The Road to peace in Chechnya: A Russian Liberal's Perspective

by Dmitri Furman, Doctor of History
Translated and edited by Edward Kline

Once again war is raging in Chechnya. Unfortunately, it is easier to begin wars than to end them. Chechens, who tend to be fragmented and disorganized in peacetime, display an amazing ability to unite to fight an external enemy. Driven into a corner, the Chechens will once again resist fiercely. To die in battle against Russia -- their hereditary foe will secure them entry into paradise and a place of honor in the legends of their people. Fighting is a lot simpler than organizing a proper government.

Our most serious problem, however, is not the conduct of the war. Reading the battle reports, hoping for victory, feeling sorry for our soldiers and sometimes even for the Chechens, we have lost sight of the most important thing -- What can we gain from victory and how can the war end?

A Russian victory over the Chechens can at best be temporary. Russia and the world have changed since the days of the Tsar and Stalin: it is no longer possible simply to kill off the Chechens or to deport them all to Central Asia or the Middle East. Moreover, it is unrealistic to think that Chechnya can be turned into a normal subject of the Russian Federation or that the Chechen people can be integrated into Russian society. The peaceful coexistence of Russians and Chechens within the framework of a single state might have been possible before the 1994-1996 war, but now, after all that has happened and especially after the wounds we have recently inflicted on each other, it has become completely impracticable.

After killing a lot of Chechens and losing many of our own soldiers, we may be able to impose an occupation regime on the territory of Chechnya. However, this can be accomplished only temporarily and at the cost of serious harm to our own rudimentary democratic institutions. If previous generations of Chechens were brought up on tales of nineteenth century resistance to the Russian Tsars and deportation of their whole nation to Central Asia by Stalin, future generations will hear about the defense of Grozny and the heroes of recent battles. Sooner rather than later, we are likely to see campaigns of terror directed by Chechens and Muslim extremists and new revolts against Russian rule. The final result will all the same be Chechen independence from Russia. Victory followed by the subjugation of Chechnya might well turn out to be worse for Russia than defeat.

What does Russia need from Chechnya and what does Chechnya need from Russia? If we leave aside all psychological considerations v the instinctive reluctance to surrender what is "yours," the desire for revenge, the urge to show off your strength v and examine only the real interests of the Russian and Chechen nations, then they lead to the same conclusion: Russia needs to rid itself of Chechnya. As long as Chechnya remains inside the Russian Federation, it will continue to be an indigestible and destabilizing factor. All Chechens dream of freeing themselves from Russia, which is irrevocably linked in their minds with Russia=A6s brutal nineteenth century war of conquest, their mass deportation to Central Asia in 1994, the 1994-1996 war, and the current bombings of Grozny and other Chechen towns.

The separation of Russia and Chechnya is clearly necessary and inevitable in light of the painful history of our two hundred year involvement with each other.

It is another matter that a prerequisite for an amicable divorce is the creation of a proper, viable and nonaggressive Chechen state, a difficult task for Chechens who lack any tradition of a cohesive civil society and an effective government. And that task has been made all the more difficult by the events of the last eight years: a revolution which swept away Russian officials and bureaucrats together with the few experienced Chechen administrators, followed by a war which destroyed Chechnya=A6s economy, leaving in its wake a great number of unemployed young men with ready access to weapons and a propensity to use them, and which at the same time brought to power successful military commanders who turned out to be poor politicians and awful managers.

Still, the task is far from hopeless. Many nations have passed through periods of anarchy in the early stages of their history and managed to emerge from them and establish a normal, viable state. I do not think the problem of creating an effective Chechen state is any more difficult than establishing the Rule of Law in Russia v these closely connected problems may be complex but they are solvable. Although the project will require the combined efforts of Chechnya, Russia, and the international community, Russia by itself can do a great deal to help the Chechens create a viable state.

We should convince the Chechens that we no longer want to keep them in the Russian Federation by force. If we can accomplish this, it will go a long way toward easing the tension between Russia and Chechnya and within Chechen society, where the opposition to President Maskhadov has insisted v correctly, as it turned out -- that the Khasavyurt agreement ending the 1994-1996 war was viewed by Russia as only a temporary truce and not a durable peace treaty.

We should treat with respect and thereby strengthen the Chechen government of President Maskhadov, which we recognized as legitimate when President Yeltsin signed the May 12, 1997, agreement stipulating that "The high contracting parties, wishing to end many centuries of antagonism and striving to establish durable, equal and mutually beneficial relations have agreed:

  • 1) To renounce forever the use or threat of force to decide disputes;
  • [and] 2) To construct their relations in conformity with the generally-accepted principles and norms of international law..."
    We should spell out the conditions that are necessary and sufficient for Russia and other countries to recognize Chechnya=A6s independence v a referendum on independence, a democratic constitution, effective control of the army and police, agreement on the status of Chechens residing in the Russian Federation and Russians residing in Chechnya, a treaty regulating future relations between Russia and Chechnya . We should help Chechnya establish cultural and educational links, as well as normal diplomatic relations, with other countries.

To be sure, the ambiguous status of Chechnya and the fragmented nature of Chechen society are only part of the problem. The hostility most Russians feel toward Chechens and the substantial role the Chechen war is playing in today=A6s frantic Russian politics may be even greater obstacles to an early and rational settlement of the conflict. Until we Russians decide to grant Chechnya its independence, Chechens will either be fighting us, or, if conquered by us, will seethe with discontent, periodically boiling over into terrorist acts and armed revolts against us. We can and must begin promptly the process of ending in civilized fashion Russia=A6s rule over Chechnya so that our children and grandchildren will not be faced with "the Chechen problem" in a still more dangerous form.