[Beginnings] Beslan (2)

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 4-5.

RUSSIA’S TROUBLES with Chechnya, despite what Putin and his appeasers in the West would claim, did not begin with September 11. The Chechens have yearned for freedom since the days of Catherine the Great. The present troubles have flitted on and off America’s television screens for a decade now. On November 26, 1994, Boris Yeltsin and the heirs of the KGB staged a proxy attack in Grozny against the wayward province’s newly risen separatist ruler, a recently retired Soviet air force general names Djokhar Dudayev. As the Soviet monolith disintegrated, and independence movements rent the old empire, Dudayev had come  home to lead a rebellion. In late 1991, backed by a crew that was part criminal, part partisan, and all nationalist, he unilaterally proclaimed an independent Chechen republic.

Moscow’s counterinsurgency proved hapless and bloody, a post-Soviet Bay of Pigs. Yet it was only a prelude to the onslaught that followed. On December 31, 1994, when Yeltsin then sent hundreds of tanks into the center of Grozny, the “first” war commenced. It would be, Yeltsin was assured, “a small, victorious war,” in the words of a minister under the Romanovs. It was a campaign of blundering Russian generals and ardent Chechen guerillas, waged with little attention on either side to the niceties of the Geneva Conventions. For the Russians, the war soon turned into a costly, and deeply unpopular, quagmire. In 1996, a Russian provincial governor would circulate a petition demanding its end, and promptly collect a million signatures. For the Chechens, however, it was a war of infinite passion and pride. It was a time of ascendant heroes, men who rose from obscurity to find fame in the bloodshed. Men like Shamil Basayev, a young commander born under Khrushchev, and named in honor of the Caucasus’s most fabled warrior, Imam Shamil, leader of the mountaineers’ nineteenth-century campaigns against the tsars.

The first campaign would end in 1996, with a desperate cease-fire. The truce was called in the town of Khasavyurt, in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. The Khasavyurt Accords brought a measure of stability, but both parties had skirted the critical question of sovereignty, leaving it to be determined in five years’ time. Chechnya, in the years that followed, gained the veneer of de facto independence, but the central question of status lingered.

Aslan Maskhadov, a former Chechen field commander, and Soviet artillery officer, was elected president of the new Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, as the triumphant separatists christened their homeland. But no one, save the Taliban in Afghanistan, gave the statelet official recognition. Islamic jurisprudence would be introduced — Shari’a courts and public lashings. Separated by an economic quarantine from the rest of the Russian Federation, the local GDP seemed driven by the kidnapping trade. The interregnum lasted a volatile three years, as the republic languished without any genuine legal, economic, or law enforcement infrastructure. The Chechens had won the day, but their homeland had devolved into a lawless enclave, a magnet for Islamist extremists, and a time-bomb in the center of the North Caucasus.


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