Without any doubt the terrorist acts carried out recently in Moscow by Vaynakh women suicide bombers cannot be interpreted in any other way than as an expression of extreme despair and hopelessness.
The hostage-taking at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in October 2002 carried out by the de facto suicidal Chechen group led by Movsar Barayev, as well as the ever more frequent terrorist and sabotage operations against various representatives or entire agencies of the Moscow-backed government in Grozny – all these give evidence of the same underlying issue: having lost hope in the possibility of defeating the occupying Russian army, or more precisely, of inflicting sufficient losses on the army to force it to leave Chechnya, some of the field commanders have resorted to means and methods directly contradicting the high moral standards of their own people. It can be expected that the attempts – that is, sabotage and terrorist activities – of Chechen separatists to transfer the war to the territory of Russia are bound to continue.
There can be no justification for terrorism in the sense of organized violence against the civilian population, no matter how “right” or “just” the objectives are. Nor in what name the organizers and perpetrators of terrorist acts kill and maim innocent people. Nevertheless, extensive experience worldwide demonstrates that an efficient fight against terrorism inevitably requires not just a “cosmetic” destruction of the instruments of terror but a systematic search for, and if possible, elimination of the reasons that compel young and healthy people to sacrifice their lives with a smile on their face in the fight for an idea. It is very regretful that nothing similar can be found in the Russian policy towards Chechnya and Chechens.
Under no circumstances can the Chechen resistance be generally branded as terror. While various isolated cases of terror from the side of Chechen separatists have occurred since 1995, the guerilla activities of the Chechens who took up arms to fight for liberating their country from the brutal military occupation cannot be put on a par with “typical” terrorism. They share nothing with the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. in September 2001 – despite all the efforts of Moscow to compare them.
On the other hand, what is the appropriate word to use for describing the systematic terrorizing of the Chechen population by robberies, endless abuses and humiliation, bloody “mop-up” operations, and heavy artillery shelling and aircraft bombing of towns and villages that have been going on ever since the end of 1994, with the exception of the brief peace in 1996 – 1999? And what response would one expect from the representatives of a nation, 15 percent of which (120,000 – 130,000 people) has been exterminated as a result of the genocidal policy? A policy by which tens of thousands of people have been disabled and one half of the population have lost their homes? The majority of Chechens literally struggle to survive from day to day.
Roots of the present conflict
The roots of the Russian – Chechen conflict go back to the 17th century. In that period, faced with Russia’s strategic and political expansion in the southwestern direction, the freedom-loving mountain people of the Caucasus united. The Chechens, who knew no state boundaries and had never had a king or aristocracy, had no particular interest in becoming a part of Russia with its serfdom and tyrannical order. The onset of the armed resistance against the Russian invasion coincided with the definitive Islamization of the Chechens, a process that began in the 16th century. According to the majority of experts on the history of the Caucasus, it was precisely the Russian – Chechen wars that served as a kind of stimulus and a boost for the Islamization of the Vaynakhs and a number of Adyg tribes of the northwestern Caucasus. The shaping of the peculiar “Caucasian Islam” of the Chechens was greatly influenced by pre-Islamic Vaynakh customs and beliefs. Since those times it has become an organic part of the Vaynakh life experience, a distinctive Chechen nationalism, and up to the present day it still has not shed the romantically mystic aura of the Nakshbandiya followers from the period of the great Caucasian war of 1817 – 1864.
According to research carried out by Soviet-era scientists, the result of the intensification of the genocidal policy, especially in the period from 1830 to 1859, was that “roughly one million Chechens were killed in clashes with the tsar’s armies, died from starvation or epidemics, or were deported…”
Nevertheless, the fierce resistance of the exhausted Chechens continued even after the fall of the Dagestani settlement of Gunib in 1859 and the capture of imam Shamil. Local or nationwide uprisings broke out repeatedly in Chechnya in 1865, 1877–1878, 1905, 1919–1920, 1921, 1928, 1930–1936, and 1940–1944, demonstrating that in spite of the occupation of Chechen territory and the systematic terror aimed at the local population the Russian powers have not managed to break its will for freedom.
On February 23, 1944 and over the following days, owing to accusations of collaboration with the Germans, a mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia was carried out by special order of Stalin. According to some estimates about 50–60 percent of the total Chechen population died during the deportation and over the 13 years of their life in exile in Kazakhstan, due to the brutal repression as well as starvation, cold weather, and disease. During the period from the permitted return of Chechens to their homeland in 1957 till they actually achieved independence in August/September 1991, a discriminatory policy towards Chechens was in place. Chechens were denied access to higher education; substantial limitations were imposed on the usage of the Chechen language; and even the least significant positions in the republic were filled by representatives of other, non-Vaynakh nationalities, by the direct order of Moscow. All attempts by Vaynakh intellectuals to develop their language and culture and to preserve their national identity met with accusations of nationalism from the all-powerful KGB and were curbed in every possible way.
During the Brezhnev-era period of stagnation a number of pseudo-scientific works and textbooks on the history of Chechnya were produced, according to which Chechnya’s unification with Russia was “voluntary” and historically “correct.” The cynicism of the essentially colonialist policy of Moscow towards Checheno-Ingushetia reached its low point when a memorial to general Yermolov was erected in the center of Grozny. General Yermolov was the ideologist and perpetrator of the genocide of Chechens and other nationalities of the northern Caucasus in the first half of the 19th century. February 23, a tragic day in the mind of all Chechens, was celebrated pompously in the Soviet Union as the Day of the Soviet Army (the anniversary of stopping the German offensive at St. Petersburg by the new Red Army in 1918). Ever since the mid-1990s the date has also been celebrated in the Russian Federation as the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland.
For an observer unfamiliar with the Caucasian situation a single look at the map of Chechnya, which occupies an area similar to that of Wales in the United Kingdom, may lead to astonishment: how can the million-strong nation of Chechens expect to succeed militarily in a war with forces that are so vastly superior? However, the Chechen society found itself in the grip of the proverbial “irrational” mentality of the mountain people of the Caucasus, of historical memory filled with the heavy burden of three hundred years of wars, mass extermination, and abuse. Ignorance of these facts together with a tragic coincidence of a number of circumstances in the post-Soviet era finally led to the military invasion by Russia. This left the Chechens with no other choice than to take up arms to defend their honor and their hard-won independence.
The vicious circle of violence
Today you would not find a single person in the republic who has not lost family members or close friends as a result of the operations of the federal troops. Moreover, in Chechnya up to now a failure to abide by the tradition of blood feud brings about great disgrace for a person and his descendents. Therefore it is naive to expect that the armed resistance will come to a spontaneous end. Centers of resistance against the occupying power will continue to exist, from time to time taking up forms that are most effective in different situations: from attempts to take over towns and villages in Chechnya to the intensification of sabotage and terrorist activities on the territory of Russia.
This in turn will lead to repeated waves of repressions on the part of the occupying power, and the vicious circle of violence and revenge will be intensified ever further. In such a situation achieving an ultimate subjugation of Chechnya and an end to the military conflict would then necessarily require either total exhaustion of the nation’s psychological and material resources (which as a matter of fact already happened several times in the past), or a mass-scale physical elimination of its male population. Unfortunately, it has to be said that even after a potential end of the immediate Russian–Chechen conflict Chechen society will be affected for many years to come by its irreconcilable division into two antagonized camps.
The ever more frequent attacks by Chechen saboteurs or terrorists in Russian towns will first of all hurt the Chechens themselves, because they provide an excellent pretext for Russian generals to continue waging their war against the “bandits” until the victorious end. In the current context of growing anti-Caucasian sentiments in Russian society one might expect another wave of pogroms and an increased discrimination of not only Chechens but also other Caucasus natives throughout Russia.
Any realistic attempt to settle the conflict in a peaceful way will undoubtedly have to be based on the soonest possible withdrawal of the occupying armies beyond the boundaries of Chechnya. As the current experience demonstrates, the guerilla war against the federal troops deployed on the Chechen territory, who are responsible for daily robberies, violence and abuse targeting the peaceful population, has not been suspended for a single day. It can be claimed with certainty that it will be possible to start talking about a true end of the Russian – Chechen war only on the day when the Russian troops will leave the country.
One thing remains certain – memory cannot be destroyed; a genetically based thirst for freedom cannot be uprooted. The history of Chechnya bears witness that sooner or later the recuperated Chechen nation will rise again to fight for independence, and the more mercilessly they will be barred from reaching it, the fiercer the fight will be.