Chechnya’s right to independence

A review of Tony Wood’s book on Chechnya:

An unanswerable exposition of the case for Chechnya’s right to

Discussions on the situation in Chechnya often follow the line of
the humanitarian, human rights or political disaster that it has
been for the last thirteen years. But what is the root of all these
problems? Surely it is the Chechens’ lack of independence. After
all, that is what the Chechens have been struggling for for the last
400 years. The Chechens have time and again asked, demanded and
fought for their freedom. And why is Chechnya held to be ineligible
for statehood? Many arguments have been put forward by Russia and
its allies: realpolitik about Moscow not accepting it, or that the
West must not antagonise Russia, or concern about Europe’s energy
supplies. Some, even in the Chechen camp, say that Chechnya had its
chance at independence in the period from 1996 to 1999 but performed
woefully. Others just shake their heads and ask how the ideal of
independence can still be alive in the mess that is Chechnya today.

This book, written by Tony Wood, a well-known campaigner for the
Chechen cause in the UK, aims to lay out a comprehensive case for
Chechen independence. As he says in his introduction, many books
have examined North Caucasian history in detail, but few have
addressed the issue of whether or not the Chechens have a right to a
state of their own. Wood argues that they have and in fact
that “their right to govern themselves should be the starting point
for any discussions” on Chechnya – not a point, as is usually the
case, that is barely mentioned or heeded.

The book begins with the Chechen proverb “Nokhchi khila khala
du”, “it is hard to be a Chechen”, a sentiment which is only
confirmed in the reader’s mind as he or she reads on. The first
chapter describes the Chechen experience in detail and how “as a
nation the Chechens have been forged under the hammer-blows of
history”. He compares the history of the Chechens with the history
of the other North Caucasian peoples: the Circassians, the Balkars,
the Kabardins, the Ingush and the Ossetians, for instance. He
explains how these people differed from each other not so much
because of different languages or cultures but because of their
varying experiences of foreign domination. In contrast to most other
North Caucasian peoples, the Chechens have an almost unbroken record
of struggle against foreign rule, be it by the Cossacks, the Tsars,
the Soviet Union or contemporary Russia. The reasons for this, among
others, Wood says, are topographical and demographical; only in
Chechnya do we find dense forests that make guerrilla warfare
possible, and Chechens have always been the most numerous of the
North Caucasian people, thus providing the large numbers of foot-
soldiers needed for any rebellion.

In the first chapter the author takes us from the late eighteenth
century to the deportations of 1944, illustrating how the
experiences of conquest, colonisation and rebellion added to these
features of Chechen society. Above all, Wood argues, it was the
Stalinist deportations of 1944 that “became the defining event in
Chechen national consciousness”.

The second chapter opens with the observation that the deportation
proved to the Chechens that they could only be safe in a sovereign
state of their own; the two recent Russo-Chechen wars only confirm
this. Here, we are taken from the fall of the Soviet Union to the
Chechen Revolution of 1990-1, through to Dudaev’s election and
declaration of independence on 1 November 1991. At the fall of the
Soviet Union, many ex-Soviet states declared independence in the
years 1990-91: Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia,
Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. However, the subsequent
experiences of these states and Chechnya were strikingly different.
The rest of them gained independence and UN membership; Chechnya had
to face over a decade of war and repression, which have left the
people traumatised and the country almost destroyed.

Here Wood takes us through the politics of secession and how Chechen
secession should be viewed under international law. There is a
balance, he states, in international law between the principle of
self-determination and the preservation of territorial integrity. In
December 1960 the UN passed a resolution which states that all
people subject to colonial rule have the right to “freely determine
their political status”. However, such noble ideals are, at the
behest of certain governments, set aside for realpolitik, as has
been the case for Chechnya. In Chechnya, as Wood concludes his
second chapter, “a broadly legitimate and constitutional secession
went unrecognised because it ran counter to the interests of Russia,
a Security Council member …”

In the third chapter, Wood deals with Yeltsin’s war from 1994 to
1996 and the rationales offered for it; one by one he shows each to
be completely baseless. In December 1994 the incursion into Chechnya
was announced as an operation to “restore constitutional order”.
Russia “needed” to reign in a rogue enclave to restore rule of law
and maintain Russia’s territorial integrity. Moreover, Yeltsin
needed a “small, victorious war” to improve his ratings. But Moscow
did not succeed in any of its goals, stated or otherwise. The war
was a humiliating defeat for Russia, the outcome of which, the
Khasavyurt Accords, signed on 31 August 1996, recognised Chechnya as
a subject of international law, thereby implying de facto Russian
recognition of the sovereignty of Chechnya. When Yeltsin signed
the “Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Interrelations Between
the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria”, he signed
the end of 400 years of hostilities and recognised Aslan Maskhadov
as Ichkeria’s president.

Wood goes onto illustrate how baseless is the argument, put forward
by Russia, that if Chechnya succeeded in its secession this would
lead to a chain of separatist movements in the rest of Russia. Going
through economic, geographic, demographic, Islamic, ethnic and
geostrategic considerations, he discounts each one and clearly
demonstrates how the “domino effect” was always extremely unlikely.
Here Wood mentions the international community for the first time,
commenting on its acquiescence and complicity; the West preferred
free-market capitalism over democratic prerogatives, and regarded
Chechnya as the price for capitalism to flourish in Russia.

In chapter four Tony Wood discusses the three years (1996-99) in
which Chechnya had de facto independence and what became of the tiny
country in this time. He begins by stating that Chechnya is
portrayed as a “lawless land blighted by crime and religious
extremism” and that it is dismissed as a “failed state”, so Russia
was entitled to “bring it into line” by invading it in 1999. But, he
argues, Chechnya was an extremely damaged nation as a result of the
1994-6 war. There was no infrastructure left; much of the arable
land was destroyed; the economy was virtually non-existent; its
people were traumatised; many children were being born with birth-
defects; infant mortality was high; Grozny had been bombed into the
Middle Ages; there was little employment or housing; the list goes
on. He maintains that it would have been an impossible task to turn
Chechnya into a peaceful and happy country in those three years,
even if there had been ample international aid and support. As it
was, no country chose to recognise Chechen independence or to assist
Chechnya with loans or aid. Most of the aid promised by Russia was
embezzled en route. Despite signing several treaties, Moscow worked
assiduously to undermine both the Chechen state and the leadership
of Maskhadov. Wood shows the reader that it was a completely
hopeless situation and that no one could have done any better in
circumstances such as these. In its depiction of Maskhadov’s
helplessness, this chapter is the most heart-wrenching in the book.

Next Wood analyses and exposes Putin’s war, once again begun,
ostensibly, to “rein in the lawless periphery”, protect Russia’s
territorial integrity, and fight “Islamist terrorism”. He argues
that none of these “remotely account for the terror that was
unleashed on Chechnya”. He talks us through the fact that Putin
broke several treaties when he went to war with Chechnya and that
it “became rapidly clear that the civilian population was the real
target of the `anti-terrorist’ operation”. The military stalemate
and the degeneration of the Russian army, where more than half of
the Russian deaths were in non-combat situations, meant that the
mortality rate of Russian soldiers was high. This led to Putin’s
policy of `Chechenisation’ of the conflict: the appointment of the
puppet Kadyrov as head of a pro-Moscow administration, the rigged
referendum to pass the new constitution, in which Chechnya was
declared part of the Russian federation, and the formation of a
Chechen militia, the kadyrovsty, to perform some of the tasks of the
Russian army. The second war was characterised by the clampdown on
TV stations in Russia, the torture and murder of radio and newspaper
journalists, and the lack of a cogent anti-war movement in Russia.
In addition, under Putin, the mode of government has changed from an
oligarchic capitalism to an authoritarian one, xenophobia is rife
within Russia, and the West is still either indifferent or complicit
with the war in Chechnya. Many very interesting points are brought
together in chapter five.

Chapter six pauses to discuss the role of Islam in the Chechen
struggle, from the advent of Islam in the North Caucasus in the
eighteenth century to the present day. Especially since September
2001, it has been the Russian claim that while America is battling a
world-wide trend of Islamist terrorism, Russia is battling the
Chechen branch of the same problem in the North Caucasus. Here
Wood’s method is to show how at every step, since the eighth century
the main motive for the struggle of the Chechen people has been the
aspiration to freedom and the establishment of an independent state;
Islam has always been second to these aspirations or used to further
the cause of the first. Here one wonders whether this is really true
or whether it is Wood’s way of refuting the Russian claim, which is
undoubtedly false, as the Chechen struggle pre-dates 9/11 by 400
years. With regard to the role of Islam in the North Caucasian
struggle, one would do well to examine Wood’s stance by looking to
other sources.

In chapter seven, Wood brings to the attention of the reader
the “regionalisation” of the Chechen conflict, illustrating how many
North Caucasian peoples are now rebelling against Russian rule,
albeit for a variety of reasons. For instance, in the Beslan tragedy
of September 2004, of the fifty or more captors, only 5 or 6 were
Chechen; most were Ingush. Similar trends are permeating Dagestani
society and other parts of the North Caucasus. In this chapter, Wood
reasons, to defuse this “regionalisation” of the conflict will
require “the establishment of a stable and just peace in Chechnya”.

The last chapter brings the reader up to date with the present ills
of Chechen society. Today we see the continuing damage
of `Chechenisation’ on the Chechen people. Although Putin has
declared the end of the war and the `normalisation’ of Chechen
society by placing a pro-Moscow puppet, Ramzan Kadyrov, as president
of Chechnya, along with a private army of a few thousand militia,
the kadyrovtsy, which perpetrate atrocities upon the Chechen people,
heretofore committed by the Russian army on Russian’s behalf, Russia
continues to receive body-bags in the tens every month. Time and
again Wood makes the valid point that no poll or referendum held by
an occupying power will yield a democratic result on the true
aspirations of the Chechens. Chechnya and its people are in a
desperate situation, but Wood concludes his book by repeating
that “there can be no peace until it is once again possible for the
Chechens freely and democratically to determine their own future”.

Wood’s book is a welcome contribution to the literature on Chechnya:
well-researched and gripping to the last. Specifically, he argues
the case of Chechen independence well and refutes contemporary
arguments against it, leaving the reader in no doubt that the issue
of Chechen independence should be at the forefront of any debate on
the crisis.

By Hajira Qureshi
Kavkaz Center.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInVKWordPressBlogger PostLiveJournalTumblrTelegramWhatsAppSMSEmailGoogle GmailOutlook.comMail.RuPrintFriendly

Leave a Reply