Chechnya Freedom Struggle- Yeltsin's Vietnam?
indpolitics at igc.apc.org
Tue Mar 14 15:36:33 MST 1995
Chechnya Freedom Struggle -- Yeltsin's Vietnam?
By ALEX CHIS
(This article is from the March/April issue of "Independent
Politics." Subscriptions are $12/yr in the US and Canada, $24
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Chechnya is about the size of Connecticut, with roughly half the
population. Russia is the largest country in the world by land
mass, almost twice the size of the United States, with a
population 100 times that of Chechnya's. Grozny is about as far
from Moscow as Miami is from Washington, D.C. The fact that the
Russian armed forces were unable to win even a partial victory for
more than one month illuminates some fundamental problems of
The Soviet Union collapsed as its constituent republics declared
independence. Western rulers, ambivalent about the process,
finally supported independence for the Baltic states and others as
it became clear it was inevitable, and people who were used to
viewing the Soviet Union as a monolith learned of a sometimes
bewildering variety of distinct nationalities. The West began
relating primarily to Russia, as by far the dominant republic. But
the process was not over.
Russia itself was a _Federated_ Socialist Republic. There is
certainly nothing wrong with the idea of a federated republic. But
to work it must be a voluntary federation, where the rights of the
smaller republics are respected, including the right of secession.
Russia today contains twenty-one "autonomous" republics, such as
Chechnya, and numerous smaller divisions. Russia's rulers claim
these as Russian territory, and the West backs them up. U.S.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated on January 12 that
the main concerns of Washington in Chechnya were human rights and
the territorial integrity of Russia.
Chechnya is a small republic in the northern part of the
mountainous Caucasus region, lying between the Caspian and Black
seas. In Russian history the Caucasus plays a role analogous to
that of the American west in U.S. history -- a frontier area,
romantically remembered in novels, where Russians in the last
century fought and won against fierce fighters. The accompanying
racism is also similar. Many Caucasians are darker skinned and
Muslim, as are the Chechens, and subject to prejudice, especially
in Russian cities such as Moscow.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century the region was invaded by
Russia, which met ferocious resistance from the Caucasians,
including the Chechens, until they were finally conquered and made
"part" of Russia in the 1860s. Following the Bolshevik revolution
of 1917, autonomous republics and areas were created, but the
Caucasus continued to suffer forms of national oppression.
Stalin, who was from the Caucasus and thus given responsibilities
there, early engineered undemocratic outcomes in regions that took
"autonomy" seriously. In fact, it was Stalin's high-handed methods
of dealing with the oppressed nationalities that was one of the
main reasons Lenin, shortly before his death, proposed organizing
a bloc inside the party against Stalin. With the consolidation of
Stalinist power, national oppression in the region became worse
than it was in Tsarist times.
In 1936, the Chechens and closely related Ingush were merged into
an autonomous republic. On February 23, 1944, the entire Chechen
nation, accused of collaborating with the Germans, was surrounded
by the Red Army, loaded on trains and deported to Siberia. Young,
old, women, men, children, sick, well, war heroes with medals --
all went, with resisters being shot on the spot. Deported in the
winter, with inadequate food and water, some estimates say over 50
percent died. The Chechen-Ingush republic was dissolved, with the
territory being divided among neighboring republics.
In 1957, following Khrushchev's admissions of the crimes of
Stalin, the Chechen nation was allowed to return to ruined houses,
destroyed villages, wrecked mosques and strangers (Russian and
Georgian) occupying their homes and farms. An autonomous republic
of Checheno-Ingushetya was reconstituted.
Independence and war
Thirty some years later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union,
and nearby republics declaring independence, Chechnya
unsurprisingly did likewise (the republics of Chechnya and
Ingushetya having separated from each other). Gus Hall, head of
the Communist Party USA still maintained on January 14, 1995, that
"Chechnya is not a republic. It never was. And it is not now." The
Chechens felt otherwise.
Dzhokar Dudayev, a retired Soviet air force general, led the
ouster of Chechnya's government in September 1991, was elected
president in October, and declared Chechnya independent on
November 1, 1991. The next day the Russian parliament declared the
election illegal, and Yeltsin soon announced emergency rule. About
1,000 troops flew to Grozny, were met by tens of thousands of
Chechens, and withdrew the next day.
The process was repeated a year later, as Russian troops
approached Chechnya's borders in October. Both sides withdrew in
In June 1994 fighting between pro- and anti-Dudayev forces broke
out in Grozny. By August, Russia openly supported the
anti-Dudayev wing, but ruled out the use of force. The fighting
intensified in November, with aircraft being used. Chechnya
alleged Russian involvement, which was denied. In late November
Chechnya exhibited captured Russian soldiers, and the opposition
Unmarked jets then bombed Grozny and Yeltsin demanded that the
Chechens lay down their arms by December 1, but backed off the
threat to send troops.
On December 8 the last captured Russian soldiers were freed by
Chechnya. The next day Yeltsin authorized force. Russian tanks and
40,000 soldiers backed by air power entered Chechnya on December
11, killing the health minister of neighboring Ingushetya on the
The situation since then has been one of intense fighting,
including Russian bombing of Grozny's civilian districts, the
Presidential palace, refineries, etc.
While there have been supposed truces and overtures toward
negotiation, Russia continues its attack on Chechnya. The Chechens
have fought back fiercely, destroying Russian tanks and artillery.
Despite an overwhelming superiority of forces, Russian troops were
unable to take Grozny for over a month.
Why did Yeltsin invade? There are economic factors to consider.
Chechnya and its neighboring Caucasian republics provide access to
the oil-rich Caspian, with a major pipieline running through
Hard currency credits from oil exports are one of the mainstays of
the Russian economy. But a war against one small country in the
region, even if immediately successful, could do more to harm
future flow, especially if nearby republics became suspicious of
Russia's intentions and themselves decided to declare
Boris Kagarlitsky, a leader of the Party of Labor, notes "The
Russian government had spent three years allowing the Chechen
regime . . . to do whatever it liked.
. . Russian laws continued to be enforced . . . and the Russian
ruble remained in circulation. There were no border checks, and
the Chechen government did not set up its own customs system. The
inhabitants of Chechnya remained Russian citizens, dealing with
their problems through the structures of the Russian Federation. .
. Dudayev was not so much seeking independence as aiming at
winning special status for Chechnya within the framework of Russia
. . ."
Behind the invasion
That Yeltsin decided to invade, after three years in which nothing
much happened, is due to another fundamental problem of today's
Russia. Russia is in an economic crisis dwarfing the crisis in the
U.S. during the great depression. There is no clear path to
economic success, thus no consensus on how to rule, and naturally
no support for unsuccessful rulers. The vaunted transition to
capitalism has been more a transition to chaos and looting. The
State bureaucracy has _increased almost fourfold_, and those in
positions of power have used it to line their pockets. Billions
have been transferred to the West, industry is in collapse, and
the working class is on the way to impoverishment. The military
is demoralized, and its resources greatly reduced.
Yeltsin lost support
Yeltsin had lost the support of almost every section of society,
and moves were beginning to organize against him. Peter Reddaway
points out in an op-ed piece in the January 13 _New York Times_
that, "Circumstantial evidence indicates that this fall a group of
critics decided the only course was to persuade Mr. Yeltsin to
resign or to call early elections by deliberately, if not openly,
A quick, successful war seemed to Yeltsin a good gamble to win
some backing for his presidency. With the support of no one except
the extreme nationalist right, Yeltsin decided to invade Chechnya.
The move immediately began to backfire. Instead of a quick
victory, there was a humiliating beginning, and a lengthening
Although Yeltsin won some approval -- an improvement from the
almost universal no confidence he had enjoyed -- he also
galvanized a beginning anti-war movement, which includes many of
his former allies.
His plans to capitalize on racist prejudices Russians hold against
Chechens also backfired. Polls actually showed Russian attitudes
toward Chechens becoming more favorable as they became the victims
of aggression. The indiscriminate bombing of Grozny affected many
ethnic Russians living there, whose voices were heard on
television and radio, further fueling anti-war sentiment.
It is extremely unlikely that Chechnya will ever again be part of
the Russian federation. The Chechens will undoubtedly fight on,
aided by their neighbors. Renfrey Clarke, an astute observer of
the Russian scene, feels "with the bombing of Grozny, Russia has
already lost the North Caucasus. What remains to be decided is
simply the mechanics of the process, the working out of a
Even a short war inevitably weakens Russia. The Russian economy is
already perilously weak, and there will be inevitable
demoralization over an unpopular war against a small country that
can't even be won.
Yeltsin's gamble has clearly not paid off. The Russian anti-war
movement and the Chechen people deserve our whole-hearted support.
Russia doesn't have a long tradition of legal protest, and
anti-war activists have already been arrested, including Nikolai
Muravin, one of the young anarcho-syndicalists interviewed by IP
last year (see issues #5 and #6). Yeltsin has already shown
himself willing to do anything to remain in power.
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