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Russia's War on Chechnya

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Tags War and Foreign PolicyPolitical Theory

10/25/2002Yuri N. Maltsev

The Moscow hostage crisis ended in a way one might expect, through massive violence inflicted by a state that has little regard for human life and an intense focus on displaying power. Russian troops pumped in poison gas that ended up killing 115 of the people the authorities were supposed to be rescuing.

Vladimir Putin apologized for the loss of life but made no comment addressing what everyone knows is the underlying motive force of all violence: Russia's refusal to permit the Chechen nation freedom from Moscow's despotic rule. The Chechans are long past the point of desperation. As the Chechen fighters who held 800 hostages at a Moscow theater told the Russian authorities: "We are more keen on dying than you are keen on living." 

On the released video, a spokeswoman for the group said: 

"Every nation has the right to its fate. Russia has taken away this right from the Chechens and today we want to reclaim these rights, which God has given us (in the same way he has given it to other nations). God has given us the right of freedom and the right to choose our destiny. And the Russian occupiers have flooded our land with our children's blood. And we have longed for a just solution. People are unaware of the innocent who are dying in Chechnya: the sheikhs, the women, the children and the weak ones. And therefore, we have chosen this approach. This approach is for the freedom of the Chechen people and there is no difference in where we die, and therefore we have decided to die here, in Moscow. And we will take with us the lives of hundreds of sinners. If we die, others will come/follow us—our brothers and sisters who are willing to sacrifice their lives (in God's way) to liberate their nation. Our nationalists have died but people have said that they (the nationalists) are terrorists and criminals. But the truth is Russia is the true criminal." 

She was right in almost everything but her view that innocent theatergoers (many of whom ended up dead at Russian hands in any case) should pay the price for centuries of oppression and genocide. In its misplaced but righteous, anger Chechen's youth are sacrificing themselves and hundreds of innocent lives in a desperate attempt to attract the world’s attention to the fate of their maimed and raped land. Do we listen?

Kremlin’s Madness

The story of Chechen suffering is long: independent Chechnya was conquered by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century after a long and bloody war against a strong religious leader of the Chechens, the legendary Imam Shamil, who led Chechen resistance to czarist Russia. Young Count Leo Tolstoy, who served in the Russian Imperial Army in Chechnya in the 1840s, was so disgusted by the unjust and atrocious colonial war that he resigned from the army and wrote a story of Chechen war praising Shamil. 

Vladimir Lenin referred to Chechnya as the most backward outskirt of the Russian Empire—a prison of nationalities—and declared that development of these regions would be the primary target of the Bolshevik government. This promise became one in the long book of broken promises of socialism—a beautiful mountain country with proud and industrious people was completely destroyed by Communists.  Stalin's purges of 1937, and consequent deportation of all Chechens and Ingush from their homeland to uninhabitable regions of Kazakhstan in 1944, belongs among the most horrible pages of the murderous history of the Soviet Union. 

The former Speaker of the Russian parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov (an ethnic Chechen himself), told me that over half of all Chechens were physically exterminated as a result of Stalin's "wise policy towards nationalities." Chechens I met in Grozny told me blood-freezing stories of deportation: People crowded into cattle cars without food, water, or sanitary facilities for several days, corpses traveling with children, killings of innocent protesters at the railway stations by KGB guards. 

Ethnic and religious cleansing of the Northern Caucasian district was the vision of Josef Stalin—the "Great Father of Nations". It was no surprise that long suffered Chechens declared their independence immediately upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. So did fifteen other nations recognized today by the United States and the world community. 

The case of the Chechens was different—according to Stalin’s Constitution of 1936, only "Sister union" republics were granted a right to independence—not "autonomous" republics like Chechnya. The only difference is that Stalin assigned different statuses to different parts of his empire. 

But surely Chechens or Tatars or Dagestani have as much right to nationhood as, say Estonia, Armenia or East Timor. The Chechens are a colonized people who have been conducting a struggle against imperial Russia and the imperial Soviet Union for more than 200 years. It is amazing that Stalin’s Constitution is still a valid legal document for the Bush administration refusing to recognize the right of the oppressed nationalities of Russia for self-determination.

Putin's 1999 invasion of Chechnya brings back the memories of Stalin's deportation of Chechens and Ingush in 1944. Russian authorities unleashed an unprecedented propaganda campaign against Chechens as a nation. In recent years, Russian media have depicted the Chechen nation as thugs and bandits responsible for organized crime and street violence in Russia. Russian "journalist" Yuri Mogutin wrote in the journal Novy Vzglyad (A New Glance) of the the Chechen nation "that it had given the world absolutely nothing except international terrorism and drugs business" and he remarked also "that any Russian feels towards the Chechens a zoological, genetic, animal hatred."

Russian government propaganda (following the best traditions of Soviet indoctrination and employing the same people) was and is trying to portray all Chechens as criminals and fanatics. Chechens are portrayed possessing special "national" characteristics: "brutality, sadism, fanaticism and fascism." Chechens are even accused of "making Russians drunk by giving them vodka." 

The goal of Russia against Chechens was exposed by the Director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Valery Tishkov: 

"Thanks to the press not only in Russia but also abroad, an image of 'Chechen Mafia' has been created, which neutralized the sympathy towards Chechens that had formed internationally as a result of the war. If it were not for that image, the international support for Chechens would have been even more tangible. I also do not agree with the image of 'Medelin cartel' or criminal zone that has been thrust upon people. This is a myth. The level of crime among Chechens is no higher than among Georgians or Russians in Moscow. At the same time Chechens are very successful in business."

It is little wonder that the Chechens discern a direct continuation of Tsarist and Stalinist politics when they read in the press utterances by Russian generals like "We need a Caucasus without Caucasians" and "We are ready to fight until the last Chechen, etc." Russian Prime Minister, ex-KGB operator Vladimir Putin, publicly accused them of their criminal character, and of running organized crime networks in Russia. "We’ll find dark-skinned terrorists even in a lavatory and end them there", he told Russian troops in Chechnya.  

Mikhail Barsukov, at the time a minister of the Russian government, characterized Chechens this way: "A Chechen is only capable of killing. If he cannot kill, he robs; if he is not capable of doing that, he steals, and there is no another kind of Chechen." This is the Russian political view of Chechens! The Russian government’s mythology has it that all crime in Russia is perpetrated by Chechens or, many Americans parrot, "the Chechen Mafia." Maybe this is why both Democrats and Republicans, engulfed in hysteria here, are giving Putin the green light and are practically funding his infamous war.

Russian statists from Aleksandr Barkashov, the leader of the Russian National Unity Party, which styles itself a fascist party, to Alexei Arbatov, the leader of the Liberal wing of the Russian Duma, have endorsed the war in Chechnya.   Zhirinovsky, who is openly anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish (he spent some time in a Turkish prison while being an exchange student there) and the communist leader Gennadii Zuganov are professing the urgency of the preservation of Greater Russia and an expansion to the South.  

It is unlikely that Putin's regime can succeed in Chechnya where generations of harsh, repressive rule and genocide have failed. Due to an irresponsibly adventurous clique in the Kremlin, Russia is facing a long-standing confrontation with Chechens and the Muslim world at large.  With terror in Russia unleashed by Chechens the war became as elusive as the Sufi orders themselves.  

Today the Russian government, with the silent blessing of the Bush administration (good relations with Russia is one of its very few, if not its only dubious achievement in foreign policy) continues its aggression against vastly inferior but, apparently, highly motivated Chechen freedom fighters. The U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing this war by financing financial and military aid to Russia.  

Russian fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships have completely destroyed the capital city of Grozny and numerous villages. Cowardly, unfocused, nighttime bombing went unpunished. Today Chechnya is infested with Russian land mines and Chechens are being killed or maimed by them every day.

Russian government statements tend to reinforce fears that another deportation may be soon to come. Those fears stem not only from the sad memory of the 1944 deportation of Chechens and Ingush but also from the 1992 and 1993 ferocious ethnic cleansing of the Ingush population from Prigorodnyi Raion—a fact completely ignored by the pro-Russian media and government policy of the West. 

Officials of the Russian Federal Migration Service admitted that accommodation had been arranged for refugees from Chechnya in seven regions of central and southern Russia and that an operational group had been set up to coordinate the action. Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations claims that the number of refugees is much higher and close to 150,000. 

Migration accommodation is a window-dressing used by Russian propaganda apparatchiks for a forced ousting of Chechens from their homeland in the pursuance of crushing their aspirations for independence. Apparently, the processes of willing exodus or deportation have already begun. Russia's forces have chosen the tactic of displacing the population.  

In fact, there is little or no evidence linking any of the apartment bombings to "Chechen terrorists." General Aleksandr Lebed, who was one of the most popular candidates for the Russian presidency but conveniently died this year in a helicopter crash, believed that the so-called "terrorist bombings" were actually fabricated by the Kremlin itself. Chechen rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, has proudly claimed previous terrorist attacks on Russia, including a 1995 attack on a hospital in the village of Budyonnovsk, Southern Russia. This time, however, he denied having anything to do with the bombings. 

Like Lebed, Basayev believes these bombings are the work not of Chechens, but of the Kremlin or its politically active secret services, as a way of provoking chaos and swamping the coming presidential elections. Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB operative, may be the lynch pin: he could be trying to secure his claim to the presidency in the wake of the present nationalist hysteria.

Putin is hardly unusual in this. Powerful politicians often believe that they can personally benefit by being seen to be solving a crisis of this magnitude, even when the real source of the crisis is the prior actions of the state itself. This time, the hostage crisis in Moscow was definitely of Chechens' making. But the action, as appalling as it is, does not appear in a historical or political vacuum. 



Contact Yuri N. Maltsev

Yuri N. Maltsev, Senior Fellow of the Mises Institute and professor of economics at Carthage College, worked as an economist on Mikhail Gorbachev's economic reform team before defecting to the United States in 1989. He has testified before the US Congress and appeared on CNN, PBS News Hour, C-Span, CBC, and other American, Canadian, Spanish, South African, and Finnish television and radio programs. He has authored and co-authored fifteen books and numerous articles. He is a recipient of the Luminary Award of the Free Market Foundation.

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