oil, around five million tonnes, which is a great asset for such a small country, but cannot compare to the vast oilfields of Siberia. Except for some industry, Chechnya consists primarily of mountain pasture. Tax revenues from local agriculture and industry are relatively insignificant for the Russian budget.

Another argument is that oil politics are the key to understanding - and thus forgiving - the Russian government's decision to destroy Grozny, the Chechen capital. Rebellious Chechnya allegedly thwarted Moscow's vital regional aspirations through its control of part of the oil pipeline. The Chechens have allegedly charged local passage fees, as they do in other parts of the Russian Federation, where the central government has turned a blind eye, both voluntarily or involuntarily. Chechnya, however, has continued to cooperate bilaterally with nearby Russian regions. The use of oil pipelines which traverse Grozny has been open to negotiation. Oil has never been sequestered and indeed was exported with Russian Federation licences providing some illicit gains to influential people in Moscow.

Interestingly, the Azerbaijani government which has just signed a large oil deal with a Western consortium has been seeking an alternative route for some time for its Caspian oil which the Russians have insisted should pass through their own territory, including Grozny. The Kazakhs are equally engaged in looking for alternative routes, to which Moscow has objected. Even if the Caspian Sea oil pipelines do not end up passing exclusively through Russian territory, the lost income to the central government will remain insignificant in comparison to the military and political cost of enforcing pipeline routes which their neighbours do not want.

Much has been made of the Chechen 'mafia' gangs, which the Russian assault against Grozny was supposed to destroy. These gangs are only one type of the numerous ethnically-based criminal groups inside and outside the Russian Federation. The business interests of the Chechen mafias, however, have remained based in Moscow, and it is they who have supported the largely Russian-designated Chechen opposition factions. To link the Dudayev government in Chechnya with the mightiest 'mafia' gangs makes no sense, since the Chechen leader himself has been the target of serious terrorist attacks.

There are also clearly racist overtones in Russian references to Chechens -- and Caucasians generally -- as "bandits," or sometimes "Oriental bandits." Discriminatory practices in Moscow of charging a local tax for anyone of "Caucasian nationality," whatever that may mean, for each day spent in the capital, while turning a blind eye to other visitors, is likely to prove to be anti-constitutional. It is regrettable that by and large the racist rhetoric linking the Chechens to powerful mafiosi networks is not recognized for what it is: an attempt to mislead gullible sections of Western opinion.

Another reason given by the invaders was that they must free Chechnya of its "illegitimate" government and its "illegal" president. It is notable that in August 1991 Dudayev was the only leader with President Akayev of Kirghyzstan to come out wholly and unequivocally against the communist putschists in Moscow and to support Boris Yeltsin and the new democracy. A week later, however, the newly established authorities in Moscow accused the Chechens of insurrection when a majority attempted to disband the conservative Communist Supreme Soviet in their own republic.

The Russian government furthermore has refused to recognise the validity of the election in which Dudayev received a majority of popular support. Although not all the Chechen population voted, the proportion was no lower than that which prevailed in apathetic Russia during the 1993 elections, the legitimacy of which has never been questioned. The stand-off has resulted in three years of lost opportunities to engage in dialogue, hardly a costly activity.

There have been patronizing descriptions from some Moscow and Western pundits alike that Chechen politics are based on backward clan loyalties. These assumed that not only was the loyalty to the Dudayev government merely clan-based but that it was confined to a restricted number of areas. The military believed that if they conquered these, the rest of the Chechen Republic would rejoice and welcome them with free access.

Although the role of clans is much overstated, the way kinship links are constructed in Chechen society, whereby relatives cannot marry each other, results in people having kinship networks that spread throughout the territory. Nevertheless, this does not imply that regional political allegiances are straightforward. Given that Chechen national pride is unlikely to be easily diluted by clan rivalries, they will certainly make Russia's conquest of the whole territory long and difficult.

What particularly irked the central government is that the Chechens have demanded independence. This is always a relative term. Europeans are becoming acutely aware of this in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty. The Moscow authorities, it appears, have been oblivious to the impact that all their racist threats and uncertainties resulting from insufficiently democratic structures both in government and the economy have been having on the Chechens. These so frightened the Chechens that they sought independence as the only way out of their predicament.

Moscow's spurning of the Chechen government's calls for talks did not reflect the democratic procedures they had pledged themselves to follow. Negotiations may well have been possible in which the Russian Federation's territorial integrity could have been maintained in formal terms while not offending the Chechens' sense of self-worth, at least for the time being. Now it will prove increasingly difficult for such a compromise to be reached in any voluntary way.<p>

The first significant military incursion by Tsarist Russia was in 1785-1791. The Chechens, however, scored some remarkable successes against their powerful invaders from the north. In the 19th century, Shamil led further resistance against the Russians in the North Caucasus lasting several decades. Many Chechens were finally expelled from Imperial Russia and their descendants today are dispersed in various parts of the Middle East. (See the CROSSLINES article in this issue by Marie Bennigsen Broxup). When Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev presented evidence of Middle East passport holders fighting in Chechnya as Muslim mercenaries, he conveniently concealed the fact that they have been mostly Diaspora Chechens.

Even when the Bolsheviks tried to subdue the North Caucasians in 1921, the inhabitants mounted an uprising. In 1944, Stalin used trumped charges to justify having the whole Chechen population deported for collaborating with the Germans who, in fact, had never made it to the territory. A significant number perished while travelling. When they were allowed to return, they found their holy shrines desecrated, family tombstones used for paving in Grozny, and they were forced to submit to a harsher political regime than other Soviet peoples in the Caucasus.

One poignant example of their lack of confidence in a future under the Russians is that Chechen scholars have continued for decades to be concerned about the fate of the ethnic artifacts they have gathered in their local museum. The sense of insecurity among the Chechens cannot be over-estimated. This should be taken into account in any prudent policy by Western and other governments toward them.

Russia's claim that the current implacable war against the Chechens is necessary to defend its statehood is not borne out by looking at the map. Chechnya is entirely landlocked within the Russian Federation with an external frontier only with Georgia. This can hardly pose a threat to Russia. Neither is it likely that the Chechens would form an ominous anti-Russian alliance with the separatist Abkhazians along the Black Sea.

It should not be forgotten that in 1993 Russian Defence Minister Grachev declared that Moscow had to defend the Abkhazians against the Georgians because "Russia needed an extended Black Sea coast." The boomerang effect of such policy, however, will now come to haunt him not only from Georgia. Some specialists' pleas that the Russian military industrial complex should better control its weapons inventory should have been heeded long ago; let us not forget that the Chechens are fighting with Russian weapons.

Besides fellow North Caucasians, other nationalities, regardless of religion, such as the West Ukrainian volunteers, have come to the aid of the Chechens. The Chechen plight which the international media has conveyed has also awakened outrage from fellow Muslims. The Russians could find themselves facing a long and costly war of attrition.

The democrats in Russia who oppose the war, including Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sergei Kovalyev, the human rights campaigner, and organizations such as the Soldiers' Mothers' Union have been appalled at the inept and grudging support they have received from Western governments. Seventy percent of public opinion in Moscow is against the use of brutal force as are elements within the Russian parliament and the armed forces. These opinions have to be encouraged. Otherwise Russia will return to the old ways with tanks deployed against striking miners and demonstrators, or with efforts to clampdown on free media coverage, something that has already been attempted. This is not the Russia that anyone should want. Nor is it one which the Russian people deserve.

Tamara Dragadze is a fellow of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London.

=A9Copyright: CROSSLINES Global Report 1995. Uploaded with permission.