Chechnya: From Past to Future

Chechnya: From Past to Future

by Richard Sakwa (Editor)

Paperback(First Edition, First ed.)

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'Chechnya: from Past to Future' creates a historical framework against which the most pressing issues raised by the Chenchen struggle are considered, including the rights and wrongs of Chechen secessionism, the role of Islamic and Western international agencies in defending human rights, the conduct of the war, changing perceptions of the war against the backdrop of international terrorism, democracy in Chechnya itself and the uncertain fate of democracy in Russia as a whole.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843311652
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/15/2005
Series: Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies
Edition description: First Edition, First ed.
Pages: 302
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent. His current research interests focus on problems of democratic development in Russia, the nature of postcommunism, and the global challenges facing the former communist countries. His many books include 'Putin: Russia's Choice' (Routledge, 2004), 'Russian Politics and Society' (Routledge, 2002) and 'The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union' (Routledge, 1999).

Read an Excerpt

Chechnya: From Past to Future

By Richard Sakwa

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wimbledon Publishing Company Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-165-2


Introduction: Why Chechnya?

Richard Sakwa

Chechnya is just one of Russia's 21 ethnically defined republics, yet it is here that one of the most terrible conflicts in modern times has raged in various ways since 1991. There has been considerable debate over what provokes one area to seek secession, while another in apparently similar circumstances remains within the existing constitutional order. Why has it been Chechnya, and not one of the other republics or regions of Russia, that has taken this tragic path? Here, I will place the conflict in its broader historical and theoretical context; the details of the background to the independence struggle will be examined in more detail in other chapters.

Comparative Debates

Michael Hechter has observed that it is typically the poorest regions that are most disposed to secede. Certainly, there is a socio-economic dynamic at work in the case of Chechnya, which was close to the bottom in most indicators of modernization in comparison with other regions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Russia. Levels of educational and general socio-economic attainment were poor, while a high birth rate fuelled exceptionally high levels of unemployment. Reserves of oil had declined and by the early 1980s constituted no more than three per cent of Russian oil production. In most aspects of socio-economic development, Chechnya was in last place in Russia, with over half the population under 30 years of age and with unemployment among ethnic Chechens reaching 30 per cent, forcing some 40 per cent of Chechens of working age to become migrant workers (otkhodniki), with at least 25,000 men leaving each spring to work in Russia to work on building sites as itinerant workers (shabashniki).

The argument that relative poverty provokes secessionist struggles has however been challenged by several authors. In a comparative study of some 45 cases in the former USSR, Henry E Hale examined the question of why some ethnic regions sought to secede while others tried to save the multinational state. He arrived at a different conclusion to Hechter, finding that separatism was strongest in the wealthiest regions, those containing the least assimilated ethnic groups and those already enjoying the highest levels of autonomy. The cases of the Basque country, Flanders, 'Padania' in Northern Italy, Catalonia and Scotland seem to confirm his findings. Other factors examined include the history of previous persecution or memories of historical independence, but ultimately the study argued that 'it is the richest, rather than the poorest, ethnic regions that are the most eager to secede since they have the most to lose should they be exploited by other groups that control the state'. In that context, concessions and attempts to buy off regional elites are unlikely to succeed, and would in all probability only whet their appetites for greater freedom. The case of Dagestan certainly confirms Hale's argument that the poorest regions, rather than the richest, are the most dependent on subsidies and infrastructural resources, thus becoming the greatest supporters of the supranational state.

From the perspective of a regional bargaining model, Daniel Treisman has argued that regions will use the institutional resources at their disposal to bargain with the centre to achieve yet greater advantages, with separatist claims themselves one of the most effective tools in the armoury of regional elites in the bargaining process. Thus ethnic and historical factors are considered secondary, and instead bargaining processes come to the fore. This is not the case in Chechnya, where ethnicity and a burning sense of historical grievance were at the very core of the insurgency against Russian power.

Another factor much discussed in the literature is whether blocked upward social mobility of ethnic groups promotes or inhibits separatist movements. While it would appear logical that blocked career opportunities would provoke alienation, David Laitin has argued that it is in fact the most upwardly mobile (what he calls 'most favoured lords') who adopt the most radical separatist stances when a regime begins to liberalize in an attempt to defend their positions against more youthful (and usually more radical) insurgents from below. In the Chechen case, the local Communist leadership was largely 'Chechenized' only in the very last years of Soviet power. This was too late to develop a substantial ethnic Chechen communist elite in the republic, and by the time this elite came to power the Soviet leadership was already disintegrating. It was not clear to whom they were to be loyal: to the official reforming president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was willing to devolve considerable responsibility to the fifteen Union Republics that made up the USSR, but who from late 1990 sought to mobilize the leaders of some of the autonomous republics within Russia in his struggle against the nascent sovereign Russian state; the so-called hardliners who sought to defend much of the old Communist system and the territorial integrity of the country, who launched a coup against Gorbachev between 18 and 21 August 1991; or the Russian leadership headed by Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected Russia's first president on 12 June 1991.

The attempts of Doku Zavgaev, the head of the Chechen Communist Party organization from June 1989, to place himself at the head of the national movement misfired spectacularly as outsider groups ousted the newly empowered Chechen communist elite. Zavgaev had sought to deflect the challenge by co-opting the movements that in the summer of 1990 came together to form an Acting Committee of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People (the Chechen National Congress), an informal body made up of clan elders and excluding much of the urban population. This organization, with Yeltsin's support, had been intended to put pressure on the Soviet leadership and on Gorbachev personally. The Chechen National Congress, however, soon moved into opposition to Zavgaev. In March 1991 Major-General Dzhokhar Dudaev (1944–96) was elected leader of the Congress, and the Chechen revolution soon far outran attempts to liberalize and 'nationalize' the regime. Dudaev had been the first Chechen to attain the rank of general in the Soviet air force, having served in Afghanistan and then appointed to the command of a flight of strategic bombers stationed in Tartu in the late 1980s. One of Dudaev's main criticisms of Zavgaev was the latter's irresolution during the August coup at a time when, paradoxically in the light of later events, Dudaev supported Yeltsin and the official Soviet authorities against those who had launched the ill-fated coup. Following the coup Dudaev condemned the Chechen communist elite for having supported the hardliners in Moscow, and they were soon swept away. This was the only republic in Russia where the fall of communism was accompanied by such a radical rupture in elite continuity.

In one of the most rigorous studies of secessionism in the Soviet context, Emizet and Hesli examined the point at which a region declared itself sovereign in the USSR, and used this as a measure of separatism: the study assumed that the earlier the sovereignty declaration, the stronger the separatism. This does not fit the Chechen case either, whose sovereignty and independence declarations were effectively one and the same, provoked by the events surrounding the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 and Zavgaev's subsequent removal from power by the armed insurgency led by Dudaev.

In Chechnya it was yet another variable that was primary, and called by Hale 'historical symbolical resources'. Chechnya was indeed rich in these 'resources', factors that turned out to be a liability in any attempt to create an ordered post-communist system. These resources were not 'system integrative', as pertains when there is a shared memory of former statehood (for example, the cases of the Baltic republics and, more tenuously, Ukraine), but instead Chechnya focused overwhelmingly on shared memories of armed resistance, oppression and deportation. Hale's study found no evidence to support the theory that dramatic histories of national independence or ethnic victimization provoked separatism, a somewhat surprising finding in the light of the Chechen case. It appears that not only is Chechnya an uncomfortable participant in the Russian community, it is also an anomalous case when it comes to comparative political science.

History and State Building

There are two key elements that help explain the Chechen syndrome of militant secessionism: a distinctive appropriation of historical memory and constricted state building. Neither of these was absolutely determining, although undoubtedly important, and the various leaderships and their strategies retained scope for autonomous action in response to changing circumstances.

Monochronic Historicism

The core of Chechen identity is more historical than ethnic in nature. Chechnya's claim to independence rests on a distinctive 'historicist' reading of its relationship with imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and post-communist Russia. This relationship is interpreted in black-and-white, or 'monochronic', terms of exploitation and subjugation of the Chechen nation, accompanied by heroic narratives of resistance. This is what Ralph Premdas in his study of Asian secessionism calls 'primordial' factors, compared to 'secondary' factors like exploitation and discrimination. We call this approach to the past 'monochronic' for two reasons: it leaves out of account subtle shadings and instead sees everything in stark black-and-white terms; and it has a single narrative line that remains unbroken and insulated from other histories and the fate of other peoples. A good example of such an approach is the book Chechnya through the Eyes of a Chechen by the Western-educated Umalat Umalatov, whose moving account of his family's tribulations – including exile to Turkey at the end of the great Caucasian war in the 1860s – and the course of Chechen history becomes ever more monochronic. By the time we get to 1991, there appears to be no choice: history demands Chechen independence, even though international law and much of the rest of modern world history proclaims the principle of the territorial integrity of states. Despite declarations in favour of the self-determination of peoples in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later documents, successful secession is the exception rather than the rule. The exception is times of state breakdown, as in the disintegration of the USSR and Yugolsavia in the early 1990s, but even in these two cases independence was granted only to those units that already enjoyed the equivalent of the constitutional right to secede in the old system. A sub-national region cannot simply proclaim independence, and only in exceptional circumstances are new states formed. We label the monochronic view 'historicist' because of its teleological approach to the historical process: not only is the meaning and purpose of history knowable, but a clear, ineluctable and single plan of action inevitably emerges – in our case Chechen independence. Anyone who challenges this view is clearly mistaken, or worse, a traitor. All means thus become legitimate in the pursuit of this historically ordained goal. The room for compromise and negotiation is limited.

There is plenty of evidence to substantiate a monochronic historicist account of Chechnya's past, but it leaves out any more complex diachronic contextualization of the relationship between 'empire' and constituent peoples. The Russian empire was a complex organization that adopted a variety of strategies towards the elements that constituted it. It was far from a single story of endless repression, and following the end of Imam Shamil's struggle in the 1860s Chechnya entered a period of relative development and prosperity. Similarly, although the Soviet experience brought untold suffering to the Chechen people, above all the deportation of the whole nation in February 1944, the period between 1957 (the reconstitution of the Chechen republic, with Ingushetia) and 1991 is seen by many as a relatively benign period of peace when the republic developed culturally and economically – although, as we have noted above, it remained relatively backward and the Chechens were not trusted to rule themselves until the very final period.

Following the fall of communism in 1991 a distinctive reading of Chechen history was appropriated by insurgent groups to seize and maintain power. Nevertheless, as Moshe Gammer notes, the Chechen argument with Moscow was still conducted to a large extent within the Soviet paradigm: 'Thus, while striving to de-sovietize, the new Chechen historical narrative is still strongly linked to Soviet narratives, ways of arguing and moulds of thinking'. While the Chechen struggle for independence raises global normative issues, above all the conditions and circumstances in which a state can secede, the Chechen leadership appeared parochial in its single-minded focus on its relationship with Russia while being unable to consider that struggle in its international setting. There were alternative voices, but these were soon marginalized. A monochronic historicist account of a nation's past can be considered, like many nationality questions, as pre-political: there can be no political process, since there is nothing to discuss – independence is non-negotiable. Perhaps the most important political consequence is the displacement of sovereignty from the actual, existing people living in the present to a mythical historicized people represented by the political struggle, whose views become ascriptive and authoritative rather than representative and contentious. This was the background to Chechnya's distinctive brand of monochronic ideological politics.

Chechnya's monochronic historicism is not simply an abstract characteristic of the political culture of a people, but is rooted in specific social conditions. In particular, much is made of the Chechen system of values in which freedom and equality are prominent. Paradoxically, the repression of the early Soviet years that culminated in the 1944 deportation destroyed 'modernized' groups like the intelligentsia and Party bureaucracy, and thus served to accentuate the traditional social order and values. Even after the reconstitution of the Chechen-Ingush republic in 1957, mosque-building was not permitted, and thus no loyal Islamic hierarchy came into being to undermine the independent Sufi brotherhoods. The Communist Party bureaucracy remained overwhelmingly Russian, as did the leader of the republic until 1989. The gulf between the communist nomenklatura (the office holding class) and the people in Chechnya was reinforced by ethnic divisions, with few Chechens implicated in the regime. The tiny intelligentsia-bureaucratic layer that did emerge was swept away by the Chechen national revolution of 1991. Chechnya under Soviet power remained an overwhelmingly agrarian society where the majority of the urban population consisted of Russians brought in to service the oil industry.

The social structures supporting monochronic historicism were predominant at the moment of breakdown in 1991. The Chechen revolution of late 1991 represented not only the replacement of a Sovietized elite by insurgent outsiders, but also the replacement of relatively Sovietized lowlanders by more traditionalist Southern highlander groups. This shift was reinforced by the actions of the Russian leadership in the fateful months following the August coup. However, although the monochromic historicist perspective was undoubtedly important, it was not the only significant current of thinking. Although the social basis for liberalism in Chechnya was weak, it was not entirely absent and there were alternative narratives of the way that Chechnya's future could be shaped. Dzhabrail Gakaev, a contributor to this volume, is a notable example of the liberal approach. Even Dudaev's approach was relatively nuanced, however fanciful some of his suggestions may have been. Dudaev's official position was for Chechnya to become a full republic outside Russia but within the Soviet Union. Up to his death in April 1996 he remained a consistent 'Soviet loyalist', even though the USSR that he had long served in the airforce no longer existed. At the same time, the contemporary appreciation of even the greatest of Chechnya's heroes, Imam Shamil, who had led the long war (1834–59) against Russian domination in the mid-nineteenth century, is mixed. As Umar Avturkhanov, the leader in 1994 of one of the groups opposed to Dudaev's 'crazed tyranny', had put it to Anatol Lieven:

They talk about the tradition of Shamil, but what did Shamil do for Chechnya in fact? He brought us only decades of unnecessary war, the ruin of the country and the death of half its people. And he wasn't even a Chechen. He came here from Daghestan, preaching his crazy religious fanaticism, hatred of the Russians and holy war, and we Chechens behaved like fools as usual, and followed him, to our destruction.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Notes on the Contributors; Map 1: Chechnya; Map 2: The Caucasus Region; 1. Introduction: Why Chechnya?, 2. Chechnya in Russia and Russia in Chechnya; 3. Chechnya and Tatarstan: Differences in Search of an Explanation ; 4. The Chechen War in the Context of Contemporary Russian Politics; 5. A Multitude of Evils: Mythology and Political Failure in Chechnya; 6. Chechnya and the Russian Military: A War Too Far?; 7. The Chechen Wars and the Struggle for Human Rights; 8. Dynamics of a Society at War: Ethnographical Aspects; 9. Chechnya: The Breaking Point; 10. Globalisation, 'New Wars', and the War in Chechnya; 11. Western Views of the Chechen Conflict; 12. A War by Any Other Name: Chechnya, 11 September and the War Against Terrorism; 13. The Peace Process in Chechnya; Afterword; Appendix 1: The Khasavyurt Peace Agreement; Appendix 2: Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Mutual Relations Between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria; Further Reading; Index

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