Magazine article Contemporary Review

Chechnya: The Achilles Heel of Russia-Part One

Magazine article Contemporary Review

Chechnya: The Achilles Heel of Russia-Part One

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: The death of the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov on 8 March makes the following article all the more important. It is the first part of a series that will examine the long conflict between Chechnya and Russia. In the last two decades Chechnya has received temporary attention from the Western media especially at the time of horrorific events, such as the hostage crisis at the Moscow theatre in 2002 and the attack on the school in Beslan last year. Last month Russian forces achieved their long-term goal of cornering and killing Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of Chechen resistance whom the Russians blamed for these terrorist acts. This will be a pivotal moment in the war in Chechnya and it is therefore a good time to examine the complicated background of this conflict.

THE Great Caucasus mountain range, extending for 1432 kilometres from the Black to the Caspian Sea, is a formidable wall naturally defining the southern boundary of Russia and forming an impenetrable barrier separating it from the Middle East. This fortress-like majestic maze of mountains is populated, alongside the Russians and Cossacks, by an array of small nations, such as the Abkhaz, Circassians, Balkars, Ossetians, the Ingush, Chechens, Kalmyks, and the welter of tribes and clans of Eastern Caucasus known collectively as Daghestan [literally--the Country of Mountains]. They came and settled here a long--or not so long--time ago from all parts of Eurasia with their fifty languages belonging to all major language groups, and faiths in all major religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Today they are all amalgamated in, fight to separate from, or strive to join, the Russian Federation.

As the struggle of indigenous South Caucasian nations that were suddenly cast outside Russia by the breakup of the USSR (such as the Abkhaz and Ossetians in Georgia, the Avars and Lezghins in Azerbaijan) testifies, only 'mother Russia' [matushka Rossia] is perhaps the historic destiny for all Caucasian highlanders seeking prosperity and security within a stable and socially responsible great power. On the other hand, the ruthless war against the Chechen separatists, who happened to live on the Russian side of the range, has manifested that it is strategically impossible for Moscow to allow a breach in its natural Caucasian frontier. With a stroke of President Yeltsin's pen in 1991, Russia had lost enough historic Russian land in northern Kazakstan, eastern Ukraine and Crimea, for which the Russian soldier and Cossack had spilled too much blood in innumerable wars, to let yet another part of the country chip off so easily.

It is an interesting fact that Chechnya is the only place in northern Caucasus with oil fields around its capital Grozny. Enigmatically, it is at the same time the only nation in this region fighting for separation from Russia, while other small Caucasian nations left outside her are yearning for reunification with the same Russia. This single fact might explain both the perseverance of Chechen guerrillas (and their foreign supporters) and the determination of the Russian army there. None of the other Caucasian nations to the east, west or south of the Chechens (where no oil has been found) has expressed an eagerness to leave Russia.

What is more, those who inhabit the southern slopes and have found themselves within the newly independent states of Transcaucasia strive to join the Russian Federation, and are currently at various levels of the struggle for separation from Georgia and Azerbaijan (both of which logically, albeit unofficially, support the anti-Russian Chechen movement). All of these ethnic aspirations, clandestine activities and diplomatic efforts ascertain the complicated nature of Caucasian politics, of which the Chechen conflict is just the most visible part.

Notwithstanding their linguistic and religious differences, all Caucasian nations, including the Cossacks, wear the uniform attire called cherkeska [Circassian coat] with a tall fleece hat and fancy dagger, share the same ways of life, habits and cuisine, a deep suspicion of outsiders and a certain ancient code of honour, which occupies a significant place in their mentality. …

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