Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1996, pg. 7

Special Report

Agreement May Give Chechnya Its Independence, Russia a President

by Richard H. Curtiss

“Today we are facing a choice: Either we reach peace by collective reason or carry on a bloody orgy for decades.”
Russian security chief Aleksandr I. Lebed, Sept. 6, 1996.

Chechnya’s fight for independence has had no specific beginning, and as yet, no definitive end. But the 19th century wars between Chechens and Cossacks that gave rise to endless Russian and Muslim tales of derring do by the incredible Chechens even had their echoes in a comic ballad sung by American school children celebrating a mythic military encounter between “Abdul Bulbul Amir” and “Ivan Skavitsky Skavar.”

Each new wave of fighting in Chechnya left tidepools of Chechen refugees in Armenia, Turkey and as far away as Syria and Jordan. In those countries the Chechens were seen as honest, clever and hard-working people who took care of their own and kept sending their sons back to the mountains and dusty plains of their homeland for more punishment.

The worst of that punishment took place during World War II when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin abolished the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, established in 1936, and sent the Chechens off to exile deep in Central Asia on suspicion of collaborating with the invading German army. The republic was re-established in 1957, as the exiles returned to their homeland, and the breakup of the former Soviet Union seemed once again to provide an opportunity for the Chechens to resume their seemingly endless fight, against all odds, for independence.

Complicating the battle further, however, was the fact that Grozny, the Chechen capital, by then had become a major petroleum refining center. Not only were its refineries handling oil from nearby fields within Chechnya, but also it was becoming an area of major importance for transit of petroleum from Azerbaijan and points east to European and world markets.

So far as the Russians were concerned, Chechnya, Igushia and other tiny entities of the Caucasus were inside the Russian borders, not outside and expendable as were nearby Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Chechens, however, thought otherwise. In 1991, an anti-Soviet mob stormed the regional Supreme Soviet, or parliament, in Grozny. The Soviet Chechen leader, Doku Zavgayev, fled and, seven weeks later, the people of Chechnya elected a Chechen former Soviet air force general named Dzhokhar Dudayev their new president.

The Soviets denounced the elections as illegal, but the audacious and colorful Dudayev responded on Nov. 2, 1991 by declaring Chechnya independent of Russia. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, seeing a dangerous challenge to the integrity of Russia’s self-defined national borders, sent Russian troops to Chechnya. But they were confronted by armed Chechens and prudently withdrew.

In December 1994 Yeltsin again sent troops, 40,000 this time, to crush the tiny self-declared nation of no more than three million people. This time neither side backed down, and the war that ensued has laid waste to Grozny and much of the rest of Chechnya, killing as many as 80,000 people, of whom perhaps 10,000 were Russian soldiers.

Aside from the seemingly suicidal futility of such a tiny nation standing up to the Russians, the ensuing year and a half of fighting has given rise to nightmare scenes of slaughter. Russian planes bombed and Russian artillery shelled indiscriminately. Russian troops, after drinking all day and occasionally killing carloads or even busloads of civilians at roadblocks for no discernible reason, sometimes went berserk at night, randomly killing civilians in villages, neighborhoods or apartment buildings.

For their part, the Chechens, who rapidly grew into experienced guerrilla fighters, set up ambush after ambush in which hapless Russian draftees, who seemed perpetually lost and helpless even when sober, were slaughtered by the squad and platoon, day after day, week after week. And after the guerrillas seemed finally to have been cornered in the mountains, they would emerge to seize an entire village, and in June 1995, an entire town outside Chechnya, to demonstrate convincingly that no matter how many ill-equipped, undertrained and incompetently led troops Russia sent to Chechnya, the Chechens were not going to give up.

Two things happened this year to set a new course in the seemingly unending Russian-Chechen confrontation. Dudayev, Chechnya’s colorful leader, was killed by a Russian rocket in April in a triumph for Russian intelligence. His successors, seasoned Chechen fighters, did not need to offer any further proof of how tough they were. They proved it by recapturing Grozny, trapping dozens of its Russian occupiers within their lines.

At the same time an authentic Russian military hero entered the picture. He is Aleksandr I. Lebed, who make his mark as a general in Afghanistan and, after his retirement from the army, ran for president against Boris Yeltsin. When he scored third in the 1996 election, he called on his followers to support Yeltsin in the runoff against a Communist opponent, and thus assured a Yeltsin victory.

His reward was the post of Yeltsin’s national security adviser. It was in this capacity that he went to Grozny and, after roundly criticizing the commander of Soviet forces on the ground, personally entered into negotiations with Dudayev’s successors.

In pursuit of an agreement, the rough-featured but almost stereotypically Russian-looking Lebed showed extraordinary personal courage. He would remain in ruined, darkened Grozny negotiating far into the night — long after his helicopter and armored security forces withdrew for their own safety — and then allowing the Chechen forces to escort his tiny entourage back to the safety of Russian lines. Gradually, and with the involvement of most of the Chechen guerrilla leaders, Lebed and an opposite number, Chechen military chief of staff Aslan Maskhavov, hammered out an agreement.

For the Chechens, with their endless appetite for the stuff of military legends, the brave Lebed became a kind of “honorable enemy” folkhero—“Ivan Skavitsky Skavar”—facing up to Maskhavov—their own “Abdul Bulbul Amir.”

“I have come to know Lebed and I do trust him,” Maskhadov told his people. And even the chastened Russian military commander on the ground moderated his previously bellicose language and actions.

Lebed soon found that the political perils of Moscow matched the physical perils of Grozny. Having worked out a deal that both he and Maskhavov could live with, since neither war hero feared donning the mantle of peacemaker, Lebed returned to the Russian capital to secure the blessing of President Yeltsin. But Yeltsin was suffering from a heart condition that either prevented him from seeing Lebed at first, or gave him an excuse not to.

While all young Russian draftees, and their parents from the sprawling nation’s European borders to its most distant Siberian outposts and Pacific islands, must have breathed a sigh of relief that the fighting in Chechnya had stopped, a large segment of the Russian public found the fact that one of the former Soviet Union’s tiniest autonomous areas had fought the Russian army to a standstill too ignominious to swallow.

Finally Lebed returned with enough authority to sign an agreement on behalf of Russia, but it was clear that if it went badly, the responsibility would be Lebed’s. The agreement sets up joint Russian- Chechen patrols for Grozny and other population centers. There will be no further fighting, and the final form of Chechen independence (as the Chechens would have it) or autonomy (as the Russians will have it) will be negotiated after what probably will be a five-year waiting period. Russian troop withdrawals were to begin on Sept. 8, only three days after the agreement was signed. Meanwhile there are to be no reprisals against Chechen collaborators with the Russians, like the Russian-installed former Chechen president, Doku G. Zavgayev.

There is little doubt that the Chechens will be just as insistent on the trappings as well as the reality of independence at the time of final negotiations. It is possible, however, that by then Russian resentment of the situation will have moderated.

Meanwhile, the Chechens have taken over the administration of Grozny.

The first five Chechens caught drunk in public or selling alcoholic beverages were caned while the peace negotiations were underway, and while bemused Russian participants in the joint patrols watched uncertainly. Most of the Russians who watched told journalists later that they thought the harsh punishments were an effective way to stamp out alcoholism and restore order in Chechnya’s shattered capital.

Islamic law now reigns in Grozny, and the result is law and order in Chechnya. Whether the next five years are just another episode in Chechnya’s endless quest for freedom, or the prelude to real independence, however, will depend as much on events in Russia as in Chechnya and the Caucasus. The election as Russia’s next president of Aleksandr Lebed, now a folk hero to the Chechens as well as to half of the population of Russia, would help a lot.