Authors: Subhranil Ghosh & Sayantan Bandyopadhyay*
Chechnya is a minuscule North Caucasian landmass of around 17000 square kilometres which comprises a small fraction of Russia’s territory and, with about 850,000 people, about a quarter of Russia’s population. The land which was earlier known for its lush valleys and stony mountains has turned into a fore post of secessionist activities. With the Wahabi brand of radical Islam gaining a firm footing in the region, violent Islamic revolts are fairly commonplace. It must also be noted that this area is also marked by high unemployment, pervasive poverty, and rapid population growth as well as Moscow’s indifference to these issues, reflected in its low economic assistance. These factors have led to a high incidence of corruption, kidnappings and assassinations in the region, with crime as the only source of livelihood for countless people.
The local people were hostile towards the Russians much before the first Chechen war due to historical reasons along with the implementation of short-sighted policies over a period of time. Going back in history, North Caucasus was annexed by Peter the Great in 1722 in his campaign to incorporate all the Muslim territories into the Russian empire to create a huge territory for Russia. In 1908, there was an attempt made by the mountainous tribes of Dagestan and Chechnya for liberation and establish a theocratic Sovereign state, which was brutally suppressed by Tsarist forces. As a matter of fact, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet authorities made little effort to integrate them into the allegedly communist mainstream society, and their sense of an ethno religious identity was kept intact. There were attempts in 1917, by North Caucasian mountainous leaders to proclaim Independence. Understandably, this was unacceptable to the new Communist regime and the region was swiftly incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics. The people were promised a large amount in the newly formed Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialistic Republic in 1934. During the Second World War, Chechen separatists allegedly collaborated with the German forces to defeat the Russians. After the battle of Stalingrad when the Wehrmacht was routed, Chechens were punished by deporting them to Kazakhstan in 1944. There were unconfirmed reports claiming that of the 618000 deportees, over 200,000 died as a result of this exercise. What needs to be understood is that Joseph Stalin forged a mini-empire out of the Soviet Union comprising of multi-ethnic nation-states with separatist tendencies. It was only in 1957 that the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev while de-Stalinizing Soviet polity and society, allowed the deportees to return to their homeland by restoring the status of the Chechno-Ingush Republic. However, the sense of historical injustice and alienation lingered on in the collective memory and consciousness of the Chechen people.
“Not in pouring more troops into the Jungle, but in winning the hearts and minds of the people.” This is cited as a solution to crises related to terrorism and Insurgency by scholars. The Russians have been fighting a protracted war in Chechnya with no end in sight. The causes of the conflict beg analysis as well as why Chechnya is deemed as so important by the Russians.
The crisis in Chechnya is one of the biggest challenges that Post-Communist Russia has had to face. The roots of the crisis can be identified in the expansionist designs of Imperial Russia under the Romanovs. Indeed the North Caucasus region represented the bloodiest venue of Tsarist Imperialist expansion. From 1818 to 1856, the most brutal policies were pursued in order to crush the stiff resistance. Thousands of non-combatants were killed; the stratagem of scorched earth was implemented to starve the guerrillas into submission and people were deported en masse to Siberia, with many dying on the way. More than a million people fled or were expelled from their homelands, settling in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Incidentally, the Communist Regime effectuated even harsher policies. The seeds of social animus vis-à-vis Moscow had been planted in the period of 1943-44, when entire nationalities were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, loaded on to trucks and were shipped off to labour camps in Central Asia. Some 206,000 deportees died on this journey; those not expelled died on the spot as a result of disease, starvation and exposure to the harsh Caucasian weather..
In so far as this bloody chapter in the history of Chechnya is concerned, the causes of the conflict are substantial. However, there are a number of other reasons which have aggravated the hostility in the post-cold war era. One of the fundamental catalysts is inherent in the very character of the Russian Federation. The geopolitical vision and national character of the Russian Federation possess distinctive continuities from those of Imperial Russia and that of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The most important continuity is the peculiar similarity between the time immediately preceding the 1917 revolution and the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States. This is the cause of the erosion of the legitimacy of authority in the eyes of the governed.
When this point is probed further it is revealed that centralized oppression meted out by Moscow from the days of Stalin has only increased. As a result, the separatists do not leave any stone unturned, when it comes to the negation of authority. To complicate this situation, Russia even now, is, in reality, a mini-empire, not a voluntary federation. The artificial multi-ethnic republics, which were fashioned through Soviet machinations, have experienced acute disenfranchisement and marginalization under centuries of corrupt and oppressive centralized rule. The Russian state has not been able to rectify its historical blunders and in fact, it goes on repeating them. While it has awarded some concessions to the restive minorities of Georgia, it displays little, if any, restraint in dealing with Chechen “terrorists.” The wave of bombings that took place in Russian cities in 1999 – a key casus belli for Russia – is attributed to Chechens, a debatable conclusion given the Chechen’s steadfast denials and more importantly, Moscow’s failure to produce a shred of evidence.
The grievances of the Chechens have found expression under the banner of Political Islam. Moscow has gauged, and quite rightly, that Political Islam will be the vocabulary of dissent and the Chechens will employ it to the fullest extent. The Islamic ideology is an important source of identity effectively mobilizing resistance against the non-Muslim rule in the Caucasus.
The Geo-economic and Geo-strategic significance of the North Caucasus region necessitates that Moscow holds on to this hornet’s nest. The Dagestan region commands 70% of Russia’s Caspian Sea coast and the region houses Russia’s only all-weather port on the Caspian. Thus the losses in fishing and commerce would be substantial. Even more critical is the oil pipeline carrying oil from Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital to global markets, which passes through Dagestan before crossing Chechnya into Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. The ensuing loss, in case this pipeline did not operate optimally, to Moscow would amount to millions of dollars. Chechen instability has threatened to completely cut off this oil supply. As the South Caucasus represents Russia’s near-abroad, the political brass in Kremlin worries that upheaval in the North would accelerate the shift in trade from the traditional north-south axis to a new east-west axis, resulting in even closer links between the South Caucasus and the West. The respect that Russia commands in the region would almost certainly erode in the event of a loss of control over the North Caucasus. Since optics play an extremely important role in modern-day statecraft, Russian Weakness could trigger a reorientation of the foreign policies of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Their equations with the west and Iran and Turkey could significantly jeopardize Russia’s strategic position in Eurasia.
However, the two biggest dangers to the Federation could be facilitated by the North Caucasus’ push for more leeway. This might lead to the loss of more non-Russian territories or to a debilitating reconfiguration for Moscow. Secondly, the proliferation of tensions from Chechnya to Dagestan could prompt roughly one million Russians to depart the region, putting massive economic pressures as Southern Russia would be overwhelmed by refugees. Finally, Moscow’s inability to protect ethnic Russians, even within their own country would further downgrade her legitimacy in the eyes of her citizens.
Now we come to the three explanations provided by Russia as to why it is militarily interfering in these regions. Firstly, Russia claims that this is a totally internal problem as Chechnya considered as an integral part of the Russian Federation. Hence, Russia has all the rights to control, suppress and determine the fate of any irredentist movement originating there. Secondly, the Russian constitution must be adhered to by the provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya too. Thirdly, Russian territory extends up to borders of the North Caucasus and therefore the Russian army is compelled to protect Chechnya’s borders.
Now the process of why “Chechens never forgive Blood” and how do these blood relations affect the relations between various people needs to be understood. This is evident in the persistence of three key phenomena, which are also interlocking, that of clan identity, honour and the custom of blood revenge. Chechnya is a clan society and there are roughly 150 teips or tribes. These Teips are subdivided into Gars (several branches) and patronymic families (Neykes). There is a particular issue associated with the concept of Blood Revenge, when someone from one’s Neykes (family) has been killed. These families are subdivided into related families spanning up to seven generations (Shchin-nakhs) which are subdivided into nuclear families (dozals). The gars and nekyes in which members still have personalized knowledge of one another have collective identities which play a huge role in preserving the harmony within these familial units which are linked patriarchically. Male honour is directly connected with three characteristics which are courage, honour and generosity. The male is supposed to safeguard the family’s women and provide for his close relatives and keeps them safe. Male honour is also linked to his ability to avenge any wrong committed to him, his clan or his clan’s women. The offences are in the nature of verbal humiliation, rape, physical injury or death. An offended male individual can avenge his blood feud by washing off the wrong done with the blood of the perpetrator or that of the perpetrator’s family. This blood feud is a strange vicious cycle as the offender transforms into offended after the first retaliation and the cycle of hostilities can last for decades if not centuries. If one cannot retaliate after the attack then the individual risks losing all honour, prestige of his and his tribe.
In this war of hatred, Russia has unleashed ruthless terror in which thousands of Chechens have died so the concept of Blood Revenge is now a national objective and in almost every family someone has died whose death needs to be avenged. Chechens fear death through humiliation they can’t avenge indicated by the responses even of more than 60% of the respondents in mid-1991 wanting to remain within USSR. But the Russian offensive operations carried out through so much brutality have removed any scope for the Chechens to be apolitical. Moreover, the inability of the avengers to locate the exact perpetrator of the crime and punish them as per customs of Blood Revenge has created a bigger problem as they have categorised the entire Russian army and the Russian state as their enemy. So anonymity has widened the spectrum of Revenge.
This blood Revenge has played a huge role in ensuring Insurgency has a steady supply of recruits. The more people are killed by indiscriminate violence by Russian troops, the more people get committed to eradicating the Russians in general. Most of the recruits were also from the mountains where this custom was widely prevalent. The Russian military has been compelled to send Russian paramilitary forces for counter-insurgency operations in Chechnya since the second Chechen war. The forces are mostly composed of Chechens leading to a process of Chechenization. This counterinsurgency force Kadyrovtsy was also driven by the same logic of Blood Revenge leading to a classic civil war-like situation in Chechnya. This helped Russia in two ways, as they don’t have to deploy ethnic Russians to fight wars and hence no protest by Russian mothers for killing their sons through conscription and secondly Chechens will be fighting a classic civil war with no end in sight. The intra Chechen hostilities tore through the social fabric of Chechnya, leading to a close in hostilities. This shows how the concept of Blood feud can be utilized for strategic expediency.
One thing is certain, Russian persistence with a military solution to a political problem has destabilized the situation to such extent, that there is no cause for cheer in the foreseeable future. Russian economic recovery, which was absolutely crucial to the health of the Federation, has been stalled by this most expensive conflict, both in terms of human and material costs. Even more importantly, the Russian apathy towards accommodation of different ethnic identities is breathing new life into the conflict. At this rate, the old lessons of History have not been internalized by the Russian administration. Russian withdrawals of troops and the peace agreement are viewed as tantamount to recognition of Chechnya’s independence and internal sovereignty, de facto if not de jure, and there is a clear expectation that the postponement of the final decision on status will allow the Russian side to gradually accommodate itself to the reality of the situation. The political brass of the republic has completely refused to participate in the political institutions of the Russian Federation. The republic has also sought to expand its regional and international linkages in order to garner recognition from the International community at large. Genuine independence, and the hope for membership in international organizations, is, however, dependent on formal recognition by the international community, and are unlikely to be forthcoming absent Russian acquiescence. This is, of course, is in the context of the Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Mutual Relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, signed in May 1997, acknowledged the “centuries-long antagonism” between the two sides, and committed both to the renunciation of force “forever” in resolving disputed issues and to building relations in accordance with “generally recognized principles and norms of international law,” a formula that each party could interpret in its own way.” The document was intended to serve as the basis for additional treaties and agreements on the whole complex of mutual relations. Two intergovernmental agreements signed at the same time sought to lay the foundation for future economic cooperation and, as the Chechen side hoped, for addressing the economic reconstruction of Chechnya. As of the completion of this manuscript, however, no significant progress has been made on resolving the underlying conflict and continuing intra-elite struggles in both capitals make the prospects for reconciliation dim. While the Russian State has emerged victorious out of the second Chechen war, there are no efforts at mitigating hostilities and the region has been effectively turned into a fourth world colony. Such an approach is imprudent as the region is still volatile and conflagrations may snowball into another crisis. Moscow has to adopt a more lenient stance if the peace is to be sustained, otherwise this problem can have larger geopolitical ramifications for the region at large.
* Sayantan Bandyopadhyay, is a 2nd year post-graduate student pursuing Political Science with specialization in International Relations at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. His areas of interest are primarily India’s foreign policy, India’s defense Policy, Public Administration, International Organizations and the nuances of India’s domestic political and societal discourse with special emphasis on Castes and Reservations. He was a member of the Youth Parliament delegation from Jadavpur University which became the national champions in 12th National Youth Parliament competition organized by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, GOI. He has also been a delegate to the prestigious Policy Bootcamp 2019 by Vision India Foundation. Twitter Id-Sayantanb21