Uprising in the Chechnya Ghetto
by Nadezhda Banchik, with John Zmirak
May 13, 2003

Bandits, thieves, terrorists by nature, a whole nation of criminals who must be suppressed by any means, however ruthless: That's the Russian government's official line on Chechnya, and most international media repeat it as if by rote. It suits the Russian government to have Americans and Europeans believe that Russia is fighting alongside them in the war on terrorism, that Vladimir Putin's repression of Chechen independence is of one piece with the attempt to keep suicide bombers off American airliners. Beguiled by this false equation, Westerners forget their principles and fall into lockstep. When Human Rights Watch appealed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the massive abuses committed in Chechnya, that good liberal ignored them, and shook Vladimir Putin's bloody hand without a contrary word – he later referred to "Russia's right to self-defense."

It's comforting for Western democrats to rely on Russian government press releases about dubious Chechen connections with international terrorists.

It's soothing for Americans to forget how intimately their own government was intertwined with Islamic extremists during the Cold War – especially in Afghanistan, where the CIA helped lay the infrastructure for the groups that would form Al Qaeda.

And it's convenient for world leaders eager to maintain their Russian alliance to ignore the radical difference in kind between terror attacks (such as Sept. 11 and the Moscow theater tragedy) and a guerilla war waged against an army of occupation. Remember the American War of Independence? Imagine if it had dragged on for 300 years, and you will know a little about how the Chechens feel.

The Chechen Thirst for Independence

It has been that long since the Tsars invaded Chechnya, and since Chechens have been fighting back, resisting every pacification campaign – even surviving Stalin's attempt at genocide through exile to barren steppes in winter time. Centuries under Tsars and then Soviets created quite a thirst for independence, and for the protection of international law. So in 1991, it should have surprised no one when the autonomous Soviet Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia, as the region then was called, tried to follow the other 15 Soviet republics and declare independence. Sadly for Chechnya, the old Soviet Constitution only offered this right to so-called "Union" republics, such as Ukraine. (This legalistic distinction would give the leadership in Russia the pretext they needed to keep Chechnya by force.)

A new Soviet Union treaty projected equal rights of self-determination for all entities of the Union – and was scheduled to take effect on August 20, 1991. It failed because of August 19-21 coup, which effectively ended the Soviet state, and left the Chechens orphaned stepchildren in the Russian Federation – a people with as good a moral claim to independence as Armenia or Estonia, but without the legal standing to demand it.

Boris Yeltsin's new regime wrapped itself in the slogans of democracy, human rights, and a renewed civil society. It claimed to reject the Soviet legacy in the region – which was ugly indeed. In attempting to play ethnic groups against each other, the Soviets inspired the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with cruel massacres of Armenians in Azerbaijan in 1988-1990. Soviet troops also shed blood in Tbilisi (1989) and Baku (1990), and in faraway Vilnius in January, 1991. But Yeltsin renounced this heritage, at least in public.

Chechen leaders tried to take Yeltsin at his word. In 1992, Chechen members of parliament held repeated meetings with Russian delegations, seeking a peaceful route to independence, and a meeting between Yeltsin and the first Chechen President, former Soviet Army General Djokhar Dudayev. Dudayev was no Islamist; he considered himself part of the post-Soviet democratic order, in which he struggled to find a place for a free Chechnya. The new Chechen Constitution, which he adopted in 1992, proclaimed Chechnya a secular rather than an Islamic state.

But Great Russian chauvinism was not content to see even more territory peel away from Moscow's orbit. In the conflict between Russian democrats and militaristic, ex-KGB elements, the latter won. In Chechnya itself, the economy began to collapse, and dissident forces – with help from Moscow – rebelled against Dudayev. He responded with repression.

In Moscow, the Russian parliament dissolved as a result of another coup on October 3-4, 1993. It was replaced by a far more chauvinistic State Duma, which would never again consider Chechen independence. Its new leaders, loyal to Yeltsin, began more and more aggressively condemning Chechen "separatism," and referring to Chechnya itself as a vast "criminal zone." The Russian "war party" grew in influence, and soon included major figures in the inner circle of President Yeltsin, including generals Korzhakov and Barsukov, Minister of Nationalities Yegorov, First Vice-Premier Soskovets, and other high-ranking officials.

The Chechen president refused to sign the new Federation Treaty in 1992, as well as new a Russian Constitution in 1993. By mid-July 1994, it became apparent that the Yeltsin leadership had decided to overthrow Dudayev in a "black" operation, by supporting handpicked "opposition" figures such as the old Communist Avturkhanov. After several failed operations, these rebel forces made a last-ditch assault on Grozny on November 26, supported covertly by Russian troops. They failed, and most were captured. Dudayev offered clemency to the rebels, if Russia would admit its role in the affair. Instead, on December 11, 1994, the Russian army openly invaded Chechnya.

The Russian authorities were still unskilled at media management, and foreign reporters freely covered the brutal war that ensued. Russian and foreign audiences alike saw the virtual destruction of Grozny by heavy bombardment, the mass killing of civilians as the Russians stormed the capital, and the imprisonment of non-combatants in so-called "filtration" camps. Strong antiwar sentiment developed in Russia, along with sympathy for the courageous Chechen Resistance, and a cease-fire was negotiated. In April 1996 Russian agents assassinated the Chechen president, but by August a peace settlement was secured.

Chechnya held new presidential elections, which were widely considered the most free and democratic campaigns in any post-Soviet nation. Chechens elected Aslan Maskhadov, a moderate politician, rejecting more extreme nationalists such Shamil Basayev and Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. A peace agreement on May 12, 1997, signed in Moscow by Presidents Yeltsin and Maskhadov seemed to put an end to the whole Russian-Chechen conflict.

But it was not to be. Russian officials refused to clarify Chechnya's status, treating it neither as as an independent state (a subject of the international law) nor as part of the Russian Federation. This left the devastated republic acutely isolated, blocked from most Western aid, uncompensated for the enormous damage inflicted by the Russian attacks. Chechens had nowhere to turn for help but to the Islamic world. They did not look to Iran, Syria, Iraq or Libya, but to moderate, pro-Western regimes such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab emirates. However, the social chaos and misery caused by the war did provide a breeding ground for extremists who looked to the Taliban for help and example. Aslan Maskhadov did his best to resist these radicals, but without outside support. Russia even refused to provide the aid it had offered as part of the peace agreement.

How Russia Created a 'Criminal Zone'

There is evidence that some of these Islamic extremists, such as Arbi Barayev, received support from the Russian secret service – which fiercely resented Chechen independence as a threat to Russian integrity. Former KGB agents with long-standing ties to Syria and Iraq, and radical anti-Israeli organizations would not find it hard to reactivate such connections. (For more on this see Blowing-Up Russia: Terror from Within, a profound, systematic investigation into the links between the Russian security services, the Russian mafia, and international terrorists.) In case you haven't heard his name, Barayev was one of the leading "kidnappers for profit" to emerge from Chechnya. In 1997, Aslan Maskhadov asked Russian officials to arrest and extradite Barayev, but they refused. Only in 2001 was Barayev finally stopped – killed by a young Chechen in a blood feud.

Since 1992, high-ranking Russian officials, both in the military and secret police, have been engaged in illegal business activities on a vast scale. Even as their military and political control collapsed with the old totalitarian system, they feathered their nests financially, and jockeyed for covert control of the new institutions. They mostly succeeded, and blocked important reforms, seized state assets for pennies on the ruble, and came to dominate the black market, the oil industry, and the drug trade. "Military mafia" figures, led by former Defense Minister P. Grachev, became major salesmen in the illegal arms trade.

It suited the interests of all these conspirators to create a lawless region in which they could operate with impunity, without fear of prosecution – with their activities covered by the fog of war. At the same time, Russian nationalists reached blindly for a target to vent their frustrations at an empire gone astray. Long-suffering Chechnya served both groups and their needs. Now it is also scapegoat in the Western war on terror, as the punishing force of a former superpower rains down on a small nation.

If Chechens are indeed Russian citizens, as Russia's President Putin insists, then why is his military slaughtering them, leveling their cities, and making no effort to impose civil order on the mutilated region?

Are Chechens Human?

Russians have never considered Chechens their countrymen. Too many of them, in fact, see Chechens as something less than human. Labeling the entire population of a region "criminals" and "terrorists" makes it easy to justify the use of brutal, disproportionate military force against them, without compunction or regard for the laws of war. So Stalin used propaganda to portray the land-owning "kulaks" as subhuman, then slaughtered or starved them by the millions. False accusations that most Chechens are affiliated with "terrorism" has made them outcasts throughout Russia – even as in Chechnya they are being killed like wild animals. In Russia itself, refugees from Chechnya are being deprived of passport registrations, prevented from working, denied medical care, and routinely beaten and tortured by police. After Sept. 11, even the US rejected Chechen appeals for refugee status.

I will never forget the words of a Chechen refugee woman in Moscow, who cried out desperately to me, "Do you really consider us humans?" Indeed, the Russian forces' conduct in Chechnya has begun to equal their behavior there during Stalin's Great Terror: They routinely employ torture, forced confessions, and mass killing. Concentration camps honeycomb the entire republic. The whole region is virtually closed to the outside world, and even to the Russian population – so that the genocide can proceed without much protest.

Courageous and honest Russian journalists and human rights activists (among them are Sergei Kovavyov, Elena Bonner, Anna Politkovskaya, Andrei Babitskii, and others) recently appealed to journalists to employ more careful, evenhanded language in describing the Chechen War. As they wrote:

"By describing explosions, bombardments, and any resistance shown against federal forces as 'terrorist acts' and the Chechen Resistance fighters as 'bandits,' 'terrorists,' or 'gunmen, ' you simply parrot the official line, which tries to present the Chechnya War as a struggle against terrorism and banditry. You mislead millions of your spectators, listeners, and readers. When you use such names willy-nilly, you actually encourage the bloodshed to continue. Indeed, if only bandits, terrorists, and gunmen fight against the federal forces in Chechnya, this war is justified – because one does not negotiate with terrorists. It is true that many commanders and Chechen Resistance fighters are not at all innocent before God, people and the law. But that cannot justify calling them simply 'bandits' or 'terrorists' – especially when the Russian federal forces commit their own, quite numerous war crimes against 'terrorists' and non-combatants alike."

Trapped by the notion that Chechens and their resistance movement are simply terrorists, Russians don't press their government to negotiate an end to the conflict. So Chechens are forced to fight, and deprived even of the opportunity to surrender with dignity. They are not simply the "enemy" they are "terrorists." This means they need not be treated as human beings at all. They are deprived of the protection of law. They may be killed covertly, and buried like animals. Meanwhile, the last Chechen fighters continue with their unequal, exhausting war like the last Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto – forgotten by the world, fighting to the last bullet without hope, and with no other choice.

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Nadezhda Banchik is an independent journalist living in San Jose, California.

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