CHECHNYA    Or, Chechenya (which was once quite common but has lost out).

North Caucasus regions within the Russian Fede...

North Caucasus regions within the Russian Federation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

District on the northern slopes of the Caucasus;  an autonomous Republic in the Russian Federation from 1992, but a self-proclaimed independent Republic from 1991 and a conquered territory in 2000.

The Chechens – the Russian name for them, their own is Noxcuo – lived independently in clans, little influenced by Iran, whose power was much more felt in neighbouring Dagestan, on the Caspian Sea.

They became Muslims, of a rather conservative variety, in the 16th century.   The 18th century saw Russia advance to the region north of them, the lands across the River Terek.   Towards the end of the century the Russians crossed the Terek to take part of coastal Dagestan and advanced along the valley of the upper Terek to take control of the most important pass through the Caucasus.

The Chechens lived between these districts.   During the earlier years of the 19th century Russia was occupied with establishing its authority across the Caucasus, but later turned its attention to the large pocket of independence in which the Chechens and others lived.

The resistance of the Chechens was fierce and prolonged, under the leadership of the Imam Shamil, a Dagestani, but in 1859 the Russians prevailed.   The Chechen lands became part of the province of Terek.   Trouble continued, serious in 1877 and 1905.   Out of the confusions of revolution and civil war, 1917-22, there emerged Communist victory and a Mountain Autonomous Region within the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic.   Chechenya became a separate autonomous oblast in late 1922 and in 1934 joined with its western neighbour to form a united autonomous oblast, which became the Chechen-Ingush ASSR within the RSFSR in 1936 (see here).

The Chechens were deported to Soviet Central Asia in 1944 but allowed to return from 1956. As the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 the Chechens and the Ingush began to go their separate ways, with Chechnya setting out in late 1991 on the road to independence. It refused to agree to the new arrangement for the Russian Federation, the Federal Treaty, in March 1992, and did not take part in the referendum on the new Russian Constitution late in 1993.

Eventually Russian threat and limited action became full scale war late in 1994, but although the Presidential Palace in Grozny was soon taken, fighting continued and the Russians suffered many casualties.

Eventually a ceasefire became effective in August 1996, with a referendum planned for 2001 to settle the future.   An uneasy stalemate followed, not only between Russia and Chechnya, but also between moderates and militants within Chechnya.

In the summer of 1999 Islamic militants became active on the borders between Chechnya and the large Republic of Dagestan and Russian troops launched an offensive there in August.   The militants retreated, but resumed the struggle in September.   Both militants and Russians knew that an Islamic militant triumph in Dagestan would be a defeat that Russia could not sustain without losing all its authority in the eastern Caucasian region.

At the end of August about thirty people were injured, five of them seriously, in a Moscow shopping centre, and in the second and third weeks of September a series of bomb attacks in Russian towns left more than 200 dead.   Chechen terrorists were blamed, and the anger of ordinary Russians, at risk in their own towns, brought support for strong action against Chechnya.

Was the reaction of Russian citizens induced by the cynical activity of members of the state apparatus?  We no longer naively trust in the honesty of governments, but whatever happened in Russian towns, the basic cause for the renewed warfare in Chechnya was the threat of calamity for Russia posed by the intervention in Dagestan, not the sort of country where it seems likely that secret Russian agents, disguised as Islamic militants, would be operating.

The result was the renewal of the war. The Russian state felt threatened;  the Russian political establishment had a forthcoming presidential election to win;  the Russian army had ignominious incompetence in the previous conflict to burn out of its soul.

The Chechens expected that their fighters would again inflict severe casualties and that Russian opinion would sooner or later flinch as it had before; the militants had dreams of a new order.   But in the renewed war of 1999-2000 Russian opinion was militant and the Russian army was resolved to use its firepower to batter resistance to smithereens.

It did not fight on the Chechens’ ground but at a distance.

The symbol of Chechen separation was the city of Dzohar;  to make sure that it reverted to its proper Russian name of Grozny it was pounded towards extinction.

The final outcome is not clear, as I write, for resistance in the hills and mountains may mean that “the war of 1999-2000” was a grotesque shortening of a long-drawn out affair.   But even if the war is over, bar the mopping-up, the outcome is yet to unfold.

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