December 23rd 2009 · Prague Watchdog / Sergei Markedonov · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

15 years of war...

15 years of war...

By Sergey Markedonov, political scientist, special to Prague Watchdog


On December 11,1994, units of the Russian army and interior ministry entered the territory of Chechnya, which for three years prior to this had been trying to implement a form of national independence outside the framework of Russia. Thus the Russian Federation, the state which had resulted from a struggle with the Soviet centre, ran into a separatist problem of its own. This problem became clear almost immediately after the victory over the Emergency Committee in August 1991, and to this day it cannot be considered to have gained a final resolution. In 1994 Russia's leadership attempted to solve the "Chechen problem" by force, relying on the superiority of Russia’s military, political and socio-economic resources. That  attempt was unsuccessful. The first Chechen campaign ended with a defeat which, for the country that was the successor to the USSR and a member of the "nuclear club", was not so much military as psychological and political . During a meeting with the author of this article the current Georgian State Minister for Reintegration (who at the time of the meeting was an influential Georgian political scientist) said that for his country the Khasavyurt Agreement of August 31, 1996 had dispelled the myth of the invincibility of Russian armed force in the Caucasus. To that conclusion one can only add that the Georgians created another myth (still popular both in Russia's Caucasus and in Georgia itself) –  the idea of the "imminent breakup" of the "Russian Empire”, and its collapse. Since then more than twelve years have passed, and during that time the "Empire" has been quite successful, if we count the  establishment of external control over Chechnya, the minimalization of the separatist threat inside Russia, the recognition of the two former Georgian autonomies and the acceptance of this fact by the international community, despite all the rhetoric about Moscow’s "annexationist actions".

However, regardless of what happened after December 1994, historians, politicians and political scientists are now once again inevitably returning to this date. Of course, the first Chechen campaign did not reveal the full extent of the problem of Chechnya’s existence within Russia (and of Russia's presence and influence in Chechnya). But it radically exposed and exacerbated many of the sores both of the Chechen body politic and of the Russian state and society as a whole. It demonstrated systemic problems that go far beyond a single regional conflict and even a single country.

Let us consider one or two  aspects of this event. In his time, the wise French historian Marc Bloch warned historians against worshipping before the “idol of origins". Even today, fifteen years later, the question of how the “Chechen crisis" might have developed according to several alternative scenarios continues to occupy our minds. From our point of view, however, the discussion of “why Boris Nikolayevich and Dzhokhar Musayevich did not meet" is not a very productive one. The role of personality in history is one that is hard to underestimate, but the problem that faced Chechnya in the 1990s was not a conflict of two complex and extraordinary men. It was a conflict between two socio-political projects, born in the flames of the collapse of the once united state of the Soviet Union, which each of the individuals involved in the “Chechen case" had faithfully served for quite a number of years – one in the post of party boss, the other in the military air force. But each in his post was loyal to the "great power" which was one of the poles of the bipolar "Yalta-Potsdam world". After the Soviet Union began to collapse under the weight of socio-economic and national-ethnic problems, the unitary Soviet state was replaced by new formations which with an airy wave of the hand the Russian-Lithuanian political scientist Algimantas Prasauskas called "the post-Soviet space”. Yet fresh on the heels of the collapse of the state that covered one-sixth of the land surface area of the globe, Prasauskas appraised the situation in February 1992 as follows: “The liberated Afro-Asian countries, or at any rate those which have avoided the temptation of a so-called socialist orientation, could with some adjustments be used as a model for the development of the political and to a lesser extent economic system of the  metropolis. The post-Soviet space (emphasis mine – SM) does not possess a landmark of this kind, but it is doubtful whether the East European experience or the search for a "third way" to which  the states of Central Asia clearly incline, could be applied. It  will be a historic miracle if any of the former Soviet republics are able simultaneously to address three daunting tasks: to carry out an overhaul of their political and economic system, to cope with  the economic crisis, and to avoid serious socio-political upheaval and instability."

We are living (in a way that we did not in the 1990s) in a fairytale. The miracle did not happen. The "Chechen question" (like other ethnic and political conflicts in the former Soviet Union) was a consequence of the collapse of the USSR and the resulting formation of  new nation-states. In this connection, only an incorrigible optimist could have sincerely believed that such a collapse would take place along the borders of the Union’s republics (drawn not by public opinion but by the will of Party officials).  The “revolt of the autonomies” which began in the late 1980s led to varying results.  On the one hand  there were Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, Abkhazia and Gorno-Badakhshan, and on the other – Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Crimea and Adzhara. In the early 1990s adherents of secular ethnic nationalism came to power in Chechnya, and a nation-state independent of Russia was established. The nationalists had the chance of  obtaining jurisdiction over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, this project was not successful because it provoked internal instability and civil conflicts. Chechnya’s problem (and, one might say, its tragedy) was that initially the introduction of Russian army and military police units into the republic did not actually violate the lives of its civilians. The first blood was shed long before that December day in 1994. Prior to 1994, the republic had been drawn into a series of internal fratricidal conflicts. To cite just a few examples: on the night of June 4-5 1993, units loyal to the first true president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudayev, stormed the building of the Grozny City Assembly (one of the main centres of the opposition). In the course of this action 50 people were killed and 150 wounded. On June 6, 1993 Dudayev dissolved  the Constitutional Court of Chechnya. These events signified the outbreak of what was essentially  a full-scale Chechen civil war. In the words of Bislan Gantamirov (at that time chairman of Grozny’s Municipal Assembly), “I could never even have dreamt that Chechens would be capable of doing such things to other Chechens." As was noted in a joint statement by the Chechen Justice Party and the Spravedlivost [Justice] newspaper: "On June 4 what was shelled by the SAU (an abbreviation of “self-propelled artillery unit” - SM) was not the building of the  City Municipal Police Assembly, but the idea of the national solidarity of all Chechens." In addition to Grozny, there were other sources of tension in “pre-war” Chechnya –  above all, Nadterechny district (at the beginning of 1990 about 46,000 people lived there).  After the Grozny events of June 4-5,  Nadterechny district became the Vendée of the North Caucasus for the unrecognized state that had been born in the  "Chechen revolution" of 1991. In its turn, "Nadterechny" separatism provoked "intra-district" separatism (Dudayev’s supporters fought with the district’s leadership in the village of Gvardeyskoye).

Thus, when the decision was taken to start an anti-separatist campaign in Chechnya, the republic’s de facto government had one serious problem – the lack of a single centre of decision-making and executive power. In this, incidentally, the conflict in Chechnya differed from other struggles in the Greater Caucasus,  in Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. While it is true that South Ossetia had phenomena like Sanakoyev or Alan Parastayev, there were no clarifications of the situation with the use of SAUs (the above-mentioned collaborators worked in Tbilisi and in the territories that were under Georgia’s control). In Nagorno-Karabakh the action was more fierce (one may recall the confrontation between Samvel Babayan and Arkady Ghukasian). However, it was resolved by the victory of the de facto administration over the tyranny of the warlords. This satellite state, Armenia, did not see the creation of a federation of warlords of the kind that took place in Chechnya.

On the one hand, all of the above evidence supports the thesis that Russia had the right to intervene in the affairs of a territory which it considered to be an integral part of itself. But the events of fifteen years ago have gone far beyond the borders of Chechnya and Dagestan. The Kremlin's tough stance has significantly increased the degree of securitization of the country as a whole. It may be said that Vladimir Putin’s road to the political Mount Olympus was cleared not during the wars of Berezovsky and Gusinsky, of Unity" and "Fatherland", but in December 1994. All that remained was to find a figure who corresponded to the personal criteria set down by Boris Yeltsin. That took five years. The legitimacy of Putin’s first term in office Putin was virtually ensured by the North Caucasus. This could not but have an effect on the internal political dynamics of Russia as a whole. Ten years ago, the philosophy of military and political management began largely to determine the mindset of Russia's military and civil service class. Finding himself compelled, from his first day as president, to operate in a mode of "black-and-white assessments" (justified in the case of Basayev's raid), Vladimir Putin was subsequently unable to completely overcome this style, even where it was inappropriate. In this sense we can speak of the negative impact of the Chechen campaigns  (both the first and second) on Russia's domestic political process in general. The automatic transfer of "security force" techniques to other areas (the relationship between business and government, the Kremlin and the opposition, state and civil society, the building of policy in other regions of the North Caucasus, regional policy in general, the interrelationship of the executive power with parliament) threw Russia backwards. The authoritarian methods that had been valid in quite specific circumstances were not curtailed after victory was achieved in Chechnya, and Moscow has succeeded in doing what it has failed to do in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan.

Today, however, fifteen years later, the political turbulence in the North Caucasus has not been resolved. Every day we receive reports of killings, bombings, sabotage, confrontations between militants and Russian security officers, the deaths of civilians. But perhaps most important of all is the lack of serious public interest in Chechnya among Russian citizens. In the last analysis, while the authorities may blunder and get things wrong, society’s autism is something much more dangerous. During all these fifteen years, the majority of Russians have taken an interest in Chechnya for only two reasons: either in connection with subpoenas from the military concerning their offspring, or as a plot for low-grade pseudo-patriotic TV serials. Foreign observers are much more concerned about what is really happening in the North Caucasus republic than are our fellow citizens. None of this creates the necessary prerequisites for the successful integration of Chechnya into the all-Russian space, but makes it an " island apart", even though it is not surrounded by water. Thus, the lessons of Chechnya which were not learned fifteen years ago are still relevant to us all, both with regard to government and civil society.

Photo: rimidalw (

(Translation by DM)

© 2009 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).




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