Nicola Melloni, Paris, November 2007
The Russia’s Chechen War
The political causes of Russia’s war in Chechnya
Keywords: Respect of human rights | | | | | | | |
Ref.: Tracey C. German, New York and London: Routledge Curzon, 2005
Tracey German’s Russia’s Chechen War examines the political causes of Russia’s war in Chechnya, which has continued sporadically since December 1994. While German’s discussion of the war itself and of the interwar period between 1996 and 1999 offers little new, her analysis of the background to the first war adds much to our understanding of the politics at work in Moscow and Grozny.
The Russian and Chechen Media
She relies on reports in the Russian and Chechen media to help provide a basic narrative, but she supplements these with interviews, government documents, and publications from both Russia and Chechnya that previous studies neglected. In addition, she makes great use of memoirs written by major figures in the conflict such as Boris Yeltsin, Dzhokhar Dudaev, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and others. These sources allow German to provide a more complete explanation of the events that led to the Chechen War.
German argues that the Chechen War resulted from the combination of five major factors: the political instability in Russia due to the transformation from Soviet Communism to democracy; « the institutional and ideological vacuum, caused by the collapse of communism, » which allowed for the rise of hard-line elements in both Russia and Chechnya; Russia’s desire to maintain its territorial integrity; mismanagement by both Russian and Chechen elites; and the lack of a proper institutional and legal framework in Russia to deal effectively with center-periphery issues (pp. 155-6). Of course, the sudden transformation from communism to democracy was the most important contributor to the cause of the war.
The domination of Caucasus Region
German begins with a brief history of relations between Russia and Chechnya, emphasizing the long record of acrimony and conflict brought by Russia’s efforts to dominate the Caucasus region. German adds that Russia also feels threatened by Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, especially as Georgia wants to join NATO and Turkey has declared the North Caucasus « to be a foreign policy priority » (p. 2).
The contemporary Chechen conflict
The roots of the contemporary Chechen conflict go back to Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens, Ingush, and other Caucasian peoples to Kazakhstan in 1944. Along with the rise of nationalism, German argues that the incomplete transition to democracy in the early 1990s did not allow Moscow to deal with the Chechen separatist movement effectively. She states that after the failed coup attempt in 1991, the new Russia retained many Soviet institutions, such as the KGB, and the nation continued to function under the 1977 Soviet Constitution for two years. As German describes, movements against Soviet/Russian rule began in Chechnya in 1988 when demonstrations in Grozny against a proposed biochemical plant in Gudermes turned into political protests against communist domination. These movements formed the National Front, the first popular front established in Chechnya, with the objectives of establishing democracy, reviving Chechen and Ingush history and culture, and protecting the environment. The following year, ethnic Chechens won seats in the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, which politicized the Chechen nation and created embryonic statehood ambitions.
The Chechen separatist movement
The Chechen separatist movement really began with the founding of the Vainakh Democratic Party (VDP) in May 1990. German explains that the emergence of Dudaev marked the beginning of tensions between the Chechen separatists and the Soviet/Russian authorities. Dudaev’s election as Chairman of the OKChN Executive Committee in 1991 radicalized and split the organization as moderate intelligentsia members left the congress to oppose the OKChN openly. During the anti-Gorbachev coup attempt in August 1991, pro-Dudaev forces seized the television station in Grozny and Dudaev delivered a televised speech demanding the dissolution of the Checheno-Ingush Supreme Soviet and the resignation of Zavgayev. In September 1991, the OKChN declared the ASSR Supreme Soviet to be illegitimate and powerless and called for parliamentary and presidential elections for October 27. By this time, German explains, the split between the Chechen separatists and the Soviet/Russian authorities had been completed.
One of the most valuable aspects of German’s book is her accurate narrative and evaluation of prewar anti-Dudaev opposition movements. German emphasizes that Dudaev never had the unanimous support of the Chechen nation, despite his manipulative references to the threat of Russian invasion and his disingenuous advocacy of an Islamic state. Opposition groups were divided, with some favoring independence without Dudaev as leader and others favoring a more conciliatory relationship with Moscow. In April 1993, Dudaev came close to being overthrown as the Chechen Parliament voted no confidence in his government and Dudaev closed the parliamentary newspaper Golos Chechenskoi Respubliki. By 1994, the opposition consisted of four main groups that received varying degrees of support from Moscow and were mainly centered in northern Chechnya. Dudaev enjoyed his greatest support in the southern mountain regions.
The Russian invasion
The Russian invasion in 1994, however, as German points out, effectively united this opposition in defense against the invaders.
German also provides a thorough treatment of Russia’s actions in the prewar period. Throughout 1991 and 1992, Moscow’s control of Chechnya gradually eroded. During 1992-1994, Russia used negotiations with Chechen officials and large monetary subsidies in an attempt to resolve the situation. German argues that three factors motivated the party of war: frustration as a result of Russia’s loss of international standing in the 1990s; the fear that NATO expansion presented a direct threat to national security; and the threat of civil war.
In the final chapter, German briefly examines the interwar period and the resumption of hostilities in 1999. She points out that the second war contained more foreign fundamentalist Islamic elements as Islamic extremists, including the Saudi warrior Khattab and others. She explains that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in 1997, effectively lost control of Chechnya to various warlords and, in 1999, he reluctantly agreed to turn Chechnya into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law.
German’s book is a classical history book that yet offers some interesting analysis on the transitional situation in the former USSR. German, in fact, concludes that behind all the reasons for the Chechen wars « lies the fundamental reality that the country lacked substantive, effective democratic institutions and the constitutional framework necessary to achieve a successfully negotiated settlement » (p. 155). The survival of a Soviet mentality in Russian politics as well as « institutional self-survival » also contributed to the outbreak of war. It is possible to extrapolate from German’s argument that the Chechen wars are just one of the many problems that resulted from the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Perhaps if the Soviet Union had been able to sustain itself and the transition away from communism had been more gradual, the Chechen conflict could have been averted.