[Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict]

Article excerpt

Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict by John B. Dunlop (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, xi, 234 pp, $54.95 cloth, $18.95 paper).

Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus by Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal (New York: New York University Press, 1998, xiv, 416 pp, $39.50).

Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power by Anatol Lieven (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, xii, 436 pp, $57.95 cloth, $25.60 paper).

Prisoner of the Mountains directed by Sergei Bodrov (Orion Pictures, 1997, 99 minutes).

In November 1994 Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, was worried about his standing in the opinion polls. Elections to the State Duma the previous year had not gone well, and the legislature was now dominated by a 'red-brown' opposition of old-line communists and nationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovskii's somewhat misleadingly named Liberal Democratic party. Meanwhile, chronic economic difficulties, rising crime, and increasingly flagrant corruption continued to erode Yeltsin's popularity. Even more worrisome, in the Caucasus region on Russia's southern border, Islamic separatists were threatening the Russian Federation's fragile unity.

The crisis in the south centred on Chechnya, a small Muslim nation on the northern edge of the Caucasus mountain range that had declared its independence from Moscow in November 1991, shortly after the collapse of the USSR. Ironically, Yeltsin initially encouraged Chechen separatism in his campaign to weaken the authority of his archrival, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Although Yeltsin now opposed the move, over the next two years he did little to re-establish Moscow's authority over the breakaway republic. There were far bigger fish to fry at home, such as the struggle with the Supreme Soviet that had ended in a bloody showdown in October 1993.

As for Chechnya, President Dzhokhar Dudaev, a charismatic former Soviet air force general with a penchant for melodramatic rhetoric and Cosa Nostra couture, had proven spectacularly unfit to govern his infant regime. With an unusually high number of BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes racing about the streets, there were many outward signs of prosperity in the capital, Grozny. Yet much of the republic's civic apparatus, such as schools and hospitals, had all but ceased to function. In the words of a British journalist: 'Dudaev seemed much more interested in the idea of calling Chechnya independent than in the practicality of making it work.' By 1994, Chechens were growing increasingly unhappy with their leader's laissez-faire style. There were many signs that his many domestic political opponents might soon force Dudaev out of office.

Yeltsin was not prepared to wait. His own heavy-handed efforts to encourage Dudaev's foes had ended ignominiously on 26 November 1994, when an attempt to seize Grozny by opposition forces reinforced with Russian armour was easily quashed. The humiliation of this Caucasian Bay of Pigs only further encouraged hard-liners in the Kremlin. At the same time, although the presidential election was still more than a year away, it seemed that decisive action would surely boost Yeltsin's sagging political fortunes. One leading official reasoned: 'It is not only a question of the integrity of Russia. We need a small victorious war to raise the president's ratings.' After all, only two months earlier United States troops had easily occupied the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, in a similar operation to restore 'legitimacy' there. The Russian minister of defence, Pavel Grachev, boasted that one paratroop brigade would need no more than two hours to secure Grozny.

General Grachev proved to be too optimistic. On 31 December, a day that happened to coincide with the minister's birthday, some 6,000 Russian ground troops launched a major assault on the Chechen capital. Even though Dudaev's men had done little to prepare the city's defences, it would take seven weeks of vicious urban combat and heavy artillery strikes to drive them out of their capital. …