Chechnya: Carnival of Reaction

FRFI 152 February / March 2000

Background to the conflict
Conflict between Russia and Chechnya goes back centuries. In recent times, an expanding Imperial Russia forcibly incorporated Chechnya in 1859. Shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, in May 1918, the North Caucasus Republic, which included Chechnya and Dagestan, declared independence. In September 1919, a North Caucasian Emirate was proclaimed. This proclamation led to an invasion of Chechnya by the Red Army in 1920 who suppressed anti-Bolshevik resistance by 1921. Chechnya became an autonomous region of the USSR from 1922 to 1936 when it was allied to Ingushetia as the Autonomous Republic of Chechno-Ingush.

After a short period of social tranquillity the collectivisation of agriculture, which was fiercely resisted by the Chechen peasantry, led to serious social unrest and rebellion. By the start of World War II the Chechen rebels had come to view the Nazi invaders as liberators. Only Hitler's orders to treat them as sub-humans, with the consequent repression, denied the Nazis the opportunity to create a significant anti-Soviet force.

From 1944 onwards Stalin ordered the wholesale deportation of people from the region for treason, and they were dispersed to Soviet Central Asia. An estimated 30% never completed the journey. This situation was reversed by Khruschev in 1957 and the Chechno-Ingush republic was restored.

The demise of the Soviet Union prompted the Supreme Soviet of the Chechno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to adopt a Declaration of State Sovereignty in 1990 that defined Chechnya as an independent entity. In November 1991, General Dzhokhar Dudayev gained power and the region declared its independence. After a brief attempt to squash the rebellion, Moscow adopted a negotiating strategy and in 1992, Chechnya was recognised by Russia to be an autonomous republic in its own right.

Background to the war
Despite formally recognising Chechnya's right of autonomy in 1992 the Russian's played a cynical double game by backing anti-separatist forces opposed to Dudayev. By August 1994, full-blown civil war had developed and Russian forces entered Chechnya in December 1994 and bombarded the capital, Grozny.

The 1994-5 war was characterised by its brutal nature with 40,000 civilians dead and 250,000 made refugees by the first quarter of 1995. By June of that year, Russian troops had captured the majority of Chechnya's cities and the Chechen rebels fell back on guerilla warfare. The Russians lost many (possibly 3,000) soldiers, many of them inexperienced conscripts, in fierce close quarter street fighting and it is important to recall this when Russian tactics in the present war are examined later.

Two thousand hostages were taken on 14 June in Budennovsk. Following peace and hostage release negotiations in Grozny, an agreement was signed in July 1995. This was a peace agreement on paper only, as further fighting broke out in December 1995, and in January 1996, more hostages were taken in southern Russia after a Chechen incursion. After being guaranteed safe passage home the Chechens were intercepted at the border town of Pervomayskoye and subjected to an enormous artillery barrage.

In August 1996, on the eve of Boris Yeltsin's presidential inauguration, Chechen insurgents attacked Grozny in force. Murders of aid workers in December 1996 persuaded all of the international aid agencies to withdraw from Chechnya and by January 1997 all Russian Interior Ministry troops were announced to have left the region on Yeltsin's orders. On 27 January 1997 Aslan Mashadov was elected president of Chechnya with 63% of the vote and immediately affirmed that he wished to speed up the process of independence previously put on hold until 2001.

The war today
The Russian populace was generally cynical and apathetic about the situation in Grozny until a series of terror bombings of Moscow apartment buildings, which left 300 Muscovites dead, reignited the issue as one of national pride and dealing with terrorism. Whether the bombings were carried out by Chechen Islamic fundamentalists or a branch of the Soviet security services we shall probably never know. What we do know is that the indignation and fear provoked by the terror bombings proved highly useful in psychologically preparing the Russian population for war.

In October 1999 Russian forces again invaded Chechnya and by 13 December were moving into Grozny. Learning from the 1994-6 campaigns, which had exposed the Russian army as poorly led and equipped, leading to large loss of life, different tactics are now being used. On the way to Grozny villages have simply been razed by a tremendous barrage of ground and air-borne cannon fire. In this manner, street fighting has been largely avoided and where it is necessary, specialist troops are being used. The Russians have warned all inhabitants to leave Grozny, which they have threatened to simply liquidate and rebuild somewhere else.

Again, the result in terms of human suffering has been immense with estimates of deaths put at 10,000, and 250,000 – nearly a quarter of the total Chechen population – turned into refugees.

It is estimated that 30-50,000 people are trapped in Grozny including many ethnic Russians.

All military analysts agree that the Russian occupation of Grozny is inevitable, and the real questions are when and at what cost? If Russia starts losing large quantities of troops the initial enthusiasm for the war, an enthusiasm which Yeltsin's successor Vladimir Putin sees as vital for his success in the forthcoming presidential campaign, may quickly evaporate. The Russians may exert artillery control of territory, but the Chechen forces have proved adept

at night skirmishing and limited counter-attacks thereby prolonging the campaign to Russian disadvantage. The Russians are responding with air and artillery barrages of extraordinary intensity.

Motives of the Russian ruling elite
There is no doubt that the Russians see Chechnya as a matter of overall territorial integrity and a struggle that they must win at any price. Economically the formal loss of Chechnya would mean that the Federation would be deprived of its largest oilfields, timber, engineering, building materials and chemical industries. Furthermore, of the 21 republics and 68 regions which make up the Federation, some at least would see a Chechen victory as a green light for a similar outbreak of rebellion. The loss of Chechnya could signal the eventual dissolution of the whole Federation as a viable entity. It may even be that the brutality of the Russian response to the Chechens is aimed at sending a forceful message to the other component parts of the Federation.

Politically the Chechen war has proved useful for the criminal elements in the Kremlin who now run Russia as coverage of the profound social and economic crisis has been displaced from the media, and Putin has been able to portray himself as the essential strongman to become president.

The aim of the Kremlin in Chechnya is to reassert Russia's control of the area thereby strengthening their bargaining position with the imperialist governments and Western banks. The aims of both the Kremlin and the imperialist governments are identical: the exploitation of the Russian and Caucasian peoples.

National liberation struggle?
The Islamic separatist forces in Chechnya have been able to exploit some of the historic grievances against Russia mentioned earlier, but their overall aims and aspirations differ in no essential manner from the Kremlin's. It is absolutely vital to record, however, that a victory for the Islamic militants would be a catastrophe for the people of the region, especially for women, whose social and economic role would revert to one similar to that enforced by the pre-feudal Taliban in Afghanistan or the barbaric Mullah-led regime in Iran. These varied bands of Chechen rebels do not constitute any form of genuine national liberation movement. They are not opposed to imperialism and in fact call for greater inward investment. Far from manifesting any mass democratic aspirations, the Chechen separatists want to establish their own direct connection to world capitalism via the 'national independence' struggle. There is nothing progressive about the Chechen rebels; the issue is one of exactly who in the gangster ruling elite will profit from drugs, racketeering and prostitution and be able to negotiate the best deals in exploiting Chechnya's natural resources.

Role of Western imperialism
The dissolution of Russia would inevitably lead to massive instability and dramatically diminish the possibility of the imperialists actually getting any of their loans back, never mind doing any useful trade. From a military point of view, the situation of tiny 'states' with nuclear weapons is a potential nightmare scenario for the imperialists.

Even at the height of the 'human rights' rhetoric, Clinton was scrupulously careful to condemn terrorism and to note that the Russians had the right to defend their territorial integrity. Talk of 'human rights' from the terror bombers of Serbia, can be treated as the hypocrisy it is when one recalls that it was precisely these governments who promoted Yeltsin and his gangster government as a democratic gain for Russia! Whilst a tiny elite got rich quick by old fashioned plunder, 'democracy' for the great majority of people meant mass unemployment, homelessness and impoverishment.

The war against Chechnya is being fought to defend the interests of the new Russian elite. The expansion of NATO and the terror bombing of Serbia/Kosovo have increased fears that the West may attempt to challenge Russian influence over the Caucasus. In response to US plans to unilaterally junk the 1972 Anti- Ballistic Missile treaty, and also in recognition of the decay of its conventional forces the Russian's have discarded their 'no first use' of nuclear weapons pledge.

Lessons for socialists
What long-term lessons can socialists learn from the horrific events in Chechnya? After all, we have societies here with origins unique in history. Post-capitalist societies which have reverted to a type of primitive capitalist accumulation.

The resurgence of intense nationalism, which itself played some role in the break up of the erstwhile USSR, indicates that the Soviet policy of repressing nationalist sentiment only drove it underground. The same is true of religious belief. The Soviet government failed to combat nationalism and religion ideologically. This obviously embodies lessons for the long-term socialist project.

The communist movement, using that term generally, has tended to underestimate the influence of nationalist and religious ideology on people. It is an indispensable lesson to learn for the future.

Ted Talbot


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