Wednesday 17 December 2008

North Caucasus More Unstable Now than When Yeltsin Launched First Post-Soviet Chechen War

Paul Goble - Window on Eurasia

Vienna, December 15 – Fourteen years ago this week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent his forces into Chechnya to "restore the constitutional order," an action that not only failed to do that but led to the second Chechen war under Vladimir Putin, to the destabilization of the entire North Caucasus and to increasingly violent acts by Russian security services abroad.

Following a series of efforts to overthrow Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, Yeltsin sent in military units to support Chechens opposed to Dudayev and his efforts to secure the independence, an operation many in Moscow and the West expected to end in two to three weeks but instead lasted two years and continues to cast a shadow on the region.

Chechens and others continue to disagree about Dudayev and Yeltsin's moves against him, but according to Caucasus Knot's Aleksandr Ivanov, most agree that "if there had not been [this] 'first Chechen war,' then there would not have been the 'second' with all its ensuing consequences (

Aslambek Apayev, a specialist on the North Caucasus at the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Ivanov that Yeltsin and his entourage were to blame for the launch of the first way. "It was possible and necessary to conduct talks, and sooner or later, Moscow and Grozny would have achieved mutually acceptable agreements."

"Instead," Apayev continued, "Yeltsin began the war. What did Russia and Chechnya receive then from this? Only new problems, a new war, new victims and destruction in Chechnya. Now the war has spread practically across the entire North Caucasus," all of which could have been avoided "if the Kremlin in 1994 had displayed wisdom and farsightedness."

After thousands of deaths and the embarrassment of Russian forces, the first Chechen war ended with the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords between Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov and Russian General Aleksandr Lebed, although these agreements were never implemented and a new war began in 1999 because of the actions of both Moscow and Chechen radicals.

In support of his presidential aspirations, Vladimir Putin set in train the blowing up of apartment buildings in Russian cities, an action he blamed on the Chechens and one that allowed him to whip up the kind of nationalistic fervor that helped him begin his suppression of the rights and freedoms Russians had come to enjoy under Yeltsin.

And what did Putin's actions achieve in Chechnya itself? Ivanov asked rhetorically. The republic is now ruled by the son of the former president who "in exchange for nominal devotion [to the Kremlin] has been able to get from Moscow such preferences and concessions about which neither Dzhokhar Dudayev nor Aslan Maskhadov ever dreamed."

In an essay apparently timed to coincide with the "Chechen anniversary," the Caucasus Times, a research center and portal based in Prague, published the results of polls it has conducted in the capital cities of six North Caucasus republics, results that destroy Moscow's "myth about stabilization" there (

Despite the obvious difficulties of conducting surveys that seek to measure popular attitudes about issues that Moscow would very much prefer not be discussed, the Caucasus Times group has interviewed 4200 people in Russian in these cities over the last 18 months, and the results, a summary of which have been published online, are devastating.

They show that people in these cities not only discount Moscow's claims about the situation there but expect more violence in the future, almost whatever happens. On the one hand, that leads to certain passivity among the population in the face of violence by both officials and organized groups.

But on the other, it shows that people in the places in the North Caucasus thought to be most firmly under the control of pro-Moscow forces are not expecting stability and peace anytime soon but rather the reverse, attitudes that Moscow and its loyalists have not yet found a way of overcoming.

The results are being published in a two-part book. The first section includes polls in each of the republics of the region, and the second is devoted to a functional analysis of the attitudes and behavior of the people there in advance of elections. In addition, the second also treats the broader question of the expectations of the population about the situation in Russia as a whole.

But the anniversary of "the first Chechen," as many now refer to the conflict Yeltsin launched, was marked in another way. On December 9, former Chechen field commander Islam Dzhanibekov was found murdered in Istanbul, Turkey, an action that various media outlets immediately linked to the actions of Russian security services.

In an article in "Yezhednevniy zhurnal," intelligence specialist Andrey Soldatov explains why. On the one hand, the way in which the action was carried out and the fact that it follows three other such murders of Chechen activists abroad over the last four years all point to Moscow's involvement (

And on the other, because Moscow can count on the understanding of other states as long as it portrays such moves as being part of the global war on terrorism, the Russian government risks little by eliminating its most militant opponents in this way. Indeed, it may even win points in some circles.

As Soldatov puts it, "in 'the global war on terrorism,' where repressive structures of all governments are allied – the more harsh the structure, the more valuable its assistance – there are too few chances that the special services will not engage in murder or will begin to accuse one another of violating the rules of the game."

"And it is not important," he continues, that Russia today is not the most active or essential ally. When a conflict lasts too long, even junior partners obtain guarantees from the main players," yet another development that has some of its roots in Yeltsin's failed effort to "restore the constitutional order" in Chechnya.

But at least the Russian force structures are not yet brazen enough to take public credit for what they almost certainly did. Their spokesmen are saying that Dzhanibekov was killed because he had money, an explanation that says more about those who give or accept it than it does about the event itself (

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