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Chechnya Continues to Be Problematic for Russian Leaders - 2004-10-12


Chechnya continues to be a major problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chechnya, located in the north Caucasus region, has been a thorn in Russia's side for centuries.

Thomas de Waal is an expert on the Caucasus and has been writing about Chechnya for many years. He says Russian czars threw thousands upon thousands of young troops into the region in an effort to defeat guerilla fighters.

"The Russians basically arrived in the north Caucasus at the end of the 18th century and we saw almost a century of fighting between the Chechens and the Russians, and indeed other north Caucasian peoples who are often forgotten in places like Dagestan and Circassia," he notes. "So basically, the north Caucasus was absorbed into the Russian empire in the 1850's and 1860's, long after places like Poland and Georgia, which are now independent, had been absorbed into the Russian empire."

Absorbed, says Mr. De Waal, but not subjugated. He says the policy of Russian czars and then Soviet leaders has been to bring the Chechens under submission and quash any attempt at independence.

In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the Chechens to central Asia. The official reason: they collaborated with invading Nazi forces. But historians say the real reason was to eliminate the Chechens.

In a matter of days, 400,000 Chechens were sent in cattle trucks and trains to Kazakhstan. Chechnya was wiped off the map.

Mr. De Waal says Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, during his de-Stalinization efforts, allowed Chechens to return to their homeland in 1957. He says they came back to a place where Chechen culture had been abolished.

"Gravestones had been ripped up, Chechnya had been removed from the Soviet encyclopedia and lots of, obviously, alien people were living in their houses," he adds. "Most of them were persuaded to leave or had to sell. So it was a bit of a miracle, really, that Chechnya had been abolished and came back to life. And I think that helps explain the very uncompromising attitude of a lot of Chechens when they had their next chance for freedom in the 1980's and 1990's."

The collapse of the Soviet Union 13 years ago set the stage for the emergence of a leader in Chechnya who sensed that the time was ripe for independence. That man was Dzhokar Dudayev, an Afghan war veteran and Soviet Air Force General. He was elected President of Chechnya in 1991 and he quickly declared independence from the Russian Federation.

That set him on a collision course with the first democratically elected Russian President, Boris Yeltsin.

Charles Fairbanks, Caucasus expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (in Washington DC), says after tolerating Mr. Dudayev for three years, President Yeltsin decided to sent troops into Chechnya in 1994.

"Russia lost the first war and so that Chechnya, you could say, reestablished a kind of independence though not internationally recognized," he says. "The question of independence was put off by the agreement that ended the war in 1996. Then the attempt to build an independent state in Chechnya was not very successful. The various warlords like Shamil Basayev didn't obey the elected President Aslan Maskhadov and finally invaded Russian Dagestan in august 1999 and that's what touched off the present war."

The man who sent Russian troops into Chechnya in 1999 was Vladimir Putin, then prime minister. Mr. Putin considered Shamil Basayev's incursion into Dagestan a terrorist act and he was elected Russian president four years ago promising to restore order in that troubled region. But that hasn't happened and successive pro-Moscow Chechen leaders have been unable to calm the situation. In the meantime, Chechen separatists have increased terrorist attacks in the region and even in the Russian capital, Moscow.

President Putin has sought to depict Russia's fight against Chechen separatists in the context of the international war on terrorism.

But Peter Reddaway, Russia expert at George Washington University sees it differently.

"The basic conflict there remains one of an anti-colonial, anti-imperial movement by a people who have been suppressed and oppressed in Russia at least since the 1830s and have every right, by the normal standards of world anti-colonial activity, to press for their independence," he adds.

Many experts argue the only way to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Chechnya is by negotiations. But up to now, President Putin has shown no willingness to talk with Chechen separatists, whom he considers to be terrorists.

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