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Chechnya Freedom Struggle—Yeltsin's Vietnam?

By Alex Chia, Independent Politics, March/April 1995

Chechnya is about the size of Connecticut, with roughly half the population. Russia is the largest country in the world by land mass, almost twice the size of the United States, with a population 100 times that of Chechnya's. Grozny is about as far from Moscow as Miami is from Washington, D.C. The fact that the Russian armed forces were unable to win even a partial victory for more than one month illuminates some fundamental problems of post-Soviet Russia.

The Soviet Union collapsed as its constituent republics declared independence. Western rulers, ambivalent about the process, finally supported independence for the Baltic states and others as it became clear it was inevitable, and people who were used to viewing the Soviet Union as a monolith learned of a sometimes bewildering variety of distinct nationalities. The West began relating primarily to Russia, as by far the dominant republic. But the process was not over.

Russia itself was a Federated Socialist Republic. There is certainly nothing wrong with the idea of a federated republic. But to work it must be a voluntary federation, where the rights of the smaller republics are respected, including the right of secession.

Russia today contains twenty-one "autonomous" republics, such as Chechnya, and numerous smaller divisions. Russia's rulers claim these as Russian territory, and the West backs them up. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated on January 12 that the main concerns of Washington in Chechnya were human rights and the territorial integrity of Russia.

Caucasus region

Chechnya is a small republic in the northern part of the mountainous Caucasus region, lying between the Caspian and Black seas. In Russian history the Caucasus plays a role analogous to that of the American west in U.S. history -- a frontier area, romantically remembered in novels, where Russians in the last century fought and won against fierce fighters. The accompanying racism is also similar. Many Caucasians are darker skinned and Muslim, as are the Chechens, and subject to prejudice, especially in Russian cities such as Moscow.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century the region was invaded by Russia, which met ferocious resistance from the Caucasians, including the Chechens, until they were finally conquered and made "part" of Russia in the 1860s. Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, autonomous republics and areas were created, but the Caucasus continued to suffer forms of national oppression.

Stalin, who was from the Caucasus and thus given responsibilities there, early engineered undemocratic outcomes in regions that took "autonomy" seriously. In fact, it was Stalin's high-handed methods of dealing with the oppressed nationalities that was one of the main reasons Lenin, shortly before his death, proposed organizing a bloc inside the party against Stalin. With the consolidation of Stalinist power, national oppression in the region became worse than it was in Tsarist times.

In 1936, the Chechens and closely related Ingush were merged into an autonomous republic. On February 23, 1944, the entire Chechen nation, accused of collaborating with the Germans, was surrounded by the Red Army, loaded on trains and deported to Siberia. Young, old, women, men, children, sick, well, war heroes with medals -- all went, with resisters being shot on the spot. Deported in the winter, with inadequate food and water, some estimates say over 50 percent died. The Chechen-Ingush republic was dissolved, with the territory being divided among neighboring republics.

In 1957, following Khrushchev's admissions of the crimes of Stalin, the Chechen nation was allowed to return to ruined houses, destroyed villages, wrecked mosques and strangers (Russian and Georgian) occupying their homes and farms. An autonomous republic of Checheno-Ingushetya was reconstituted.

Independence and war

Thirty some years later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and nearby republics declaring independence, Chechnya unsurprisingly did likewise (the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetya having separated from each other). Gus Hall, head of the Communist Party USA still maintained on January 14, 1995, that "Chechnya is not a republic. It never was. And it is not now." The Chechens felt otherwise.

Dzhokar Dudayev, a retired Soviet air force general, led the ouster of Chechnya's government in September 1991, was elected president in October, and declared Chechnya independent on November 1, 1991. The next day the Russian parliament declared the election illegal, and Yeltsin soon announced emergency rule. About 1,000 troops flew to Grozny, were met by tens of thousands of Chechens, and withdrew the next day.

The process was repeated a year later, as Russian troops approached Chechnya's borders in October. Both sides withdrew in November, 1992.

In June 1994 fighting between pro- and anti-Dudayev forces broke out in Grozny. By August, Russia openly supported the anti-Dudayev wing, but ruled out the use of force. The fighting intensified in November, with aircraft being used. Chechnya alleged Russian involvement, which was denied. In late November Chechnya exhibited captured Russian soldiers, and the opposition retreated.

Unmarked jets then bombed Grozny and Yeltsin demanded that the Chechens lay down their arms by December 1, but backed off the threat to send troops.

On December 8 the last captured Russian soldiers were freed by Chechnya. The next day Yeltsin authorized force. Russian tanks and 40,000 soldiers backed by air power entered Chechnya on December 11, killing the health minister of neighboring Ingushetya on the way.

Intense fighting

The situation since then has been one of intense fighting, including Russian bombing of Grozny's civilian districts, the Presidential palace, refineries, etc.

While there have been supposed truces and overtures toward negotiation, Russia continues its attack on Chechnya. The Chechens have fought back fiercely, destroying Russian tanks and artillery. Despite an overwhelming superiority of forces, Russian troops were unable to take Grozny for over a month.

Why did Yeltsin invade? There are economic factors to consider. Chechnya and its neighboring Caucasian republics provide access to the oil-rich Caspian, with a major pipieline running through Chechnya.

Hard currency credits from oil exports are one of the mainstays of the Russian economy. But a war against one small country in the region, even if immediately successful, could do more to harm future flow, especially if nearby republics became suspicious of Russia's intentions and themselves decided to declare independence.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a leader of the Party of Labor, notes "The Russian government had spent three years allowing the Chechen regime . . . to do whatever it liked. . . Russian laws continued to be enforced . . . and the Russian ruble remained in circulation. There were no border checks, and the Chechen government did not set up its own customs system. The inhabitants of Chechnya remained Russian citizens, dealing with their problems through the structures of the Russian Federation. . . Dudayev was not so much seeking independence as aiming at winning special status for Chechnya within the framework of Russia . . ."

Behind the invasion

That Yeltsin decided to invade, after three years in which nothing much happened, is due to another fundamental problem of today's Russia. Russia is in an economic crisis dwarfing the crisis in the U.S. during the great depression. There is no clear path to economic success, thus no consensus on how to rule, and naturally no support for unsuccessful rulers. The vaunted transition to capitalism has been more a transition to chaos and looting. The State bureaucracy has _increased almost fourfold_, and those in positions of power have used it to line their pockets. Billions have been transferred to the West, industry is in collapse, and the working class is on the way to impoverishment. The military is demoralized, and its resources greatly reduced.

Yeltsin lost support

Yeltsin had lost the support of almost every section of society, and moves were beginning to organize against him. Peter Reddaway points out in an op-ed piece in the January 13 New York Times that, "Circumstantial evidence indicates that this fall a group of critics decided the only course was to persuade Mr. Yeltsin to resign or to call early elections by deliberately, if not openly, destabilizing him."

A quick, successful war seemed to Yeltsin a good gamble to win some backing for his presidency. With the support of no one except the extreme nationalist right, Yeltsin decided to invade Chechnya. The move immediately began to backfire. Instead of a quick victory, there was a humiliating beginning, and a lengthening conflict.

Although Yeltsin won some approval -- an improvement from the almost universal no confidence he had enjoyed -- he also galvanized a beginning anti-war movement, which includes many of his former allies.

His plans to capitalize on racist prejudices Russians hold against Chechens also backfired. Polls actually showed Russian attitudes toward Chechens becoming more favorable as they became the victims of aggression. The indiscriminate bombing of Grozny affected many ethnic Russians living there, whose voices were heard on television and radio, further fueling anti-war sentiment.

What now?

It is extremely unlikely that Chechnya will ever again be part of the Russian federation. The Chechens will undoubtedly fight on, aided by their neighbors. Renfrey Clarke, an astute observer of the Russian scene, feels "with the bombing of Grozny, Russia has already lost the North Caucasus. What remains to be decided is simply the mechanics of the process, the working out of a historical inevitability."

Even a short war inevitably weakens Russia. The Russian economy is already perilously weak, and there will be inevitable demoralization over an unpopular war against a small country that can't even be won.

Yeltsin's gamble has clearly not paid off. The Russian anti-war movement and the Chechen people deserve our whole-hearted support. Russia doesn't have a long tradition of legal protest, and anti-war activists have already been arrested, including Nikolai Muravin, one of the young anarcho-syndicalists interviewed by IP last year (see issues #5 and #6). Yeltsin has already shown himself willing to do anything to remain in power.

This article is from the March/April issue of Independent Politics. Subscriptions are $12/yr in the US and Canada, $24 elsewhere, $36 institutions to Independent Politics, P.O. Box 55247, Hayward, CA 94545-0247. Independent Politics now has an email address also: <>

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