Could the Chechen Wars Have Been Avoided? – Part I

Dear Readers:

Continuing the arc-theme of Separatism in the post-Soviet world:

Oi, this is another long one by Krutikov, this time on the history of the Russo-Chechen wars.  This looks to be a tough slog to work through and translate, but I think I should do it anyhow, because it is an important topic, and an important history.  Many lessons to be learned.  So, without further ado, let us begin with Krutikov’s leading paragraph:

It was a full quarter of a century ago that the government of Chechnya passed into the hands of Separatists.  The result was two bloody wars.  It was said that Dzhokhar Dudayev was a fanatic, with whom it was impossible to deal.  It was also said that radical Islam was calling all the shots.  But those are just excuses, by which the Federal government attempted to cover up its own mistakes.

Dzhokhar Dudayev, first President of Ichkeria

Further:  Popular opinion has it that the day on which the Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Republic declared a state of emergency in conjunction with the attempted forcible seizure of power — popular opinion considers that to be one and the same date as Chechnya’s declaration of independence.  But in reality it wasn’t quite like that.

The seizure of the government started with a meeting in the center of the capital, Grozny.  The Chechen word is “public square”, so this was actually quite a lot like the Ukrainian Maidan.  The nationalist political influence was shown when, towards the evening, people began to dance the “zikr”, an ethnic dance of Sufi Islam.  Here is a youtube video showing what the zikr looks like, and how it whips men into a frenzy:

But in the summer of 1991 the main feature of Chechen political life, was a situation of dual power.  The central authorities in Moscow did nothing while a political movement called the United Congress of the Chechen People (UCCP) systematically pushed out all Soviet and post-Soviet organs of government in the various regions and provinces.

November 1990

The UCCP itself grew out of the Chechen National Congress which had taken place a year earlier.  Rewinding to 1990 now.  Initially this Chechen National Congress was the usual grab-bag of local intelligentsia and “respected cultural figures”.  In this regard it was no different from the analogous movements in Lithuania and Armenia.  The only difference is that the Chechen-Ingush Autonomy was not a full-fledged Union Republic, merely an autonomy within the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic.  Therefore, unlike Union Republics such as Lithuania, Chechnya had no constitutional right, even on paper, to secede from the Federation.  Nonetheless, these “national independence” movements were springing up everywhere at the time, as the Soviet Union disintegrated.  The central authorities, who had staked their careers on “perestroika” had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with all these Seps, despite their ineffectual posturing.

[Demographic sidebar:  According to wiki, the population of Lithuania in 1990 was around 3.7 million people.  Chechnya’s population at the time was not even half of that, although it was only one of a few Soviet regions experiencing natural population growth.  Please keep in mind, though, that population is only one of the variables, albeit an important one, which factored into the Soviet algorithm for who gets to be a Republic and who gets to be an Autonomy.]

Doku Zavgayev went on to become Russian Ambassador to Slovenia

Anyhow, the the Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomy, under the pressure of the rising political force (UCCP) adopted a “Resolution on the state sovereignty of the Chechen-Ingush Republic”.  The federal government chose to ignore this development.  The feds figured that the local government organs should deal with these disturbances.  Indeed the First Secretary of the local Obkom was an ethnic Chechen, name of Doku Zavgayev.  In fact, Doku was the first ethnic Chechen in all of Soviet times to have an important post in his own local government – up until then everybody in the government was a Russian.

[Sidebar:  Doku himself has an interesting biography.  He honed his leadership skills by managing a collective farm and rising in the ranks of the Communist Party.  He was born in 1940, so too young to remember the war years, in which the Chechen-Ingush Autonomy was dissolved, and the Chechen-Ingush nation (around half a million people) were deported, as collective punishment for (allegedly) collaborating with the Nazi invaders.  In 1957, when Doku would have been 17 years old, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomy was restored, not with the exact same borders though.  Despite Khrushchev’s conciliatory nature, the Russian elite never really trusted the Chechens.  Except for Zavgaeyev, whom they trusted.  In later years Zavgayev went on to become the very first ethnic Chechen First Secretary of the Communist Party in the Autonomy.  He remained a loyal Communist and even attempted to thwart the Yeltsin putsch, but without success, and was forced to flee from Chechnya when the radicals took over.  In time Zavgayev came to accept the new (Putin) government of the Russian Federation and has continued to hold high diplomatic posts to this day.]

Needless to say, the Chechen “declaration of independence” of November 1990 made an unpleasant impression on the federal authorities; however, they already had their hands full with analogous declarations coming out of Tatarstan and Bashkiria.  Egregious Makhnovshchina was breaking out all over the place, and there was precious little the Feds could do to stop it.

Change Of Power Before the August Coup

Here is how the change of government progressed in Chechnya, and this was a full month before the August 1991 coup in Moscow:

Bislan Gantamirov, political leader and street bandit

In July 1991 the UCCP declared itself to be the government of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomy, which was renamed to the Republic of Noxçiyçö, also known as Ichkeria.  On the night of 1-2 September the UCCP declared that the Supreme Soviet had been dissolved, and that the government had passed to the Executive Committee of the Supreme Soviet.  This committee was then renamed to the Provisional Supreme Soviet.  This body then proceeded to form a National Guard, headed by a man named Bislan Bes Gantamirov.  Gantamirov was the leader of the political party “Way of Islam”, and also happened to be a common street bandit.  He proceeded to recruit other like-minded criminals into the National Guard.

Dudayev used to bomb the shit out of these guys in Afghanistan.

Around that time, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the UCCP was an army officer named Dzhokhar Dudayev.  He was a Major-General, a former Commander of the 326th Tarnopol Heavy Bomber Division, stationed in Estonia (at what is now a NATO base).  Dudayev was considered an excellent soldier, and a specialist in the field of carpet bombings.  He served in Afghanistan, where he was renowned for flying around in TU-22’s and bombing the hell out of mujahideen.  He enjoyed a reputation for having a temper and being eccentric, but nonetheless was considered to be an honorable officer and won the medal of the Military Red Banner for his excellent work in safely withdrawing his men out of Afghanistan, as well as restoring order to the military base in Estonia.

Dudayev was awarded this medal.

With all of this, Dudayev was well on his way to being promoted to General.  He was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which placed him in the political elite.  Furthermore, his wife was an ethnic Russian, which also didn’t hurt.  Generally, Chechens and Ingush were frowned upon, and it was hard for them to move along in their careers; but an exception would have been made for Dudayev.

However, Dudayev clearly started to switch his loyalties away from Russia.  He forged good relations with the Estonians, and took their side against the Russians.  After the Vilnius events, Dudayev even declared that he would close all of Baltic air space if the Russians dared to bring their troops into Estonia.  Technically he would not have been able to do that; but the Estonians were thrilled nonetheless.  A similar thing was going on in Vilnius, where the Chechen Artillery Colonel Aslan Maskhadov of the Vilnius Garrison was blatantly sabotaging orders coming out of Moscow and out of the Baltic HQ in Riga.  In other words, a Chechen-Baltic military alliance was being formed on the ground, due to the actions and individual choices made by these Chechen officers.

September Events After the Moscow Coup

Returning to events in Grozny:  On 4 September the “Guard” captures the TV and radio stations.  Dudayev announces over the air that the army are temporarily taking over governmental powers until elections can be held.  But one needs to understand that the army was not exactly unified either, there were pro and con elements within.  As a result of all this tension, the city of Grozny was quickly becoming radicalized.  On the morning of 5 September the “Guards” capture the Trade Union Hall and give full dictatorial powers to Dudayev.  Next, the offices of the KGB and the Prosecutors are captured.  The isolation prison is captured, and all the prisoners released.

Grozny: Before the start of the Chechen wars

It was only on 9 September that the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation seemed to notice what was going on in Chechnya, and issued orders for the “Guard” to give up their weapons and surrender the occupied buildings.  But Moscow was a paper tiger and no longer had any power to influence events in Chechnya.  Dudayev himself went over the top and issued a blood-curdling statement to the effect that the Russian demand “was a provocation of international proportions, directed at consolidating Moscow’s colonial rule”.  At the same time Dudayev issued a “gazavat“, in other words a jihad.  Even though he was not a religious leader and technically had no right to do that.  He barely even understood what he was saying, or with what fire he played.

[to be continued]

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