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Revisiting the First Chechen War

Chechnya -- Chechen women and men pass by a Russian armoured personnel carrier in front of the destroyed presidential palace in Grozny. Feb1996.

Chechnya -- Chechen women and men pass by a Russian armoured personnel carrier in front of the destroyed presidential palace in Grozny. Feb1996.

This December marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the First Chechen War, one of the first regional conflicts to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of new, sovereign states. Aslan Doukaev, Director of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, sat down with contributor Kevin Black and provided these insights on the meaning of the war, its implications today, and the impact of RFE/RL reporting in the region.

Kevin Black:How would you characterize the original conflict?

Aslan Doukaev: The formal beginning of the conflict is considered to be December 11, when Russia’s land troops entered the territory of Chechnya, but hostilities started even before then. Russia had already been bombing parts of Chechnya for weeks. We knew something major was going to happen. The separatist government in Chechnya tried to avoid a full-blown war. The then-president of Chechnya even went to meet the Russian defense minister, where they formally signed a paper stating that there would be no conflict, but the war was already going on. We don’t know exactly how many people died. Reports of the number of civilian deaths from the Chechen side vary from 60,000 to 70,000, even to 200,000; nobody really tried to count. It was a personal apocalypse in the lives of everyone who saw it.

Black: What were the primary goals of the separatists?

Doukaev: When the Soviet Union collapsed, constituent members of the Soviet Union, countries like Ukraine, Estonia, and Uzbekistan, all became independent countries. So the leaders of the Chechen national movement thought they had a right to secede from the Russian Federation. That was the primary goal of the separatists: they wanted an independent state. They were not very strict in their demands, and they thought they would accommodate Russia’s wishes, too. They sought a kind of broad autonomy and were very open to all sorts of negotiations. They just wanted guarantees from Russia that tragedies like the deportations of 1944, when Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia and Siberia, wouldn’t happen again. Broad autonomy or independence from Russia was a centuries-long aspiration of the Chechen people. We have a pretty bloody history of coexistence with Russians.

Black: Did the role of religion alter the conflict over time?

Doukaev: Yes, it did. The Soviet Union wasn’t exactly the most religious place. It wasn’t openly atheist, but religion was suppressed. It was suppressed not only in Russia, but also in many other parts of the former Soviet Union. Chechens weren’t that religious initially, but the experiences of the war, the tragedy which everyone suffered, somehow brought this idea of religion as a haven, as another source of identity, which is a very old and never-dying source of human identity. A lot of people embraced their roots, and that is how the Chechen national movement slowly began to transform into a national religious movement.

Black: Chechen fighters are participating in the conflict in Ukraine. How do you explain their involvement?

Doukaev: Ukraine is now the arena of a certain conflict between Russian-oriented and Western-oriented forces. The people sent to fight against the Ukrainian government are sent by the Russian government. They are pro-Russian forces. This is all coordinated by the Russian security forces, and they are mostly servicemen. The Ukrainian side is made up of Chechen nationalists who are motivated by the feeling of injustice they see. These are mostly people who travel to Ukraine from Europe and help out the Ukrainian forces.

Black: There have been reports of refugees from the Ukraine crisis seeking safe haven in the North Caucasus. Is that causing tension in the region?

Doukaev: It is beginning to cause problems simply because people see double standards. There are Caucasian refugees from Syria who are residing in the North Caucasus who are not getting one tenth of the attention from the Russian government compared to those who fled Ukraine. The plight of a refugee is really bad everywhere, but people see that the government helps refugees from Ukraine and ignores those from Syria. It is causing a certain amount of resentment.

Black: There is evidence that Chechens are also fighting in Syria and Iraq. What is drawing militants to the region?

Doukaev: This is much more difficult to explain. There is a lot of exaggeration. The role of Chechens in the Middle East is blown out of all proportion. There is just a handful of people, but for some reason the red beards of these commanders became a symbol of outside intervention in this Middle Eastern conflict.

On the other hand, an important contributor to the never-ending stream of volunteers to fight in the conflict is the police brutality and lack of recourse to justice. A lot of people who joined the insurgents in Chechnya, some of whom have called us, say they were detained by police and were tortured for days. The cruelty they experience at the hands of security forces, and with no way to punish them, drives the young people, who are impressionable, into the insurgency. They will tell you they saw and suffered injustice, and now want revenge.

Black: Is one reason they have garnered such attention related to their success on the battlefield?

Doukaev: Those Chechens who are there are battle-hardened. They have experience, and so of course they would fight better than a kid from a local village with no experience. They know how to operate all the military vehicles, some have served in the Russian army, some in the Georgian army, they have formal training. To my personal mortification, “Chechens” are now any outsider who comes and fights valiantly. In general, it is my firm belief that the role of Chechens is exaggerated in the Middle East.

Black: Moving forward, do you see any chance that Putin would move toward reintroducing regional elections or greater local autonomy for Chechnya?

Doukaev: Putin prefers the status quo. Local elites run the place, pledge formal allegiance to Moscow, bring suitcases of money to Moscow, and are given carte blanche to govern. I think Putin prefers this state of affairs, but this is a dead end. I think people want their voices to be heard. The region should have the right to elect their leaders. There is a need to put an end to this massive disenfranchisement politically, economically, and on other levels. Unless that is done, I do not see a bright future.

Black: How do you assess the impact of the North Caucasus Service’s reporting?

Doukaev: First and foremost, we only broadcast in three languages in the region, but there are dozens of them. We are the most respected media in these three languages, which is what we feel and see from reviews of our programming. I know a lot of people are grateful for the opportunity to see what we do and hear our programs, and they know it is not the Russian government financing this program, but the United States government. It is the best public policy the U.S government can pursue in our region.

Black: Obviously, reporting in the region can be dangerous. What are the biggest challenges your journalists face?

Doukaev: If I tell you that, it will make our work even more difficult.