1990s >> 1995 >> no-1086-february-1995

Hot War in the Caucasus

If anything, the end of the Cold War has given even the least enlightened of us a geography lesson. Most of us are now all too familiar with names like Basra and Bosnia, Zagreb and Sarajevo and Mogadishu and Macedonia, and we can locate them on a map without too much difficulty. Grozny and Chechnya are the latest example of hitherto unheard of names that have suddenly rocketed themselves into the world news. But why the tiny Caucasus republic of Chechnya?

Yeltsin and his generals would have us that Chechnya is breaking laws laid down in the Russian Federation constitution by declaring itself a sovereign republic. Therefore, they must be returned to the fold at any cost.

One wonders at the importance tiny Chechnya holds for Yeltsin, considering its size. The old Soviet Union covered a total area of 8,647,172 square miles. Chechnya covers an area of 7,350 square miles (smaller in fact than Wales – 8,018 square miles). Surely Chechnya can’t be that important – or can it?

To Yeltsin, the free-marketeer, Chechnya means vital roubles to a crippled Russian economy. Chechnya is basically essential to Russia’s economic interests – all the more important since Georgia and Azerbaijan, both rich in natural resources, seceded successfully from the Soviet Union.

Oil Pipeline

The tiny republic of Chechnya, land locked on three sides by Russia, includes fertile farmland that straddles the wheat fields of southern Russia. The republic is also an important rail/road trade route to other trans-Caucasus republics. But most importantly, Chechnya controls the oil pipeline that connects the Black and Caspian Seas. Chechnya also claims several oilfields and a refinery and is further invaluable for the supply of chemicals, building materials and engineering.

So, like all wars in the modern world, the Chechen conflict has profit motive at its root, in particular who controls the Chechnya’s mineral wealth and strategic pipeline.

The Chechen separatists feel they have every reason to claim independence. The area was initially forcibly incorporated into Russia by Tsarist expansionists some 150 years ago, since which time they have suffered the status of t the second class citizen, their Islamic faith making them subhuman to racist Russians and having to endure travel restrictions all too reminiscent of South Africa.

Stalin hated them so much that he had the entire population deported to central Asia in 1944 on trumped-up charges of Nazi collaboration –  a venture that wiped out 60 percent of the Chechen population.

Yeltsin has since blamed Chechens for every social evil facing Russia, from drug-trafficking and black-marketeering to the current trend for hijackings.

Chechnya sparked the current conflict in September 1991. When General Dzhokha Dudayev assumed power and declared Chechnya an independent republic. This was flatly denounced by Russia on November 1 1991.

Russian hostility to Chechnya’s claims to sovereignty led some Chechen extremists to carry out hijackings to force their message home. This provided Moscow with the pretext to finance and supply weapons to the anti-Dudayev forces led by the pro-Yeltsin Umar Authurkhanov, in an attempt to nip Chechen nationalism in the bud.

Confidence in support from Moscow inspired anti-Dudayev forces to launch an attack on Grozny on November 25 last year, with the help of Russian mercenaries – an assault that was quickly repelled. What only became clear later was that the FSK (the successor to the KGB) had in fact recruited the mercenaries to fight Dudayev. The present crisis is, therefore, grounded in the covert backing Russian security forces gave to internal Chechen opposition forces. For it was the humiliation of that defeat that prompted the Russian massing of troops on the Chechen border at the beginning of December.

Opposition to the war

Polls since carried out in Russia have found that 75 percent of respondents oppose the war. The Russian media has also condemned the invasion of Chechnya, including the normally pro-Yeltsin Izvestia newspaper. On December 23, MPs in the Duma voted overwhelmingly for a halt to the war and even the army has been reported as feeling compunction pangs.

The only support Yeltsin has had for his Chechen operation has come from the parliamentary faction “Russia’s Choice”, the right-wing lunatic Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other nondescript opportunists. To the majority of Russians, Yeltsin, “the champion of democracy”, is in reality a Stalin in miniature.

Many Russians are bewildered at Yeltsin’s overnight change of character. For this is the same Yeltsin who came to world attention lambasting Gorbachev’s attempt to stifle Lithuanian independence, begging army officers to disobey orders and calling on the UN to intervene.

Yeltsin, in three years, has learned quick that the rules of capitalism means that a country can only prosper if it is aggressive in defence of its economic interests. That’s why the governments in the West have been so reluctant in coming forward with their criticism – because they have been doing the same thing as Yeltsin for 200 years.

John Bissett

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