Armenians and Chechens: Past and Present
David Petrosyan, political correspondent of agency Noyan Tapan, Yerevan
Special to Prague Watchdog
... At the beginning of the first war in Chechnya the Armenian political elite and their opponents were in a state of bitter internal conflict caused by the assassination of Ambartsum Galstyan, ex-Mayor of Yerevan and a member of the Karabakh Committee, on 17 December 1994, and by president Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s decree suspending the activities of the ARF-Dashnaktsutyun opposition party, on 28 December. These events provoked a serious parliamentary crisis, which only ended after the elections of summer 1995. These events, initially at least, diverted the attention of the Armenian elite and their opponents away from the first war in Chechnya.
Nevertheless, a firm opinion set in among both the official authorities in Armenia and the opposition that everything the Russian government does in Chechnya is very badly thought out and this in its turn damages Russia’s prestige. Despite this, Vazgen Sarkisyan, a state minister responsible for matters of defense and military construction, stated at a press conference at the end of 1994 that “...everything that is going on in Chechnya is Russia’s internal matter”. After the authorities’ statement the opposition expressed practically the same point of view, in one form or another. The only exception was the Unity of National Self-Determination-Christianocrats party, which organized an act of protest in front of the Russian embassy. Its leader, delegate Paruyr Ayrikyan, also demanded the independence of Chechnya and the immediate cessation of the bloodshed and violence. Arzhanapatvutyun (Dignity) was the only human rights organization to make a statement, strongly condemning violence and the actions of the federal forces in Chechnya.
Many Armenian politicians also noted that the Chechnyan war should be considered from the aspect of its influence on the process of settling the Karabakh conflict. Practically speaking, Russia has never really been devoted to the principle of the right of a nation to self-determination.
The events of June 1995 in Budyonnovsk (the city was founded in the nineteenth century by Armenians as Surb Khatch, later better known as Holy Cross. At the time of the terrorist operation 15 thousand Armenians lived in the city with its population of 100 thousand people) caused a strong reaction in Armenia, despite the election campaign. Among the 200 victims of this terrorist act by Chechen fighters lead by Shamil Basayev, there were Armenians as well (precisely: 13 dead, 15 wounded).
The events in Budyonnovsk were a catalyst in Armenia for the gradual forming of a consistent political tack concerning Chechnya. In 1995-1997 the line was as follows: Armenia was interested in solving the Chechen problem on the basis of a compromise between two principles: the self-determination of the Chechen nation and the preservation of the territorial integrity of its strategic ally - Russia.
After radical Islamic views and groups started to dominate in Chechnya (1998-1999) and the Grozny-Baku axis had been formed, the attitude towards the Chechen problem began to change in Yerevan. Due to an interest in self-preservation Armenia had to privately agree with Russia’s actions in Chechnya and had to be interested in Chechnya’s reintegration into the legal area of Russia, in spite of Yerevan’s usual sympathies towards the right of nations to self-determination. This position has never been expressed by Yerevan officials in public as it didn’t comply with its demands in the matter of settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
As is well known Yerevan’s position in the Karabakh matter is founded upon the inadmissibility of Stepanakert’s vertical subordination to Baku, i.e. the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic remaining on the constitutional territory of Azerbaijan. In fact, Chechnya was also trying to attain the same or fully independent status. However, militant statements by Chechen leaders (that after the liberation of Dagestan it will be Nagorno-Karabakh’s turn) and also Basayev’s participation in military operations in 1993-1994 on the Azerbaijani side, made Armenia side against the fulfillment of the principle of the right of a nation to self-determination in relation to Chechnya.
Despite strong anti-Armenian statements by Chechen leaders another point of view also existed. In spite of problems, the events of 1996-1999 showed the reality of effective and mutually beneficial co-operation between Armenians and Chechens in creative spheres. The word is about co-operation between private construction firms from Armenia and their Chechen customers after the end of the first Chechen war. At this time the reconstruction of all that had been destroyed and the construction of new buildings, pipelines, water supplies and headers began.
In 1996 it was decided to build a condominium in Gudermes. The projection, marking and preparation of a site was being done by firms owned by Armenians and groups of Armenian construction workers from Russia and Armenia (groups were 7 through 40 people in number) when the Chechens suddenly cancelled the construction of the condominium and decided to build cottages which were to look like brick chateaux. It should be noted that the Chechen customers honestly and fully paid the planners in cash for what had been done towards the condominium project, construction of which never started.
The construction of the cottages began. In the customers’ own words the Armenian workers were the best in all construction and finishing work, which took into account the national peculiarities of Chechens. Armenian constructors built many cottages, basements, headers and other communications, boiler and farm buildings (cowsheds, sheds etc.) in this region of Chechnya.
Only the second Chechen war hampered them in finishing all the work. Despite the start of the war customers paid Armenian firms for the work done fully and on time. Armenian firms have never met such conscientious customers. Thus, if there will exist a possibility to work in Chechnya once again, Armenian construction companies will do this almost certainly with enthusiasm.
The matter of kidnappings by Chechens constantly reported by the media always surprised Armenian constructors among whom there were no such cases. Apparently this can be explained by the fact that both criminal figures and authorities were concerned for their safety. They were doing everything possible not to spoil relations between Chechens and Armenians. It must also be taken into account that the Armenians who came to work in Chechnya were a rather mixed and generally potentially conflicting contingent. Despite the above-mentioned aggressive statements by Chechen leaders there was no trouble between Armenian constructors and Chechens. Moreover, a customer would quite often have made a 100% pre-payment and Armenian workers would work entirely on trust. It is interesting that the supply of construction materials came from Armenia through the territory of Georgia. Armenian firms provided due transportation to the Armenian-Georgian border and responsibility for the safety of cargo on the way through Georgia and Chechnya was undertaken by Chechen partners.
Naturally a question arises: why were Chechens not doing the construction since they are famous for their building skills. It is very hard to answer this question and it’s better to answer with another question: why did Armenian constructors originating from the earthquake zone work anywhere (even on Sakhalin) but in their own towns? The most likely cause would be that for some reason they do not get paid.
There is another interesting aspect to this co-operation. It is known that some Chechen criminal figures from Russia ordered in Armenia projects for the construction of houses in their motherland, Chechnya. Chechens constantly co-operating with Armenian construction firms warned their partners that some of their customers were unreliable people. In their opinion this might have brought about a situation where Chechens would be discredited among their Armenian partners. Later it turned out that this warning came just in time. The heads of these construction firms are still grateful to their Chechen partners and still count on their reliability.
All of the above shows that Armenia and Armenians can surely play a positive role in the future establishment of peace in Northern Caucasia and, in particular in Chechnya, but only if they are called upon. Up until now there is not even a hint of this happening. Moscow hopes to succeed in Chechnya using general Yermolov’s methods. But time will pass by and the federal center will have to alter its policies. At such a time generals-diplomats and representatives of nations which have played the role of dampener in international relations in Chechnya and the region for many years will be called in.
25 December 2000