█ JUDSON KNIGHT
During the 1990s, westerners became aware of a seemingly incongruous conflict between the Russian Federation and Chechnya, a small breakaway republic along its southern border. In fact, Chechens had resisted Russian rule, sometimes actively and sometimes passively, for over two centuries. To both sides, as well as to outside observers, the success of the Russian response to the secessionist movement served as a litmus test for the Kremlin's ability to maintain sovereignty over Russian territories in the post-Cold War era.
Located along the northern flank of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, Chechnya is about the size of Massachusetts, with a much smaller population: about 1,165,000 people at the end of the twentieth century. To the east and southeast is Dagestan, which, like Chechnya, was an outlying minority region of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and an "autonomous republic" in the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation. For decades, Moscow administered Chechnya as a unit with Ingushetia, which lies to the west. By contrast, Georgia, to the south, has enjoyed full independence since the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
Ethnic Chechens, as well as the Ingush minority in Chechnya, are Muslim, and their shared religion has long been a rallying point for resistance against Russian rule. In 1791, their Sheikh Mansur, a national hero and symbol of Chechen resistance, lost a key battle to the Russians, yet Russia did not truly secure control for several more decades. In the 1830s, Muslim leader Shamil prosecuted a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Russians, and when the latter were diverted by the Crimean War in the 1850s, it seemed that the Chechens might successfully break away. As soon as Russia turned its attention to the Chechen problem, however, it crushed Shamil's revolt.
In 1917, the new Bolshevik government created a joint Chechen and Ingush entity that would eventually be given the name "Chechen Ingush Autonomous Region." During World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used alleged Nazi sympathies on the part of the local populace as a pretext for a mass deportation in 1944. Thousands of Chechens and Ingush died in transit, or as a result of deliberate Soviet actions. Only in 1957 were they allowed to return to their homeland, where they remained an obscure fringe element of the Soviet empire until that empire began to crumble.
The first Chechen war (1991–96). In August 1991, Chechen politician and former Soviet air force general Dzhozkhar Dudayev led a coup against the local Moscow-appointed government. Elected president on October 27, he declared independence on November 1. In 1992, Checheno-Ingushetia split in two, with Dudayev still leading the Chechen portion, and in 1993, he dissolved Chechnya's parliament.
Over the course of 1994, Moscow attempted to foment a coup by backing anti-Dudayev groups within Chechnya. When these efforts failed to yield fruit, President Boris Yeltsin in November ordered the Chechens to peaceably accept Russian sovereignty or face armed intervention. When the Chechens did not surrender the reins of government, Russia invaded with a force of 40,000 men on December 11, 1994.
In a situation that recalled the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan that had begun almost exactly 15 years earlier, the Russians found themselves thwarted in their hopes for easy victory. Pushed back from the capital city of Grozny, they only managed to take it in March 1995, at a heavy military and civilian cost. In April, Yeltsin ordered a unilateral ceasefire, but sporadic fighting continued throughout the spring. Only in June did peace talks begin.
January 1996 saw a Russian incursion in neighboring Dagestan, where rebels had seized control of a hospital. Meanwhile, fighting went on as before in Chechnya, and though Yeltsin on March 31, called for a limited withdrawal, this did nothing to abate hostilities. Anti-Russian sentiment in Chechnya flared when a rocket attack killed Dudayev on April 21, and on August 6, rebel forces gained control of Grozny. Then, on August 31, newly instated Russian security chief Alexander Lebed signed a pact with the rebels, declaring the war concluded and putting off the question of Chechen independence.
The second Chechen war (1997–99). In 1997, Aslan Maskhadov, leader of one of the anti-Dudayev forces, was elected president of Chechnya. That May, Maskhadov and Yeltsin signed a peace treaty, but still failed to address the question of Chechnya's future status. Resentment of Russian rule continued, and with it sporadic armed resistance.
August 1999 saw more incursions into Dagestan, this time on the part of Chechen rebels, who seized control of several towns. Meanwhile, Russia, which had sponsored terrorist movements worldwide during the Soviet years, for now became the target of terrorism as Chechen separatists set off a wave of bombings in Russia proper. Chechen separatists destroyed four apartment buildings in Moscow, and by the end of September, more than 300 people had died in terrorist incidents across the country.
Although the Kremlin had opposed the U.S. and allied European bombing of Yugoslavia under the aegis of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) earlier in 1999, in September, the Russians in Grozny emulated the NATO strategy of strategic air offensives. At month's end, however, it became clear that bombing alone would not be enough, and as midnight approached on September 30, several thousand Russian soldiers, with the support of some 1,000 armored vehicles, advanced into northern Chechnya.
At the end of October came an announcement from Russia's defense minister, Igor Sergeyev, that Russian troops would remain in Chechnya "for a long time and seriously." This marked a reversal of Moscow's claim, made at the beginning of the offensive, that it was acting only to stop Chechen incursions into Dagestan. Meanwhile, the Russians had set up a government under the leadership of a pro-Russian parliament whose members had been living in Moscow since 1996.
Chechnya since 1999. By the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that some 100,000 people had died, and more than 400,000 were rendered homeless, by the wars in Chechnya. In 2002, actions by Chechen troops and terrorists against the Russians continued, with suicide bombings, the downing of a Russian helicopter, and—most dramatically—the storming of a Moscow concert hall in late October. The Russian government responded to the terrorists by gassing the building, rescuing most of the hostages, while killing some hostages along with the perpetrators.
On November 3, 2002, Sergei Ivanov, who had replaced Sergeyev as defense minister, announced that Russia would intensify military operations in Chechnya. Military activity continued, but in early 2003, Russia signaled a new strategy. It declared six months' amnesty for all who had fought on either side in the Chechen conflict since 1993, offering all combatants—including convicts and those under investigation, though not persons accused of major crimes such as murder—immunity from prosecution or prison time.
The Russian and Chechen governments held a referendum in April, 2003, that saw large voter acceptance for a new Russian-backed constitution. Critics in Chechnya, however, charged that the referendum and constitution were simply a means toward providing an illusion of self-rule. Internationally, leaders of human rights groups, as well as some Western officials, described the election as an attempt by the Kremlin to avoid negotiation with guerrilla forces.
█ FURTHER READING:
Gall, Carlotta, and Thomas De Waal. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Knezys, Stasys, and Romanas Sedlickas. The War in Chechnya. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.
Lieven, Anatol. Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
Politkovskaia, Anna. A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya. London: Harvill, 2001.
Chechnya News. < http://www.chechnyanews.com/ > (April 30, 2003).
Pravda. < http://english.pravda.ru/ > (April 30, 2003).
Russian Informational Centre. Ministry for Press, Television, Radio Broadcasting and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. < http://www.infocentre.ru/eng_user/ > (April 30, 2003).