Movements Toward Sovereignty, Chechnya

Russia Table of Contents

Beginning in 1990, many of the constituent autonomous republics and regions, delineated at various stages of tsarist or Soviet control, used the chaos and centrifugal force created by the breakup of the Soviet Union to move toward local sovereignty. The legislatures of most republics made official declarations of sovereignty over their land and natural resources between August and October 1990. Although the declaration of full independence by the Chechen Autonomous Republic was the most extreme result of such moves, some observers felt that the political and economic stability of the Russian Federation was threatened by the separatism of regions that were valuable because of their strategic location or natural resources (see The Separatism Question, ch. 7). Furthermore, Russia, acutely conscious of having lost its "near abroad"--the fourteen republics that constituted the Soviet Union together with the RSFSR--could ill afford the second blow to national self-image that the loss of ethnically based jurisdictions would inflict.

Occupying about three-quarters of the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russia is the largest country in the world. It never has existed as a country within its present borders, however. Intent upon preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the government in Moscow maintains an uneasy relationship with the non-Russian (and particularly the non-Slavic) nationalities. This relationship stems from Russian racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes (for example, perceptions of the dark-skinned Muslims in the midst of white-skinned, Orthodox Slavs), a historical tendency toward xenophobia among Russian commoners and parts of the Russian intelligentsia, and a legacy of forcible incorporation of various ethnic and nationality groups into the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Further complicating the relationship is the fact that many of Russia's abundant natural resources lie in the territories of various regions now proclaiming exclusive sovereignty over those resources.

Although some tensions in ethnic and nationality relations stem from a desire for union between peoples on both sides of an internal or international border arbitrarily drawn by the tsars or by Soviet authorities, other motivations also underlie the assertiveness of national minorities in the federation. In the more liberal post-Soviet atmosphere, people no longer must suppress their anger over Soviet political and economic subjugation and Russification campaigns. Accordingly, non-Russian nationalities seek recompense for long periods of colonial-style exploitation of their indigenous resources for the benefit of the regime in Moscow. Another cause of dissatisfaction is the perceived failure of the Russian government to provide adequate support and protection for native schools and cultures. Finally, the end of the Russian government's monopolization and censorship of the news media acquainted minority groups with political trends, such as the spread of nationalism, with which the rest of the world has been familiar for some time.

Other tensions result from Russian policies that non-Russian groups perceive as discriminatory or confiscatory. Examples include unfair tax practices and the refusal of the Russian government to let various ethnic groups reap the income from sale of their indigenous products and natural resources.

Separatist agitation in many areas of Russia already had begun in the Soviet Union's twilight years. A full year before the Soviet Union's demise, more than half the autonomous republics in the RSFSR had adopted declarations of sovereignty. Every region of the vast RSFSR was affected by this trend, which was more an indication of the central government's waning authority--even in regions relatively close to Moscow--than it was an indication of intent by those declaring sovereignty.

In May 1990, the Tuva ASSR witnessed civil strife between the Russian and Tuvinian populations. Charging that Russia had failed to provide them with employment opportunities or suitable housing and had sought to eradicate their indigenous culture, the Tuvinians attacked Russian neighborhoods, setting fire to homes and forcing about 3,000 Russians to flee.

In October 1990, the Chuvash ASSR declared itself a full republic of the Soviet Union, a status that would have given it equal status with Russia, Ukraine, and the other thirteen Soviet republics. Although the announcement stated that Chuvashia would remain part of the Russian Federation, the republic would exercise complete control over all its natural resources and would make Chuvash equal with Russian as an official language. Also in 1990, the Mari ASSR, about 500 kilometers east of Moscow, proclaimed itself a full Soviet republic whose natural resources would become the exclusive property of its people and whose state languages would be Mari and Russian. The republic adopted the new vernacular name "Mari El," meaning "Mari Territory," and that name won official approval from the government in Moscow.

Also in 1990, the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Oblast and the Adygh Autonomous Oblast unilaterally upgraded themselves to autonomous-republic status. While declaring their intention to remain part of the RSFSR, these jurisdictions asserted the right to local control of their land and natural resources. Still another declaration of sovereignty came from the Buryat ASSR. The Buryats declared that their republic's laws henceforth would take precedence over those of the RSFSR.

In northwestern Russia, secessionist sentiment manifested itself among the ethnic minorities of the Karelian and Komi ASSRs. In the autumn of 1990, local Karelian authorities protested insufficient food shipments by refusing to deliver timber and paper products to Russia. Many Karelians, ethnically close to the Finns, want their republic to become part of Finland.

During the period leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, local officials in the oil-rich Bashkir ASSR (renamed Bashkortostan in 1992) declared sovereignty, and the Chukchi Autonomous Region, which faces Alaska across the Bering Strait, declared itself autonomous and demanded control over its reindeer and fish resources. Commenting on the rash of separatist activity, an adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev remarked, "It's getting to the point where sooner or later someone is going to declare his apartment an independent state."

In October 1991, the legislature of the Tatar ASSR, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow, adopted a declaration of independence from Moscow, and in 1992 Tatarstan approved a constitution that described the republic as being on an equal footing with the Russian Federation. And, in what was to become the most troublesome of the ethnic autonomy movements of the 1990s, Chechnya proclaimed its sovereignty in October 1991.

Among these nominally separatist political units, the transition from words to deeds has been uneven. In some cases, ethnic and nationality groups appear content with the mere form of sovereignty; in others, efforts are under way to give substance to the words of separatism. In republics such as Mordovia, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, relations with Russia are the defining issue among opposing political groups. Other republics, such as pro-Russian Kalmykia and independence-minded Bashkortostan, are firmly under the control of a single leader.

The enormous Republic of Sakha in north-central Siberia, rich in diamonds and other minerals, exemplifies the threat that secession poses to the Russian Federation. Sakha has declared that its local laws supersede those imposed from Moscow and that it will retain all revenues generated by the sale and use of its resources. The republic also has accepted substantial direct development investment from Japan and China. Many members of Sakha's Russian majority have sided with the indigenous population in supporting self-government or full independence. Experts believe that such regions as Sakha, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan theoretically have sufficient natural wealth to become viable independent entities. According to estimates, these regions' secession from the Russian Federation would deprive Russia of half of its oil, most of its diamonds, and much of its coal, as well as a substantial portion of such industries as automobile manufacturing.

Against the backdrop of ethnic and nationality tensions, a tug-of-war developed in the early 1990s over the respective powers of the federal and local governments in Russia (see Local and Regional Government, ch. 7). In March 1992, representatives of all but two of the republics (Chechnya and Tatarstan) and most of the smaller ethnic jurisdictions signed the Federation Treaty, which was an attempt to forestall further separatism and define the respective jurisdictions of central and regional government. The treaty failed to resolve differences in the key areas of taxation and control of natural resources, however. In some cases, self-proclaimed independent entities in Siberia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation have forged links with foreign countries. Commercial and cultural accords between Turkey and Turkic republics such as Bashkortostan and Chuvashia especially worry the central government.

The Chechnya Dilemma

The only autonomous jurisdictions that refused to sign the 1992 Federation Treaty were Chechnya and Tatarstan, both of which are rich in oil. In the spring of 1994, President Yeltsin signed a special political accord with the president of Tatarstan granting many of the Tatar demands for greater autonomy. Yeltsin declined to carry out serious negotiations with Chechnya, however, allowing the situation to deteriorate into full-scale war at the end of 1994 (see Chechnya, ch. 9). In the first half of 1996, Chechnya continued to pose the biggest obstacle to the quelling of separatism among the components of the Russian Federation.

Chechnya long has had a reputation in Russia as a center of organized crime and corrupt business practices; the Chechen mafiya has a particularly fierce reputation. The proportion of Chechens and other Caucasians in Russia's emerging market economy is much higher than the representation of these nationalities in the population as a whole. In its propaganda campaign to justify military action against Chechnya, the Russian government played upon the stereotypes of the criminal and the dishonest businessman. It also illustrated the brutal practices of the Chechen rebels by broadcasting photos of the severed heads of victims along the roads in the breakaway republic. Meanwhile, Russians adopted the habit of including all individuals of non-Slavic appearance under the heading "Chechen," widening the existing strain of racism in Russia's society.

The first Russian invasion of Chechnya occurred during the time of Peter the Great, in the early eighteenth century. After a long series of fierce battles and bloody massacres, Chechnya was incorporated into Russia in the 1870s. In 1936 Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1943, when Nazi forces reached the gates of the Chechen capital, Groznyy, Chechen separatists staged a rebellion against Russian rule. In response, the next year Stalin deported more than 1 million Chechens, Ingush, and other North Caucasian peoples to Siberia and Central Asia on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. The remaining Muslim people of the Chechnya region were resettled among neighboring Christian communities. Stalin's genocidal policy virtually erased Chechnya from the map, but Soviet first secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev permitted the Chechen and Ingush peoples to return to their homeland and restored their republic in 1957.

The series of events since the Soviet Union's collapse flowed naturally from the Chechens' long-standing hatred of the Russians. In September 1991, the government of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic resigned under pressure from the proindependence Congress of the Chechen People, whose leader was former Soviet air force general Dzhokar Dudayev. The following month, Dudayev won overwhelming popular support to oust the interim, central government-supported administration and make himself president. Dudayev then issued a unilateral declaration of independence. In November 1991, President Yeltsin dispatched troops to Groznyy, but they were withdrawn when Dudayev's forces prevented them from leaving the airport.

The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic split in two in June 1992. After Chechnya had announced its initial declaration of sovereignty in 1991, Ingushetia joined the Russian Federation; Chechnya declared full independence in 1993. In August 1994, when an opposition faction launched an armed campaign to topple Dudayev's government, Moscow supplied the rebel forces with military equipment, and Russian aircraft began to bomb Groznyy. In December, five days after Dudayev and Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev of Russia had agreed to avoid the further use of force, Russian troops invaded Chechnya.

The Russian government's expectations of a quick surgical strike followed by Chechen capitulation were misguided. The protracted war in Chechnya, which generated many reports of violence against civilians, ignited fear and contempt toward Russia among many other ethnic groups in the federation. Experts believe that the inability of Russian forces to subdue the Chechen "bandits" also might encourage other ethnic groups to defy the central government by proclaiming and defending their independence. As the war was reported to the Russian public on television and in newspaper accounts, the rising protests from Russia's independent news media and various political and other interest groups soon came to threaten Russia's democratic experiment. Chechnya was one of the heaviest burdens Yeltsin carried during the 1996 presidential election campaign.

In January 1996, the destruction of the Dagestani border village of Pervomayskoye by Russian forces in reaction to Chechen hostage taking brought strong criticism from the hitherto loyal Republic of Dagestan and escalated domestic dissatisfaction. Chechnya's declaration that it was waging a jihad (holy war) against Russia also raised the specter that Muslim "volunteers" from other regions and even outside Russia would enter the fray. However, Russia feared that a move to end the war short of victory would create a cascade of secession attempts by other ethnic minorities and present a new target to extreme nationalist Russian factions.

Some fighting occurred in Ingushetia in 1995, mostly when Russian commanders sent troops over the border in pursuit of Chechen rebels. Although all sides generally observed the distinction between the two peoples that formerly shared the autonomous republic, as many as 200,000 refugees from Chechnya and neighboring North Ossetia strained Ingushetia's already weak economy. On several occasions, Ingush president Ruslan Aushev protested incursions by Russian soldiers, even threatening to sue the Russian Ministry of Defense for damages inflicted.

Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya spawned a new form of separatist activity in the Russian Federation. Resistance to the conscription of men from minority ethnic groups to fight in Chechnya was widespread among other republics, many of which passed laws and decrees on the subject. For example, the government of Chuvashia passed a decree providing legal protection to soldiers from the republic who refused to participate in the Chechnya war and imposing limits on the use of the Russian army in ethnic or regional conflicts within Russia. Some regional and local legislative bodies called for a prohibition on the use of draftees in quelling internal uprisings; others demanded a total ban on the use of the armed forces in domestic conflicts.

The Caucasus Region in the Federation

The oil-rich region around Chechnya, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, forms a southwestern corridor of Russian territory bounded on the west by Ukraine and the Black Sea, on the south by Georgia and Azerbaijan, and on the east by the Caspian Sea and Kazakstan. The region north of the Caucasus includes seven ethnic republics and four "Russian" jurisdictions: the territories of Krasnodar and Stavropol' and the oblasts of Rostov and Astrakhan'. With the thirty ethnically and linguistically distinct communities of Dagestan the most extreme example of the region's ethnic diversity, much of the region surrounding Chechnya is a cauldron of nationality and ethnic conflicts among warlike mountain clans. On the opposite slope of the Caucasus, the former Soviet republic of Georgia likewise includes a number of ethnic groups, two of which--the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians--declared outright independence in the early 1990s.

Tsarist Russia conducted a centuries-long process of expansion into the Caucasus region, subduing the nationalities of the area gradually and often at great expense. The region has assumed particular importance in the contemporary era because of its oil, its location astride Russia's transportation and communications arteries leading to the Middle East, and the central government's fear of resurgent Islam along the southern border of the former Soviet Union.

Not far from Chechnya, a self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the North Caucasus emerged in 1992 in southwestern Russia, where the borders of the Russian Federation abut the Transcaucasian republics of the former Soviet Union. That confederation, including representatives from Russia's seven republics bordering the Caucasus, aspires to establish a chain of independent, predominantly Muslim states along the federation's southern periphery. It also has provided a forum for Chechen leaders to enlist support against Russia and for separatist leaders from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to enlist support against Georgia. Terrorist acts in Chechnya and elsewhere have been attributed to confederation members.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress