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Chechnya: Analysis From Washington -- Back to Bukhara?

Washington, D.C.; 3 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has now proposed three "solutions" for the Chechen conflict, all drawn from 19th century Russian history.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow last week, Gorbachev suggested that Chechnya might become an "associate member" rather than a "subject" of the Russian Federation. And he held up as possible models the pre-1863 Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Finland, and the Emirate of Bukhara.

Gorbachev's suggestion that Chechnya become an "associate member" of the Federation is unlikely to win support from either the Chechens who want independence or the Russians who want to prevent that from happening. Instead, it simply recalls Gorbachev's failed efforts in 1990-91 to try to solve ethnic problems in the U.S.S.R. by coming up with new names rather than real solutions.

And neither the Chechens nor the Russians are likely to find much to like in Gorbachev's historical models. Neither is likely to see 19th century Poland or Finland as a genuine way out. But some, out of ignorance or otherwise, may find the idea of a new Emirate of Bukhara superficially attractive.

The Emirate of Bukhara was the product of a great game between Russia and Great Britain in Central Asia during the 19th century. St. Petersburg recognized it as a protectorate to keep the British out without being as concerned about pushing its own authority in, and London viewed it as a buffer between British and Russian zones.

From a Chechen perspective, Russian recognition of their territory as a protectorate, an independent country whose foreign and defense policies are controlled by Moscow, would represent a major step forward toward the complete independence they now seek. And perhaps many Chechens would be willing to end the fighting for some period of time.

From a Russian perspective, this idea may attract some support -- but possibly for some reasons that on examination are less than attractive.

Such a formula might give Moscow the fig leaf it appears to need to cover the loss of Russian control over Chechnya.

But one of the major reasons that such an idea could be put forward and find support is that it plays to the generalized intolerance that many Russians feel towards virtually all Muslim groups living on the former Soviet space, an intolerance that has provided support for Moscow's continuing policy of expelling "persons of Caucasian nationality" from the Russian capital.

That is because it brushes over the very real differences between 19th century Bukhara and twentieth century Chechnya. If the emir of Bukhara was a brutal leader who frequently decapitated or otherwise tortured his prisoners and who kept his population in almost medieval conditions, the Chechens of today are something very different.

They are a modern people, with the education and discipline necessary to stand up to the overwhelmingly larger Russian forces and to defeat them in the field.

To fail to recognize this is to slander the Chechens of today and to play into the hands of those Russian officials who believe that virtually any methods are justified against them.

Gorbachev's latest proposal is unlikely to attract widespread support even among Russian officials looking for a way out. The Chechen future is not going to be defined by the Bukharan past.

Rather, the appearance of such ideas now reflects the intellectual poverty of a man who never understood the nationality problem in his own country and the almost complete absence of any new ideas in Moscow on how to square the circle between Moscow's desires to keep Chechnya in the Russian Federation and Chechen aspirations for independence.