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The International Community and Strategies for Peace and Stability in and around Chechnia: Comments on Contributions   



From: Central Asia and the Caucasus, no. 4, 2000.

Copyright: the author & Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Joint Conference organized by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and the Journal Central Asia and the Caucasus, Stockholm, 27-28 April 2000.

By Märta-Lisa Magnusson

Although Emil Pain presents a more credible diagnosis of the Russian-Chechen conflict than most mainstream Russian analysts, he avoids getting to the point of the matter. As a well informed specialist on Chechnia, Pain repudiates the simplistic approach to the conflict, expressed in official Kremlin discource. Russia’s adversary in Chechnia cannot, he suggests, be comprehended in purely criminal terms. Russia is confronting a population, increasingly hostile to Russian domination and attempts to maintain the Chechen Republic in the Federation. But notwithstanding this understanding of the conflict, Pain avoids its logical conclusions. The conflict between Russia and Chechnia should, in my mind, be regarded as a decolonization conflict. Had Pain, in line with he’s own arguments, defined it in this way too, his proposals for a solution, most likely, would have been different.  

Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials insist, that what is going on in Chechnia is a campaign against “international terrorism”. It is not, as Pain also suggests by identifying the gradual alterations in the officially stated goals of the new intervention. Already when the bombings of Chechen territory started in the wake of the August 1999 Wahhabi-led riots in Daghestan, the purpose was obvious. It was not to combat “international terrorism”. Neither was it to fight Chechen terrorists. The aim of the military operations in Chechnia was to quell Chechen separatism. If  the objective had been to combat terrorism - international or Chechen alike - the most rational strategy would have been to cooperate with the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, who had offered Moscow assistance in fighting terrorism, which posed a serious threat to himself. The extremist Chechen field-commanders, who meddled in the Daghestan riots, were Maskhadov’s ardent opponents, even enemies.

Pain rightly accuses the federal authorities for not differentiating between groups, deserving the name of terrorists, and ordinary Chechens. But at the same time Pain, just like the federal authorities, fails to clarify exactly who are to be considered “real” terrorists. In his paper he even puts the popularly elected, and thus legitimate, Chechen president on an equal footing with famous “terriorists”, denoting them all as “leaders of Chechnia”. Among those mentioned one even finds Basaev, who lead the Chechen-based militants who intervened in the Daghestan riots. But Basaev had no position in the Chechen government at the time, when these riots started. He, as well as the other Chechen field-commanders, who contributed to the Daghestani disturbances, did not represent official Chechnia. They became Maskhadov’s allied after the Russian assault, due to his tactical considerations.   

It is this blurring of the distinction between “terrorists” and non-terrorists, and the identification of nongovernmental groups with legitimate Chechen organs of power, that makes the Russian claims of fighting terrorism dubious. Seen from the Kremlin’s point of view - and apparently of Pain’s as well - Maskhadov is a terrorist. But he is the legitimate president of Chechnia, elected by the Chechen population in January 1997, in an election organized by the assistance of OSCE and confirmed as “free and fair” by approximately 200 international observers.  

Shortly before the military operations in Chechnia were stepped up in mid September 1999, Prime Minister Putin denounced the legitimacy of the Chechen president and unilaterally abrogated the August 1996 Khasaviurt Agreement, bringing the previous Russian-Chechen war to an end. By de-legitimizing Maskhadov, Putin also dismissed the will of the Chechen people, expressed in free and fair elections, based on the Chechen, not the Russian, constitution and on Chechen, not Russian, election laws. At this moment it became clear, even to sceptics, that the real goal of the renewed Russian “operations” in Chechnia was fighting separatism, not terrorism. Why else dismiss Maskhadov’s legitimacy and denounce the Khasaviurt Agreement?

Pain does not fall into the trap of the theory of “ethnic entrepreneurship”, as many Russian - and western, analysts do - explaining the Chechen resistance as a result of manipulations by corrupt political leaders, instrumentalizing the nationalistic card for selfish reasons. These analysts fail to explain why people follow such leaders. Yet he does disassociate the Chechen population from their “inappropriate” leaders. Hereby he (and others too) has difficulties explaining  why ordinary Chechens with such consistency refuse to cooperate with the federal authorities and various marionette structures established by the Russians in Groznyj. Again and again the Chechen population has demonstrated that when confronted with external threats it rally around its own leaders - even unpopular ones. Why is that? Because these figures are not only political leaders. They are symbols of national liberation, national pride, national self-determination and even national security. Even weak Chechen leaders become strong symbols as soon as the Russians come too close.

Pain warns against using “colonial methods” against “even small ethnic communities that are prepared to defend their interests with weapons in their hands”. In this war, ordinary Chechens and their leaders do not only defend their “interests”. They defend their state. That is why Pains proposal to solve the conflict is inadequate.  He recommends the establishment of a “zone of prosperity” in the more or less Russian controlled northern, historically more pro-Russian, regions of Chechnia. This “zone of prosperity” would, according to Pain, influence the minds also of the Chechens in the areas not controlled by the Russians, as they would start to compare the standard of living in the two parts of the republic. Pain thus treats the problem as a purely economic issue. But the Russian-Chechen relationship is fundamentally a political problem and it can only be solved politically. A compromise must be found between the Chechens demand for self-determination and the Russian claim of great power status and respect for the principle of the territorial integrity of states.