By Usam Baysayev (Memorial Human Rights Centre), special to Prague Watchdog
Samashki, Chechen Republic
I used to think I was a nationalist. For a while it even weighed on me. Growing up in the Soviet era, I could not avoid absorbing the obligatory ideology: nationalism – bad, internationalism – good. So when anyone called me by that bad name, even in jest, a reflex action would set in. In my mind I would start to go through all the friends I had who were not Chechens, construct a family tree that contained one or two Party stooges, and through them try to rehabilitate myself. To any onlooker it must have seemed rather silly and unnatural. I soon grew ashamed of myself.
During the meetings I and others have held during the past year with Chechen government officials in the course of our human rights work relating to the prosecution of certain high-ranking war criminals, I have come to realize that I am neither a nationalist nor even a fully-fledged separatist. I think we have to recognize that in one sense the Chechens are merely performers, actors in a play written by others. Sometimes overly zealous and displaying a certain amount of independence, though always within the bounds of the permissible. In Chechen society it is rare for a crime to remain without punishment, and if it is forgiven by the victim’s family no one has the right to go meddling with the past. Neither by word nor by deed. “Truth seekers” from outside may be held responsible for the renewal of the conflict. The main thing is to seize the script-writers by the throat. That is the most important of our national tasks.
My “dislike” of Russia has never extended further than the Mongol structure of its public life. And the experiments it regularly conducts upon its own, almost always disenfranchised, citizens. We, too, have often been ground between its millstones. Hence the separatism: if Russia does not want to live as normal countries do, the Chechens have every right to demand autonomy.
But the nationalism which descended on me in the offices of the Moscow-backed officials was of a different kind. Those officials explained all the atrocities which the Russian military committed in the republic by the Russians’ way of life and upbringing, their innate natural cruelty. And also by their drunkenness, their disrespect for parents, whom if they do not kill they send to some old people’s home, by the filth and debauchery that constantly surrounds them. In a word, those Russians are not human beings “with two legs and two arms”, but heaven only knows what.
Those Russian officials of Chechen origin said that they, too, supported the secession of Chechnya from Russia. But not right now. From what they told me, I discovered that they thought Chechnya’s declaration of independence in 1991 was a mistake for one reason only. At the time Russia was not sufficiently weakened to let us go. And then, too, what awaited us? We would have locked ourselves in to a narrow area of land that was not very rich in natural resources. And we had a high birth-rate. It would have been like a lion locked up in a cage. The officials had not the slightest doubt that Russia would eventually collapse, but the way they saw it was that if we had our own Chechen state that was recognized by the international community, we would be unlikely to get a seat at the table when Russia – one sixth of the world – was carved up. Now at least there was a chance. The main thing was not to hurry, not to run before we could walk. Pull back from the brink, gather our forces, wait, and only then take action.
I must admit that in my own separatist views I did not look so far. I had neither the imagination, nor the breadth and depth of thought. And compared to those officials, I saw myself as a defender of Russia, a supporter of its territorial integrity. It was a strange feeling.
I know a few men who were among the first to work for the Russians. It was back in 2000. At first they hesitated. By then, Russian uniforms were the object of universal hatred. So the men gave a simple explanation for their behaviour: if we work in the police, we’ll be able to protect some of our civilians. Over time they acquired confidence, and their motivation changed. It took on a personal note. Increasingly they began to talk about their security, and then about their need to feed their families. The transformation of my friends’ views was complete when they finally reached the conviction that they were on the right side. Better to be on the side of those who were against you.
To some extent I can understand why this has happened. A man cannot go on feeling guilty all the time. He starts to seek a justification for his actions, and finding one starts to believe in them. This process is not complete, and the best evidence of that is the conversations we had with those Moscow-backed officials. While they cannot strike a pose and say that they fully support the imprisonment of the Moltenskois, the Bogdanovs and all the other Shamanovs, they cannot find it in their conscience to drive away with curses anyone who suggests such a thing. Hence the verbal gymnastics, which are designed to prove that they are no lesser men than other Chechen patriots. Or, more precisely, nationalists, though I personally have never claimed that title.
Despite all the clumsiness of the explanations, I think they are a good sign. It would be worse if everyone in the republic’s upper echelons of power were finally convinced that they are in the right.
(Translation by DM)