A Failure That Transformed Russia; the 1991-94 Democratic State-Building Experiment in Chechnya

Article excerpt

   We're the children of the mountains,
   We have been here for years.
   The wind frightens the heart
   of any stranger here.
   Nobody understands us,
   The mountains will protect us,
   The wind frightens the heart
   of any stranger here.
   (Chechen Folk Song)

The purpose of this essay is to redirect the current views on the origins and the nature of Russia's 1999 war against Chechnya. Our argument is that one of the major reasons for the war lies in the "Chechen Revolution of 1991-1994". More immediate reasons for it are imbedded in the Russian political situation of the summer and fall, 1999.(1) But we will stress the most important events that influenced the subsequent transformation of Chechen and Russian society and assisted in determining the intensity of the current tragedy. Much of the information is based on Isaenko's personal experience with Chechnya in the early 1990s. Another part is derived from the official papers of the Chechen Republic that were published by its legal institutions. Finally, another part stems from the research and observations of both authors.

Tracking the so-called "Chechen Problem" or "Chechen Revolution" and its role in Russian history has been a concern for scholars for some time. For us, this effort is connected with our primary interest, namely the exploration of forms of ethnic cleansing in the areas of inter-ethnic and ethnic tensions and conflicts.(2) Before then and since then, dozens of analysis have appeared; Valerii Tishkov and A.S. Orlov (Russia) and Anatol Lieven (Great Britain) have authored the most carefully argued accounts.(3) Lieven's approach contained a particularly comprehensive analysis of the long-standing and immediate reasons and causes for the conflict; it also accurately predicted the latest developments on the local and Russian levels.

In order to better understand the positions connected with the war that started in October, 1999, we will begin with an outline of some of them. Many of these positions were stated clearly in the International Conference, "Chechnya: Unlearned Lessons," which was organized by the editorial board of the Russian weekly, The Moscow News.(4)

Colonel-General Valerii Manilov, the First Deputy to the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Army, presented the official version of the character and goals of this latest military campaign. In his words, Russia's attack is "a counter-terrorist operation"(5) (by contrast, the Russo-Chechen War of 1994-1996 was officially called a "retrieval of Constitutional order"). Manilov's point is popular in Russian society as a whole,(6) but particularly among Russian nationalists, the semi-democratic and military elite, many officials, and some parts of the media. Russia's media, ever mindful of the politics involved and the support it needs from political figures like acting President Vladimir Putin, offers this official version to an already frightened public. Accordingly, Russia supposedly confronts a division of international and local Islamic terrorism in Chechnya.

This version of the confrontation in the south found an attentive ear with Russians because of a series of horrible terrorist acts in Russian cities that were immediately attributed (without convincing evidence) to "Chechen terrorists." Since then, this coverage has carefully exploited genuine and deep-seated fears. We may place them with the long-standing real and perceived danger that Russians see in being encircled. From our point of view, these fears of encirclement may be traced at least as far back as the Polish invasion of 1612, the invasions of Charles XII of Sweden and Napoleon of France. They gained profound reality recently through the German attack of the 1940s and the latest extension of NATO to the East. Today, someone like Yossef Bodansky sees it as originating with Muslim Iranian and Turkic nations and groups, the possible loss of strategic outlets in the Black Sea and Caspian, and Moscow's fear of pan-Islamic and pan-Turkist movements. …