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Analysis: Look Back In Anger -- Ten Years Of War In Chechnya

  • Liz Fuller --> Ten years ago, on 11 December 1994, the Russian Army rolled into Chechnya on orders from Russian President Boris Yeltsin in a bid to overthrow then Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev, who had proclaimed Chechnya's independence from the Russian Federation three years earlier. That military intervention heralded almost a decade of war in which Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov estimates that 250,000 Chechen civilians have been killed, and the Chechen capital, Grozny, has been largely destroyed. Russian troop deaths over that period are estimated at between 15,000-30,000, compared with the 14,453 Soviet troops killed between 1979 and 1989 in Afghanistan.

In the course of the past decade, Moscow's rationale for what Chechen officials have termed a deliberate and relentless campaign of genocide against the Chechen people has shifted dramatically. Yeltsin's stated initial intention was to prevent the Chechen Republic Ichkeria from breaking away from the Russian Federation. Its mercurial president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, had proclaimed Chechnya's independence on 6 September 1991. That move, according to former Chechen Culture Minister Akhmed Zakaev, was fully in conformity with the law passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet on 26 April 1990 "On the Division of Powers between the USSR and the Federation Subjects," which granted the autonomous republics and regions the same right to secede from the USSR that the union republics had always had -- in theory, if not in practice.

Yeltsin's Chechen War

In the summer of 1994, a Moscow-backed Provisional Council launched a bid to oust Dudaev. After several months of inconclusive skirmishing culminating in an abortive assault on Grozny in late November, and after Dudaev ignored several ultimatums from Moscow to capitulate, Yeltsin sent in the Russian military, confident of a swift and relatively painless victory.

In the event, the first Chechen campaign lasted a total of one year and eight months. In early August 1996, the Chechen resistance launched a major offensive and within days succeeded in winning back control of Grozny. In late August, Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed traveled to Chechnya where he and Maskhadov, then Chechen chief of staff, signed first a formal cease-fire agreement (in Novye Atagi on 22 August) and then, nine days later in Khasavyurt, Daghestan, a statement outlining the nature of future peaceful bilateral relations between Moscow and Grozny.

Those two agreements paved the way for the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Chechnya by 31 December 1996; the election of Maskhadov as Chechen president in January 1997 in a ballot recognized as free, fair, and legitimate by both Moscow and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; and the signing in May 1997 in Moscow by Yeltsin and Maskhadov of a further agreement on bilateral relations.

But Maskhadov proved unable to impose his authority, and Chechnya in 1997-98 became a byword for lawlessness, smuggling, and gratuitous brutality -- as epitomized by the abduction and decapitation in late 1998 of four Western telecommunications engineers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 December 1998).

Disruptive Islamic Elements

Beginning in early 1999, a group of radical Chechen field commanders led by Shamil Basaev set about undermining Maskhadov's position, demanding the imposition of Islamic law throughout Chechnya.

In August of that year, Basaev launched an incursion into Daghestan and proclaimed an independent Islamic North Caucasus state. Over the next few weeks, several hundred people were killed in a series of apartment-building bombings in Russian cities that the authorities blamed, on the flimsiest of evidence, on Chechen militants. Although President Maskhadov denounced those attacks and distanced himself from Basaev's inconclusive attack on Daghestan, Russian aircraft began bombing Chechen villages. The Russian military launched its new offensive on 1 October.

Putin's Chechen War

Insofar as the stated purpose of the first Chechen war was to preserve Russia's territorial integrity, Yeltsin made repeated overtures to the Chechen leadership to begin negotiations on a treaty that would grant Chechnya extensive autonomy within Russia. Not so Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin. During the second war, it has been Maskhadov who repeatedly proposed first foreign mediation -- by then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, NATO, or the UN (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 14 October and 18 November 1999) -- and then a settlement plan that would preserve Chechnya's ties to the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003, and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 June 2004). Putin, however, rejected or ignored all such proposals, arguing from the outset that that there is no point in conducting talks with Maskhadov because he does not control the situation in Chechnya (meaning Basaev and his men). Other Russian officials have said that the only issue on which talks could be held with Maskhadov is his surrender.

Even before the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Putin was at pains to convince the international community that the second Chechen war was in fact an "antiterrorist campaign" to halt the spread of fundamentalist Islam across the North Caucasus. Echoing that argument, Russian military spokesmen have repeatedly claimed that the Chechen resistance forces include countless foreign mercenaries, many, but not all of them radical Muslims. But for the past five years, the Russian troops in Chechnya have indiscriminately targeted not only members of the Chechen resistance, but tens of thousands of innocent civilians who have been either summarily shot, or abducted, tortured, and then ransomed to their families. There has been one publicized attempt by a moderate Russian politician during that time to persuade the Russian leadership to explore the possibility of negotiating an end to the war, by former Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin in the summer of 2002 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 September 2002). But that initiative was effectively nixed by the Moscow theater hostage taking by Chechen militants in October 2002 in which some 130 people died.

That operation was masterminded by Basaev, who was seriously wounded during the second Chechen retreat from Grozny in February 2000 but has since recovered from his injuries and managed to evade capture (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 November 2004). One could, in fact, argue that it is Basaev more than any other single individual who has fuelled the spiraling mutual animosity and alienation between successive Russian leaderships and the Chechen people -- beginning with the seizure of hostages in a hospital in Budennovsk in June 1995, and ending with the Beslan school hostage taking in September 2004.

Yet despite the prodigious financial rewards Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has offered for the capture of both Basaev and Maskhadov, the two men remain at liberty. That failure to apprehend them, in turn, fuels speculation that there are several components to the Russian military's engagement in Chechnya. On the one hand, Russian generals insist that there can be no repeat of the "capitulation" signed at Khasavyurt in 1996, and that this time around the leaders of the organized resistance must be either killed or captured. But on the other hand, as even former Russian troop commander Colonel General Vladimir Moltenskoi has admitted, some Russian officers are making fortunes from the present war by presiding over, and cashing in on, the clandestine export to other Russian regions of Chechen oil and scrap metal. An additional form of personal self-enrichment available not only to the top brass but also the rank and file is the ransacking during search operations for fugitive resistance fighters of civilian homes, during which anything of value, from jewelry to television sets, is removed at gunpoint. An end to the war would also mean an end to such economic opportunities.

'Chechenization' Not Normalization

Nor has President Putin's reliance on the policy of "Chechenization," first advocated by political scientist and North Caucasus expert Emil Pain in January 1995, brought about the desired "normalization" of the political situation in Chechnya. As Yeltsin did in 1995-96, Putin has installed a succession of loyal Chechen politicians to head a pro-Moscow administration. But unlike Yeltsin, Putin sought to give those appointments some semblance of legitimacy by organizing two successive elections in which all respected rival candidates were barred from running and the final outcome was blatantly rigged.

The first of those appointees, former mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, miraculously survived countless assassination attempts before being killed in May 2004 in a terrorist bombing for which Basaev (again) claimed responsibility. His successor, former Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, appears to be increasingly sidelined by Kadyrov's unstable son Ramzan, who commands a "presidential guard" numbering several thousand men who have become known for their brutality.

In addition, Putin is scaling back the Russian troop presence in Chechnya and has transferred part of the responsibility for eradicating the resistance to Kadyrov's presidential guard and the Chechen police force -- which is composed to a large extent of former resistance fighters who took advantage of successive amnesties to surrender.

Meanwhile in Moscow, the Russian government has adopted a series of blueprints for the reconstruction of essential infrastructure in Chechnya and earmarked billions of rubles to finance such work. For years, however, the lion's share of such funds has been embezzled, frequently with the connivance of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration.

Chance For Peace?

Assuming that Maskhadov and Basaev remain at liberty, the current situation of low-level guerrilla activity on the part of the resistance and punitive reprisals against Chechen civilians by the Russian military and the "kadyrovtsy" could continue indefinitely -- unless or until Basaev makes good on his recent threat to attack civilian targets in Western countries that have failed to condemn Russian atrocities in Chechnya or pressure Putin to withdraw his troops. Should that happen, Putin might succeed in recruiting his own "coalition of the willing" to solve the "Chechen problem" once for all time. On the other hand, killing or capturing Basaev and Maskhadov would demolish the international community's hopes for a political settlement to the conflict, as there would be no resistance leader of stature and influence to negotiate with.

Whatever happens, a swift end to the unimaginable suffering of an entire nation remains a remote, if not utopian prospect. And already, the war in Chechnya threatens to destabilize neighboring Ingushetia, from where hundreds of young men whose relatives have been killed or abducted by the FSB are flocking to fight under Basaev's banner.

[See also "Ten Years After -- The Logic Behind The First Chechen War".]