Chechnya: The Achilles Heel of Russia-Part Two

By Rasizade, Alec | Contemporary Review, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Chechnya: The Achilles Heel of Russia-Part Two


Rasizade, Alec, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: In last month's issue Dr Alec Rasizade explained the historic hostilities between Chechnya and Russia and now he analyses the struggle between them, up to the recent death of Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the Chechen resistance. The final instalment next month will look at future prospects.

The First Chechen War

IN November 1990, the Chechen National Congress convened and invited Johar Dudaev, a retired Soviet Air Force general, to head it. Dudaev, who had never lived in Chechnya before and was married to a Russian woman, wanted to secede from the Soviet Union and form an independent North Caucasus Federation with neighbouring republics. During the first half of 1991, the differences within Chechnya became more pronounced as the separatist movement gathered support and moved toward secession, while the local communist authorities became more adamant that the province remain in the USSR.

The failed August 1991 anti-Gorbachev putsch in Moscow, which attempted to undo his reforms, gave Chechen separatists a chance to assert their power. Doku Zavgaev, the communist chief of the Chechen-Ingush Republic, did not denounce the putsch and was therefore discredited in the eyes of Chechen nationalists. Boris Yeltsin, who sidelined Gorbachev after the plotters' fiasco, sent to Grozny Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen by origin, who was then the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation [speaker of parliament]. He convinced Zavgaev to resign and to establish the Provisional Council until elections could be held in the republic.

Dudaev, however, immediately revolted against the Provisional Council. He stormed the KGB headquarters in Grozny and seized its cache of weapons, reportedly with the acquiescence of Yeltsin, who sought to unseat Gorbachev as the last head of the Soviet Union. Dudaev proclaimed Chechnya's independence on 6 September 1991 as the Republic of Ichkeria. His move was fully in conformity with the law passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet on 26 April 1990 On the Division of Powers between the USSR and the Federation Subjects. It granted the autonomous republics and regions the same right to secede from the Soviet Union that the constituent republics (such as Georgia) had always had under the USSR Constitution--in theory, if not in practice.

The Provisional Council met to demand that Dudaev stop his attempts to seize power, but in October 1991 he declared his own National Congress of the Chechen People the sole power in the republic, abolished the Provisional Council and claimed 90 per cent of the votes in the presidential election. Yeltsin declared a state of emergency and dispatched troops to the region. A series of Russian military incursions followed, which Chechen militants repeatedly stymied.

As Dudaev's power grew, he encountered resistance from the Chechen parliament, from the public and from rival warlords. He responded by abolishing the parliament, the Grozny municipal council and the constitutional court, and establishing presidential rule in April 1993. After several attempts to forcibly depose Dudaev through proxies and a failed tank assault on Grozny, Yeltsin issued an ultimatum on 29 November 1994 to Dudaev to disarm and submit to Moscow. Dudaev responded by announcing martial law in the Republic of Ichkeria.

The first Chechen war began on 11 December 1994, when Russian ground forces entered Chechnya. Officially, their mission was to restore Moscow's authority over the secessionist republic. The Russian defence minister Pavel Grachev, confident of a swift and relatively painless victory, said that the Chechen capital Grozny could be seized in two hours by a regiment of paratroopers. However, the Russian troops storming Grozny were slaughtered in the hundreds by skilled Chechen street fighters who ambushed their convoys and wiped out whole units. Almost 2000 Russian soldiers were killed during the first two months of fighting alone. …

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