A Chechen fighter near the burned-out ruins of the Presidential Palace in Grozny, January 1995 during the First Russo-Chechen War (Image: Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev, wikipedia.org)
Twenty-five years ago today, Chechnya declared independence from the USSR. Since then, the Chechens defeated the Russian army in one war, achieved an accord with Moscow that might have led to the realization of their dreams, saw that agreement betrayed by Moscow, and suffered the brutality of Putin’s invasion and Kadyrov’s repression.
Nonetheless, many Chechens despite this retain their hopes for the future; and they can only be encouraged that on this anniversary, Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky has suggested that the current crisis in Russia will give them and other still-oppressed peoples in Russia another chance at independence.
At the very least, this “round” anniversary should be the occasion for remembering three things that many fail to recognize:
- Chechnya did not declare its independence from Russia but from the Soviet Union;
- Russia not Chechnya violated the Khasavyurt Accords;
- Chechens, thanks to Putin and Kadyrov, now suffer under a more murderous regime than any since Stalin’s.
Moscow has so falsified the history of Chechnya’s drive toward independence in 1990-1991 and its own role not only in failing to live up to the Khasavyurt Accords but also engaging in state terrorism and imposing by the use of overwhelming military force the vicious regime now in place in Grozny that it is necessary to recall the facts.
The history of Chechens and Chechnya has always been complicated and no more so than in 1990-1991. In November 1990, the All-National Congress of the Chechen People meeting in Grozny took the decision to take steps toward the restoration of Chechen statehood.
Chechnya, which was then part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, sought to operate within the law and pushed the Supreme Soviet of that autonomy to adopt a declaration of state sovereignty on November 27, 1990, as part of what has become known as “the parade of sovereignties” in the RSFSR.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev refused to recognize this declaration and so the leadership of the Chechen-Ingush Republic as it now styled itself decided that it would sign the new union treaty on August 20, 1991. But the day before, the August coup broke out, and the head of the Chechen-Ingush Republic took the side of the coup plotters.
Both Chechens and Ingush were outraged and they forced the removal of the head of the Chechen-Ingush Republic. But the leadership of the RSFSR instead of supporting them supported the leadership that had supported the coup in order to ensure that Chechnya would remain subordinate to Moscow, an act illegal even in terms of Russian law.
But on September 6, the government of the Chechen-Ingush Republic voluntarily resigned from office, and the Chechens moved to begin the process of “restoring their own state.” As the leaders of the Chechen independence movement today point out, that day has since been known as Chechen Independence Day.
It set and held elections on October 27, and these were recognized as legitimate by observers from numerous countries and international organizations. They were not recognized by the Soviet government or by the Russian government, which in December, three months after the Chechen Independence Day, replaced the Soviet one.
For almost three years, Chechnya and Russia coexisted in an uneasy calm, but then in order to build authority at home, Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched his attack on Chechnya, an attack that failed and ultimately forced Russia to agree to the Khasavyurt Accords which provided a kind of road map for future consultations on Chechnya’s final status.
Tragically, those 1996 agreements did not lead to peace because Moscow refused to meet any of the conditions that its representatives had agreed to. Then, after staging the apartment bombings in Russian cities and blaming them on the Chechens, Putin began a second war on Chechnya.
That war brought little good to either Chechnya or Russia. It ended with the installation of the murderous regime of Ramzan Khadyrov whose only “virtue” is his absolute loyalty to Vladimir Putin, and it resulted in the view of many in the “Chechenization” of Russia itself with the spread of uncontrolled state violence from the North Caucasus to Russia as a whole.
But Putin using his control of the media portrayed what he did as putting an end to the disintegration of Russia and built his own political authority on that basis. That effort of historical revisionism continues both in Grozny and in Moscow.
Kadyrov for his part told the Chechens that over the past few years, Chechnya has been “transformed from a zone of military actions into a flourishing region” at the edge of Russia. “We have the right to be proud of the nationality policy which is being realized in the republic … For many years, there has not been a single conflict” in Chechnya ethnic or religious.
And Putin echoes this falsification of history: He told the Bloomberg news agency that Russia “has a federative state,” and the rights given to regions and republics like Chechnya “do not destroy or divide the country but on the contrary unify it” even if some problems do remain.
Chechnya in 1991 aspired to be an independent secular state. Its leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had served as a Soviet air force general in Estonia, sought to have his nation follow the example of the Baltic countries.
What Putin and Kadyrov have achieved is to create a situation in which Islamists pose a more immediate threat than ethno-nationalism.
That may help the two of them deflect criticism from the West which in general supports any move against Islamism, but it obscures the fact that Putin and Kadyrov are responsible for that change and that an independent secular Chechnya would have been far less of a problem for Russia and the world than an Islamist one under only nominal Muscovite rule.
And that reflection makes the argument this week offered by journalist Oleg Kashin about the coming disintegration of Russia especially important and compelling.
Kashin writes that “when we think about the disintegration of Russia [now], we always have in the back of our minds the disintegration of the USSR, that is the falling apart along administrative-territorial divisions, ‘centrifugal forces,’ separatism, local wars, and the final resolution at Belovezhskaya pushcha.”
But that understates the dangers ahead, he argues. “In contrast to the Soviet Union, there are no even artificial borders along which Russia could disintegrate. People who have nothing in common are distributed across a common territory and are not separated one from another by any physical boundaries.”
“It is possible,” Kashin continues, “that this is the secret of that state firmness which before Crimea was customarily called stability but now is not.” Instead, the coming disintegration will set all against all regardless of any consideration of borders, the chief achievement of a regime that has failed to offer any vision of a common future.
Despite all “the tragic circumstances” it involved, the disintegration of the USSR did have a number of “beneficiaries – from the Baltic peoples who became full-blown Europeans to the Central Asian [communist party] first secretaries who became full-blown dictators.” But the approaching disintegration of Russia “looks much more depressing.”
“It will not have any beneficiaries,” Kashin concludes, “and no one will be happy.”
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