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Home > World

Russia vs. Chechnya: What's their beef?

11 December 2003

If you've ever been to the opera - and if you haven't, just imagine a meeting of Gay Weightwatchers - you may well have found yourself praying for death after watching two hours of wailing, sword-wielding fatties attempt to pass themselves off as men-at-arms. Unfortunately, death was exactly what opera-goers got last year when Chechen paramilitaries besieged an opera house in Moscow. Nearly 130 hostages, and all 41 Chechen rebels, died when Russian special forces used gas to storm the building, ending the four-day siege.

The Russia/Chechnya 'situation' is one of those conflicts that most of us tend to mentally file away under 'Former Eastern Bloc Grief', along with thoughts like 'Romanian orphans, very sad, but what can you do?' and 'Ooh, I wouldn't have liked to be on the Kursk'. But what is Russia's/Chechnya's beef?

Well, it all came to a head with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Chechnya was the first of many nations like Georgia, Latvia, the Ukraine etc. to claim independence. But the roots of the conflict go back centuries. Underlying the whole problem is a religious division between the Muslim populations of many of the outlying regions of the Soviet Union, and the Russian population, which was/is mainly Christian.

In the nineteenth century Chechnya was known as Caucasia. In 1810 the Russians attempted to destroy (with military force) Causcasian opposition to their rule but had limited success. By the 1920s it was decided instead to contain the problem by creating an independent state in the mountainous areas of Caucasia. The new state would be called the Soviet Mountain Republic, but the plan was never followed through.

When World War Two came along Chechnya was attacked by both German and Red Army forces. The Russians wrongly believed the Chechens were being supported by the Germans, and in 1944 thousands of Chechens were exiled to central Asia.

(As a result of Chechnya's bloody history, Chechens became dispersed around the world. Currently the largest Chechen exile communities are in Turkey and Jordan, and are made up of descendants of Chechens who fled the Caucasus after the wars of the 19th century. It is claimed that there are more Chechens spread around the rest of the world than there are inside the republic, as a result of the perpetual conflict.)

After the war, under Soviet rule, Chechnya and Ingushetia, another Muslim republic, became a combined, supposedly autonomous republic. The Chechens weren't too happy about this halfway house, but the real problems began much later in 1992 when Chechnya separated from Ingushetia. Two years later Russia invaded Chechnya to stifle the Muslim desire for independence.

Why, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, didn't Russia just let Chechnya be? Well, Russia has a habit of crushing dissent with brute force, and old habits die hard. But Russia also wanted to control the Caucasian oil trade and had a large interest in the Azerbaijan oil project. It made sense to keep Chechnya in Russian possession because there is a pipeline running through the country.

In the fighting that followed the invasion many accusations of brutality were levelled against the Russian forces. After many unsuccessful attacks on the capital, Grozny, a peace treaty was signed in 1995. Sporadic fighting continued, but in 1996 a second truce brought a temporary peace. Then in September 1999, after more Muslim uprisings in Chechnya, Russia invaded again with a much stronger force.

The Russian take on events includes a long list of grievances against the breakaway republic. They say troops were only sent in in 1999 after a string of random bomb explosions in Moscow and other Russian cities killed more than 200 civilians. They also argue that after their troops left in 1996, Chechnya became a haven for organised crime and kidnapping. Incidents have included Chechen terrorists taking over a cruise liner in the Black Sea and holding hundreds of hostages in the village of Pervomaiskoye on the Dagestan-Chechnya border. However the operations seem to have been designed to get public attention rather than extract ransoms.

In 1999 the Russians launched attacks on various cities in Chechnya and finally captured Grozny in early 2000. Later, Vladimir Putin would withdraw the majority of the troops and give control to local officials.

Thus Chechnya is still in a kind of limbo, without a definite conclusion to the conflict. Large-scale Russian operations in Chechnya are now rare, but the military still bombs targets in the mountains, trying to destroy rebel bases. Meanwhile Islamic militants continue to carry out terrorist operations. Most recently a female suicide bomber killed 15 people when she detonated a bomb on a bus carrying Russian military personnel.

Many believe that Muslim extremists are increasingly operating independently of any leadership in Chechnya, and the Russian government has implied it believes the latest bombing is part of a wider, worldwide Islamic movement. One senior official said the latest suicide bombing 'has come to us from other countries'.

And the nebulous nature of terrorism probably means that Chechnya can expect more of the same in the future. Although it obviously suits the Russians to claim that outside elements are carrying out attacks against them, the fragmented nature of opposition to the Russians - especially from Islamic groups - means that sporadic attacks are likely to continue.

So there you go. Chechnya is a rather bleak subject - there have been various unsuccessful attempts to stop the fighting, including initiatives by the US - but at least now you know a little bit more about it.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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