Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russian Army Returns, Bringing Familiar Bad Tidings

Moscow is again embarking on an attempt to subdue Chechnya by force. Although many of the stated aims are different and so far the military tactics are marginally less brutal, the experience for the local population is exactly the same.
When the American journalist and traveller Negley Farson was considering a trip into the mountains of the North Caucasus in 1929 a Russian engineer gave him encouragement.

"If you go in there," he said, pointing to a line on the map, "you will find that "they" have not yet got much above 5,000 feet." "They" of course were the Communists who were embarking on the latest attempt to subordinate the region to rule from Moscow.

In fact Russia's hold was tenuous even on the lower slopes. The North Caucasus resisted Stalin's attempted collectivization of the late 1920s as nowhere else in the Soviet Union, with armed rebellions.

The region has always been one of the most anomalous in Russia, fully Russian only in the geographical sense that Russia's natural borders stop at the ridge of the Caucasus. Brought fully under nominal Russian rule only in the mid-19th century, it is still wild, mountainous, mostly Islamic and bewildering multi-ethnic: the eastern republic of Dagestan alone has 34 main nationalities.

Stalin's nationality policies left a further imprint of complexity and bitterness. Three small North Caucasian peoples and one large one - the Karachai, Balkars, Ingush and Chechens - were deported en masse by Stalin to Central Asia with great loss of life in 1943-4.

Stalin intended that they should never return, but Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to do so in 1957. The Stalinist era also left a legacy of hybrid regions, like Kabardino-Balkaria in which nationalities with little in common were incorporated under the same territorial roof.

The consequences of that are still being felt in Karachai-Cherkessia where the Cherkess minority is trying to secede after disputing the results of a regional election last May. There are also a dozen or so festering territorial disputes left over from Soviet times of which the quarrel between the Ingush and the Ossetians over the fertile Prigorodny District on the east bank of the River Terek is perhaps the most bitter.

This poisoned history cried out for an enlightened nationalities policy to accommodate these mountain peoples into the new post-Communist Russian state.

Unfortunately the main contribution to the region made by Boris Yeltsin's government was his hamfisted attempt to destroy Chechnya's secessionist movement by military means in 1994-6. The effect of a war that left tens of thousands dead - a reasonable estimate is 64,000, mainly civilians - and towns and villages destroyed will be felt for at least a generation.

As I write this, Moscow is again embarking on an attempt to subdue Chechnya by force. Although many of the stated aims are different and so far the military tactics are marginally less brutal, the experience for the local population is absolutely the same.

The latest Chechen military campaign followed a more pragmatic attempt at peaceful co-existence with the secessionist Chechnya that emerged bloodied but unbowed from the war.

The key element in the compromise arrangement was shared use of the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea. The pipeline runs through Chechen territory and the Chechen government was invited to share in the proceeds from it.

In 1999 this arrangement broke down. Mistrust between Moscow and Chechnya, theft of oil from the pipeline and mismanagement by the Russian pipeline company Transneft has meant that the line virtually ceased use.

The breakdown of the pipeline arrangement and increasing economic desperation in a Chechnya, which was free from Russian control but deprived of external help, coincided with an upsurge in lawlessness and in Islamic radicalism in the area. I put it in these terms because it is important to note that the Islamic militant movement has taken root only in areas where there are deep social and political problems.

There are millions of Russian Muslims, in the North Caucasus and elsewhere, who are fully integrated Russian citizens. Only in isolated parts of the East Caucasus ravaged by war and controlled by veterans of the Chechen war is there a groundswell of support for Islamic radicalism.

In August two of the main Chechen-based commanders, Shamil Basayev and a Saudi-born veteran of the Afghan war known as Khatab exported their fight with the Russians across the border into the mountainous Botlikh region of Dagestan.

The circumstances are disputed. Basayev has said that he simply wanted to help Islamic brothers who were being attacked by the Russians. The Russians and Dagestanis describe as an attempt to form a bridgehead of Islamic militancy that would link up with rebel parts of Chechnya.

In any event the incursion failed, as did another one into the lower-lying Novolaksky region of Dagestan a few weeks later. The failure of Basayev's Dagestani campaign demonstrated how different Dagestan is from Chechnya: the republic relies heavily on Russian subsidy, is deeply divided on ethnic lines and is in no position to secede from Moscow.

Moreover its people have not been radicalized either by the horrors of Stalin's deportations or by the recent Chechen war.

The Russian government has portrayed the Dagestani incursions as the work of "international terrorists" inspired by the Afghanistan-based Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden. This should be treated with caution. Khatab knows his fellow-Saudi, bin Laden, from Afghanistan, but denies that they are currently in contact.

The number of foreign volunteers in Chechnya during the war was always much lower than Russian sources indicated. The citing of a bin Laden connection seems in part to be Russia's attempt to win the support of the United States for its actions in the region.

It should be borne in mind that over the last two years all air connections with Chechnya have been cut and the one railway line, now also cut, went north into Russia. The only foreigners who travelled to Chechnya therefore were forced to go overland - and into a lawless and dangerous place. It would be surprising if there were more than a few dozen of them.

The latest turmoil in the North Caucasus coincides, as did the last Chechen war, with an upcoming season of elections in Russia itself. The region is unfortunately once again playing the role of "the tail that wags the dog," a place of turmoil and terror, which is used by politicians in Moscow to further their own political ends.

Whoever was responsible for the recent horrific series of bomb-blasts which have killed hundreds of apartment-dwellers in Russian cities--in Moscow they say it was planned in the North Caucasus, in the Caucasus they say it was planned in Moscow--the new prime minister Vladimir Putin has used the opportunity to crack down on Chechnya once again.

The rulers in Moscow still have the habit of seeing the North Caucasus as "theirs,"-- an indisputable part of the federation--and yet also as "alien," a breeding ground for strange dark-skinned bandits who do not deserve the same rights as their paler-skinned Russian neighbours.

Until they show more understanding and subtlety the Chechen calamity will only persist and spread.

Thomas de Waal is a BBC World Service correspondent and regional analyst.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?