It could be a terrible movie title!
Chechnya is a small state sandwiched between Dagestan, Georgia, and what is now the state of Ingushetia. It lies on the southwest border of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus Mountains. It is a state built on a tradition of resistance against Russian forces dating back to the end of the 18th century. A two hundred year long struggle between David and Goliath: Goliath seems to be prevailing.
Through the 19th century, David was an amateur guerrilla warrior. The Chechens were a tribal people divided into disparate clans, which made fighting against the trained and decorated Russian empire difficult. Victory through unity; and unity would come with the spread of Islam in parallel to the conflict against tsarist forces.
Things didn’t get much better with the Soviet Union and relations between the two states were far from ameliorating. The empire, though metaphoric, held strong. It had swallowed the borders of the republic: the legacy of Peter the Great leered behind the imperialist trend of colonization. The Chechen language and culture were repressed, as Stalin’s policies tried to impose “better civilization.” On February 23rd, 1944—a day that still resonates in Chechnya, Stalin ordered mass deportation of Chechens to the gulags of Siberia. At the same time, entire villages were set ablaze with thousands dying in the flames, while thousands more would perish by the cold, the grueling journey, and/or all other aspects of the gulag.
When Glasnost finally rolled around, separatist fervor at fever pitch took advantage and called for presidential and parliamentary elections. A former Soviet Air Force General, Jokhar Dudayev, became the new head of state. Yeltsin’s rosy cheeks billowed as he huffed and he puffed: Boris was unimpressed. Russia refused to recognize the borders; as Putin would later say right before part deux of the War, “There is no border between Russia and Chechnya. Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.” The big bad wolf invaded Chechnya, with tanks and air bombs descending onto the capital, Grozny (it literally means “terrible.” This is the state capital—just to reiterate.)
This is a country whose unitary development is based—one more reiteration—in a tradition of resistance. Russia did not anticipate a backlash. They were militarily unorganized and unprepared for both armed and unarmed civilian protestors. The unarmed ones were easy enough to deal with: they were run over with tanks. The rebels found allies in Islamic insurgency groups, with the Taliban providing direct support to the Chechen cause. The civilian fighters were becoming more and more extreme and several hostage crises ensued. In 1996, Dudayev was killed in a Russian-launched missile attack.
Aslan Maskhadov was his successor. His prospects for peace included the introduction of Islamic Sharia law. However, a republic built on violence is unlikely to have matters change much. Crime was pervasive. A series of bombings in Moscow were blamed on Chechen terrorists. This fueled anti-Chechen sentiments, off which president Putin fed.
Russian troops once again took control of Grozny in 2000 with popular support of the Federation, which forced the rebel leaders to take refuge in the mountains.
The Russians are a productive people: while the new Moscow-appointed leader and Chechen mufti Akhmad Kadyrov—who by the way had declared a jihad on Russia earlier in his career, to then abandon all dedication in order to join the Kremlin lot which proved more promising—was instated in the presidential palace, there was a simultaneous “cleaning” of rebel supporters and fighters. Thousands of “suspects” vanished and were murdered. An exodus of hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians poured into Georgia and neighboring Ingushetia.
In 2002, the Moscow Theater came under siege by Chechen separatists. Some 900 people were held hostage for three days. The attack was a deliberate move as a call to the Kremlin to permit greater autonomy in rule. The rebels shot two people dead. Putin immediately linked counter tactics as part of a greater move in the war on terror, allying himself closely with former U.S. President George W. Bush. What happened next was doubly revolting: to free the hostages, Russian officials ordered the pumping of an opiate gas through the air vents. The gas had not been tested by doctors. When victims were freed, a percentage did not receive any medical attention and 130 people died. President Putin has absolved himself: No formal apology has to this day been delivered.
When an event like this transpires, who do we want to ally ourselves with? On the one hand, Russian officials are exploiting any potential Chechen sovereignty and sustaining antagonistic relations. At the same time, despite its lengthy resume in faulty politics, Russia is a relatively stable government. The state of Chechnya is built on a guerilla-like mentality nested in a tradition of successive violence and repression. It’s unlikely that it will be able to develop a healthy representative form of government on its own any time soon.
When Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, he was succeeded by current Russian Deputy Justice Minister Alu Alkhanov, a military man decorated for his services in the Chechen wars on the side of the Russians. Since Kadyrov, elections in Chechnya are highly controversial: allegations of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and the exclusion of separatists are of no surprise. The former two are not estranged to the Russian electoral process. The same pattern recurred with the election of Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007. Ramzan is Akhmad Kadyrov’s son and a member of United Russia, with Vladimir Putin at its head. Cute.
A few months ago, Kadyrov junior stated in an interview to BBC that Putin is the best candidate to handle affairs in the North Caucasus. He described his pal and mentor as, “really down-to-earth;” “He is a former security services worker, he has studied us well. He will produce better results than any group of men could working together. If he had not trusted Akhmad [Kadyrov], today’s Chechen republic would not exist. Putin himself flew here, he was interested in every little detail. He is a strong man. He does not get offended by those who criticize him, he says that they have their own views and that they are free to express them.”
– Veronica Aronova
(Featured photo: LOreBoNoSi, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1 & 2: LOreBoNoSi, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 3 Government.ru, Creative Commons, Wikipedia)