January 5th 2010 · Prague Watchdog / Andrei Babitsky · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Chechnya. Forget it.

Chechnya. Forget it.

By Andrei Babitsky, special to Prague Watchdog

Prague, Czech Republic

In this text I want to combine two lines of thought, as to me they seem interrelated. The first is a couple of comments on  Sergei Markedonov’s article ‘15 years of war...’, while the second is an assessment of the outcome of the war as it looks today. Regarding the article, the theses in it which I find unacceptable are muted and not obvious. But in general the message can be grasped without much difficulty. As I understand it, the article says that Russia had a right to send troops into Chechnya, which it considered to be part of itself, because the republic had no "single centre of decision-making and executive power." To me this looks like an artificial excuse. Since when has a country's internal confusion been considered grounds for starting a war? For example, there was no “single centre of decision-making” in Russia during the period of confrontation between the Supreme Council and the President, let alone any "executive power". Does that mean that external forces had the right to invade Russia in order to restore order? Or do we need to add to this the other condition mentioned by  Sergei Markedonov? I.e. someone had to decide that Russia was an "integral part" of a larger space?

It is, of course, true that the majority of post-Soviet countries have passed through a period of conflict between different branches of government. In some, as in Russia, blood was spilled. Does this mean that such States automatically become candidates for external control? That is very doubtful. Furthermore, let us remember the Kremlin’s prodigious efforts to provoke clashes in Chechnya, the ways in which it fed and armed the opposition. In fact, the conflicts in the republic were largely supported with money and arms from Russia, and that is no secret. What Sergei Markedonov is saying is that if a government has managed to provoke civil strife in some part of the world, that government has a right to send troops there.

As for the concept of territorial integrity, after two criminal wars – in Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia – this idea must be shorn of its imperative status. In the old days Europe used to manage to solve this problem by policing, rather than by military means, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union it became clear that land ought not to be purchased with blood. The Chechen War was a war against an entire people, most of whom, by electing Dudayev, voted if not for him personally then for the cause he represented – separation from Russia. Their decision was subsequently duplicated in the post-war elections. And then, in late 1994- early 1995, Russia's leadership ignored the will of the Chechens, and thereby had no option but to become a torturer, a murderer and a criminal.

I might have had some time for the arguments in favour of the war if Markedonov had mentioned the fact that Dudayev’s election was, for several reasons, not fully legitimate. In fact, it was the result of a coup, on the one hand, while on the other it more or less excluded the will of the Russian-speaking citizens who constituted more than a third of the population. And if one adds to them the inhabitants of northern Chechnya, who were opposed to sovereignty, the result of the vote seems more than doubtful. Yet the Russian authorities were not worried at all about the plight of the Russian-speakers, which was included on the list of reasons for the military operation only at the last moment, in the form of a propaganda trick. For years and years no one remembered the Russians, and only when the tanks needed to be rolled in did Moscow start talking about how bad things must be for the “compatriots” in Chechnya. If the Kremlin had tried to resolve the issue through negotiations from the outset, it might have had some success. Dudayev's government was highly unprofessional, replacing ideology with nationalist hysteria. When it felt that it lacked support, it chose an authoritarian model of governance, though it could not really be called brutal or inhuman. Negotiations could and should have been held with it on all the issues – the Russian-speakers, the question of power-sharing or full separation, the joint operations against the gangsters who were robbing the trains. It should have been given help, as expiation for crimes that had been committed in the past.

By any calculation the war brought massive and cruel bloodshed. Moreover, the number of dead would have reached hundreds of thousands had it not been for the reaction of public opinion both in Russia and in the outside world, which condemned the military incursion. The Russian army was imply not allowed to completely devastate Chechnya, though its morale and moral state were such that it was quite capable of doing so. It is said that Yeltsin believed the republic could be taken swiftly under control with a small force. I think that matters turned out rather differently. The option of small-scale bloodshed was the preferable one, but the Russian President must have been aware that the probability of a major war was at least as great. And that means that he quite deliberately embarked upon mass murder in the name of preserving the integrity of Russia's state.

The collapse of empires has always been accompanied by wars, but Chechnya has demonstrated that attempting to keep the territories within the borders of the disintegrating state leads to extreme and brutal bloodshed. I am sure that the time is not far off when the principle of integrity will be considered optional, a situation-based condition for the coexistence of peoples within a united state. The results of the Chechen war suggest that the idea of controlling colonies by destroying their populations can be classified as criminal and misanthropic.

What has Russia achieved, in the end? My answer will be brief, since the subject will be analysed in numerous articles. Has Russia succeeded in keeping Chechnya as part of itself? I personally am in no doubt that the republic has never been as far from unity with Russia as it is today. After the breakup of the USSR the Chechens lived with the memory of the deportation of 1944. That memory was watered down by the long period of time that had elapsed since the disaster. But the sense of historical injustice had also partly lost its edge because of the subsequent rehabilitation and return. Justice for the Chechen people as a whole had been restored, though not fully. In the event, however, even those weakened memories were enough to trigger an explosion.

Let us try to picture what a repository of despair and perceived injustice today's Chechnya has become. Let us envisage the memories that boil to the surface today and explode as soon as the bloody grip is only slightly relaxed. The war has brought the Chechens closer to their past. On top of today’s grievances are added Stalin’s deportation and the Great Caucasus War of the nineteenth century. The events of those days are now seen as a prologue to the current slaughter – one organized by Russia according to rules that are set in stone. Though this may not be so, who is going to do the explaining?


(Translation by DM)

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