[From: Tom Trier & Lars Funch Hansen (eds.), Conflict and Forced Displacement in the
Caucasus. Perspectives, Challenges and Responses. Copenhagen: Danish Refugee Council,
1999, pp. 62-71. Copyright: Danish Refugee Council and the author]
By Märta-Lisa Magnusson
Russian-Chechen war is the hitherto largest violent conflict to occur not only in the
Caucasus, but on the entire territory of the former Soviet Union. According to modest
Russian estimates, between 25,000-30,000 civilians, 3,000 Chechen combatants and 4,300
federal troops were killed.[ii] Estimates of the number of refugees vary from
part of our presentation assesses the nature of the Russian-Chechen conflict and discusses
why a political solution was not obtained prior to the Russian intervention in December
1994. We will not concern ourselves with the dynamics behind the conflict's escalation to
outright war; rather we will discuss why a political solution was not reached. We shall
argue that the principal cause for this failure lay in the approaches to a negotiated,
political settlement displayed by both parties to the conflict, in which the least
constructive approach was displayed by the Russian side.
part of our presentation discusses efforts to mitigate and terminate the conflict
following the outbreak of the war. In both sections we shall consider attempts made not
only by the parties to the conflict but by the international community as well. We shall
demonstrate that preventive diplomacy or other conflict prevention measures were not
attempted by the international community prior to Russian military intervention in
December 1994. This neglect contributed to the violent escalation of the conflict.
failure to resolve the conflict lay the structural problems inherent in the post-Soviet
transformation process. In addition, both sides were plagued by personal animosities,
zero-sum mind-sets and lack of professionalism and conflict management experiences.
Nevertheless, the single decisive factor was the Russian leadership's assessment of the
very nature of the conflict.
will explain the non-involvement by the international community in the pre-war period and
its cautious involvement in the first month after the Russian invasion, as an effect of
inadequate assessment of the conflict and political considerations.
of our presentation then, is to highlight problems related to the role and responsibility
of the international community in intra-state conflicts, to provoke a discussion about
whether mechanisms other than those presently available are required, and to raise the
question of how the utilisation of existing mechanisms can
be made more effective.
The nature of the conflict
The Russian-Chechen conflict does not involve communal contenders engaged in rivalries
about the distribution of state power or access to this power. Neither is it a horizontal
conflict between two ethnic groups striving to secure their cultural identity or compete
for positions, assets or resources to local power. Rather, it is a vertical Conflict
between the central authorities of a federal state and a sub-national unit,
constitutionally defined as a member of the Federation, but striving for independent
statehood, or alternatively, for con-federal relations. The controversial issues are power
delimitation within a state versus demands for inter-state relations. It is a conflict
between a territorially concentrated indigenous people, with a history of political
sovereignty prior to the annexation of its territory by the state which now rules versus a
newly independent state claiming the right to defend its territorial integrity against
secessionist claims and partition.
maintain that their struggle for independence is a continuation of their resistance
against Russian colonisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Chechens
never accepted their forced annexation by the Russian empire in 1859, after a bloody,
30-year war, and they never accepted their country's integration as an autonomous region
in the Soviet Union in 1920. They perceive Russia as the successor not only to the Soviet
Union but also to the Russian Empire. Chechens insist on viewing their conflict with
Russia in the context of de-colonisation.[iii] Their argumentation is
convincing, and the empirical realities support their case.
side refer to the 1960 UN resolution granting independence to colonial countries and
providing for peoples' rights to self-determination. This resolution declares that:
"The subjugation of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation
constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United
Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation [...] All
peoples have right to self-determination; by virtue of that right, they freely determine
their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural
development." The same UN resolution, however, also declares that "Any attempt
aiming at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity
of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United
Nations."[iv] This part of the resolution is referred to by the
1994, the former Russian Minister for Nationalities Questions, and from April 1994, Deputy
Prime Minister- with responsibility for Russian-Chechen relations, Sergey Shakhray, stated
that: ``in the Russian Federation there could and should be guaranteed right to
self-determination with the exception of one form of self-determination, namely separation
from the Russian Federation."[v] Yeltsin's first Minister for
Nationalities Questions, and a leading expert on ethnic and nationalities issues,
Professor Valery Tishkov, takes the following position:
"Concerning the principle of self determination, its broad meaning and contemporary
interpretations allow the Russian Federation to consider itself a fully legitimate
territorial polity whose population has realised its right to self-determination -
together and with the cognisance of other former Soviet constituent republics
through the break-up of the USSR. In line with international norms (and even going beyond
the requirements of international legal documents) Russia, as a multi-ethnic state, has
provided territorial autonomy for demographically compact groups whose language and
culture is different from the core Russian culture. These groups have expressed and
exercised the right for self-determination through democratic and negotiable procedures.
Russia has a legitimate night to defend its existing status and to take a stand against
external and internal challenges."[vi]
the Russian side, the principal position is that Chechnya may realise its right to
self-determination in the form of extended political autonomy. The Chechens argue that
they are entitled to realise self-determination in the form of independent statehood.
These contradictory positions were mirrored in the ultimate conditions put forward by both
parties to negotiations. While the Russian side insisted on negotiating an intra-state
power-delimitation treaty, the Chechens insisted on negotiations about inter-state
relations and placed recognition of Chechen independence as a pre-condition for
negotiations. President Dudayev also insisted on president-to-president negotiations.[vii]
international documents are more disputed that the UN resolution on de-colonisation and
people's right to self-determination. It has been interpreted both as a right assigned to
independent states and as a right assigned to sub-national groups up to and including the
establishment of new independent states. Some lawyers, scholars and politicians maintain
that the principle of self-determination is valid only for peoples under colonial rule.
Others maintain that the resolution on self-determination shall be interpreted as a right
for all peoples, not only for those peoples in a de-colonisation context.[viii]
admitting that the Soviet Union was by all measures an empire, Russian leaders (and
others) reject the notion that the new, post-Soviet Russia is an empire. This is the
prevailing opinion in Western governments and academic circles. However, there are
exceptions, one of whom is Ronald G. Suny, Professor of Political Science at the
University of Chicago. Suny writes:
the Russian Federation is even more artificial a state than was the old USSR - it had
never existed in history in its current borders except as a creation of Soviet power - its
claim to be the heir to historic Russia has been recognised by the whole world and given a
legitimacy that permits statesmen to excuse the Chechen war as an `internal problem' [...]
Whatever Russia becomes internally, its relationship with Chechnya can
hardly be seen as anything other than imperial."[ix]
issue of Russia's legacy not only as a state, but also as an empire, i.e., its legacy as a
compound polity that has incorporated lesser ones under a dominant metropolis, did not
attract considerable attention by Western statesmen or the international community at the
time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. An April 1990 Soviet Supreme Soviet law,
equalising autonomous republics with union republics and a subsequent law granting
autonomous republics the right to leave seceding Union republics and decide their
political status by themselves, also passed unnoticed in Western governments.[x]
Irrespective of these laws, however, these delimitations are capricious. Hence, as
Professor Mark Bessinger notes:
than Stalin's self-serving decisions about which peoples deserved union republics and
which would have units subordinate to union republics, there is no justification for why
peoples who had union republics deserve state independence and those without do not."[xi]
the principle of people's right to self-determination is to be understood as something
more than empty rhetoric, Chechnya is a case where its application could at least be
Russian assessment of the conflict
Russian leadership did not even admit that Chechnya was experiencing a popular movement
for independence. The conflict was portrayed as an issue of "internal law and
order" rather than an ethno-political conflict focused on issues of
self-determination.[xii] This portrayal was also uncritically accepted by the
international community. Most governments considered it to be a domestic "law and
order" issue (see Part II).
the official Russian version, Chechen claims for independence were presented as an elite
conspiracy without popular support. Dudayev and the leaders of the Chechen National
Congress (the Popular Front) were depicted as "ethnic entrepreneurs", misleading
and mobilising the Chechen population by playing the "ethnic card" for
to former Minister for Nationalities Questions, V. Tishkov for example:
analysis shows that conflicts are instigated by a small faction of people promoting
interests and slogans which to them seem important and just. The mobilisation of the
`rank- and- filers' who actually execute the violence is brought about either through
direct or implicit inducements, or through lack of information about the choices
available. In post-Soviet states, citizens are easy followers of the leaders whose appeals
seem to offer the only option. The power of prescription and belief in collectivist
projects remain enormous among the poorly modernised and indoctrinated populations of
former socialist societies."[xiii]
leaders adhering to this instrumentalist approach refused to ask the question of why
people follow such leaders. Ethnic myths and other devices of "ethnic
entrepreneurship" can be constructed or even fabricated. But personal memories of
ethnic cleansing and other sufferings under alien rule, the kind most Chechen adults have
experienced in their lives, are not social constructions. They are lived experiences.
Dudayev did not have to "invent" national myths and martyrs, or
"construct" fears of external threats. His nationalist
programme corresponded to the socio-psychological sentiments among the Chechen
legitimacy of the Chechen presidential and parliamentary elections in November 1991 can
certainly be debated. The Ingushetian population did not participate in these elections,
opting for a republic of their own. Many of the Russians living in Chechnya also
reportedly did not vote. One of the eleven regions in Chechnya proper, Nadteretnyj,
boycotted the elections.
popular support can also be discussed, especially after his dissolution of the Chechen
parliament in June 1993, and his subsequent strengthening of authoritarian rule. What
cannot be doubted, however, was Dudayev's capacity to command loyalty in critical moments,
or more specifically, in times of perceived external threats to the national security of
the Chechen state. This was the case in November 1991 when Yeltsin decreed emergency rule
in Chechnya. Hence, "the news about this alone strengthened by the skilful spreading
of a rumour that a new deportation of the Chechens was under preparation, brought to their
feet almost the entire Chechen society and considerably improved the political ratings of
Dudayev", wrote Emil Pain, a member of Yeltsin's Analytical Centre in a 1995 article.[xiv]
Dudayev's fierce opponents reportedly rallied around him not because they approved of him,
but because, confronted with the threat of a Russian invasion, Dudayev became a symbol of
national security and was perceived of as a guarantor of Chechen independence. Even many
Russians reportedly joined Chechen protests against Yeltsin's state of emergency rule in
later, when Russian troops crossed the Chechen border from neighbouring Ingushetia, many
Chechens, including the opposition, again rallied around Dudayev. They did so again in
late 1994, when it was clear that a Russian military intervention was imminent.
growing part of the Chechen population did not support Dudayev, they certainly supported
the idea of Chechen independence. Among the several opposition leaders, only one was
prepared to give up Chechen independence. This was the mayor of the Nadteretnyj District,
Umar Avturkhanov. In late 1993, Avturkhanov became leader of an oppositional Provisional
Council, which soon declared itself the sole legitimate power in Chechnya. While this body
had no significant support outside Nadteretnyj, it was chosen for Russia support from
August 1994 - with disastrous results. Other oppositional leaders joined Avturkhanov's
Provisional Council. Their aim was to overthrow Dudayev, but they were unequivocally
against Russian intervention and supported Chechen independence.
greatest mistake was that it opted to support the Provisional Council instead of trying to
work out a negotiated solution with the real power in Chechnya - President Dudayev, the
only leader capable of commanding nation-wide Chechen loyalty. Russian officials often
claim that it was Dudayev who refused to negotiate, but this is not true. Dudayev stuck to
an ultimate position - but so did the Russians.
position left room for negotiations on the status question beyond complete independence.
In summer 1992, the Chechen Parliament had proposed a draft treaty providing for
confederate relations including economic co-operation in defence and security matters,
etc.[xv]. This proposal was presented prior to the split between Dudayev and his
opponents in the Chechen parliament and government. It would have been approved by
Dudayev. Dudayev was also prepared to enter the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The Russians, however, refused to talk directly with Dudayev. They
often refer to attempts in 1992 to negotiate with the Dudayev leadership. They forget to
mention, however, that the Russian side did not recognise these talks as official, only
informal.[xvi] Subsequent negotiations were conducted only with Chechens in opposition to
Dudayev's dissolution of the Chechen parliament and the ousting of oppositional forces in
this body, the Russian side dropped further attempts to negotiate. From their point of
view there was no one left in the Chechen leadership prepared to compromise on the
independence issue. Unlike Dudayev, former chairman of the Chechen parliament, Akhmadov
was willing to negotiate at any level and was prepared to delay the independence issue for
the sake of negotiations on other issues.
1994, the Russian side presented new negotiation proposals, including direct talks with
Dudayev. Yet these were conditional on the signing of an intra-state treaty and early
elections to both Chechen and Russian organs of state power, conditions unacceptable for
emergence of the oppositional Provisional Council in early 1994, the Russian side saw a
new and promising partner for negotiations. The leader of this body, U. Avtorkhanov, Mayor
of the Nadteretnyj District, was prepared to accept reintegration into Russia. From now
on, no further attempts were made to negotiate with Dudayev, and his proposals were
categorically rejected. Russia began to support the opposition forces - both economically
and with weapons.
that negotiations of the Russian President with citizen Dudayev are impossible. It would
be the day of national shame for Russia", stated Deputy Russian Premier in charge of
negotiations with Chechnya, Sergej Shakhray, on 8 October 1994.[xvii]
Hawks in the
Russian leadership escalated military support to the Provisional Council and were involved
in a military attempt to remove Dudayev. It was a humiliating fiasco, and Yeltsin and the
Russian Security Council decided to intervene.
There were no
efforts to listen to the Chechen side prior to the war. Numerous appeals from Dudayev and
the Chechen government to the international community for monitoring and third party
mediation were never considered by the international community. No efforts were made prior
to the war to engage in the conflict and begin a process of conflict management.
There were no lacks of early warnings. When Yeltsin, in November
1991, declared a state of emergency in Chechnya and ordered interior troops to the
secessionist republic, Dudayev ordered a general mobilisation. A military confrontation
was possible. This was also the case in November 1992, when federal forces, dislocated to
the conflict-ridden North Ossetia-Alaniya, entered Chechnya via Ingushetia. Dudayev again
threatened to order general mobilisation.
mediation could have helped reconcile the contradictory positions ol~ the parties to the
conflict. Even non-governmental or "semi-governmental" internationalisation of
the conflict could probably have moderated the Chechen claims. The Russians would not have
felt their sovereignty threatened by this kind of mediation.
From at least
August 1994, it became clear that relations between Russia and Chechnya had deteriorated
to a degree that required preventive diplomacy. S. Shrakray, S. Stepashin (head of FSK,
formerly the KGB) and other high ranking federal officials, declared that negotiation with
Dudayev was out of question. Russian journalists and media institutions regularly reported
on the transfer of military equipment to the oppositional Provisional Council. In late
October the head of this body openly admitted that this was the case. The Chechen
leadership repeatedly requested third party involvement in mediating the conflict.
beginning of August, President Yeltsin's chief of Staff, S. Filatov, and the President
himself ruled out the possibility of using force in Chechnya. This was reiterated by other
high-ranking officials in the following months.
statements may have been reassuring to Western governments and
community, a declaration by Deputy Premier Sergej Shakhray, made at the beginning of
October, should have caused concern. Speaking on the methods used by the federal
authorities "to liquidate the criminal free economic zone'' in Chechnya, Shakhray
emphasised that such methods "should prevent armed escalation with the use of Russian
army units." However, he continued, "This does not mean we will not use power
structures of the Russian Interior Ministry, since Chechnya is a part of the Russian
Federation. The use of force is possible."[xviii]
mechanisms, such as fact-finding missions and efforts to involve the conflicting parties
in informal talks, might have been mobilised. The good offices of the UN Secretary-General
staff or the OSCE might have been utilised "to create favourable conditions for
direct negotiations".[xix] In fact, none of these mechanisms were utilised prior to
the Russian intervention in December 1994.
This paper is based on a research project on the Russian-Chechen conflict conducted in
co-operation with Ib Faurby.
Valery Tishkov: Political Anthropology of the Chechen War, Security Dialogue , vol. 28
(4), 1997, p. 426.
See e.g., President Chechenskoy Respubliki Ichkerya D. Dudayev, Minister Justitsii
Chechenskoy Respubliki Ichkerya, E. Sheripova: Juridiko-pravovaya osnova vzaimootnosheniy
Rossiii i Chechni c 1990 g. Rossiya i Chechnya 1990-1997 gg. Dokumenty svidetelstvujut,
Moscow 1997, pp. 228. S-Kh. Abumuslimov: Istoriko-Pravovaya Otsenka Nasilstvennogo
Vkljucheniya Severokavkazskikh narodov v sostav Rossiyskoy Imperii i ego posledstviy.
Doklad na Chrezvychaynom sezde gorskikh narodov Kavkaza, Kavkazskiy Dom, no. 21 , October
UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), Christian Tomuschat (ed.): Modern Law of
Self-Determination, London 1993, Annex.
Conference on Federalism. Joint Programme of Activities between the Council of Europe and
the Russian Federation, Moscow, l5 to 18 February 1994, p. 78.
Valery Tishkov, p. 432.
Märta-Lisa Magnusson: The Negotiation Process Between Russia and Chechnya.
Achievements and Future Problems, Ole Høiris and Sefa Martin Yurukel (eds.) Contrasts and
Solutions in the Caucasus (Aarhus University Press, forthcoming).
See e.g., Christian Tomuschat (ed.): Modern law of Self-Determination, London 1993.
Ronald Grigor Suny: Ambiguous Categories: States, Empires and Nations, in Post-Soviet
Affairs, vol. II (April-June) 1995, p. 195.
Zakon SSSR "O razgranichenii polnomochiy mezhdu Sojuzom SSR i subektami
federatsii", vedomosti Sezda narodnykh deputatov SSSR i Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, no.
19, 9 May 1990; Vedomosti Sezda narodnykh deputatov SSSR i Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, no.
15, 11 April 1990.
Mark R. Bessinger: The Persisting Ambiguity of Empire, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. II
(April-June) 1995, p. 178.
Gail W. Lapidus: Contested Sovereignty, International Security, vol. 23 (1), Summer 1998,
Valery Tishkov, p. 425.
E. Pain, A. Popov: Chechenskaya politika Rossii s 1991 po 1994gg, Mirovaya ekonomika i
mezhdunarodnykh otnoshenii, no. 5, 1995, p. 23.
Dogovor ob osnovakh mezhgosudarstvennykh otnosheniy Rossiyskoy Federatsii i Chechenskoy
Respubliki, Proekt, Ichkerya, 28 September 1992, p.3.
See Märta-Lisa Magnusson: The Negotiation Process Between Russia and Chechnya.
Strategies, Achievements and Future Problems.
SWB, BBC, SU/2123, 11 October 1994.
SWB BBC, SU/2123 B/2, 11 October 1994.
Gail W. Lapidus: Contested Sovereignity, p. 29.