An anniversary story: Fall, dissolution, and political violence

Today, 9 November, celebrates another anniversary the Berlin Wall officially fell.

It has been commonly believed that the fall of the Wall was a peaceful one, and also marked a “peaceful” dissolution and transition of East Germany’s patron, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – the Soviet Union – into independent countries (albeit now led by Russia in various iterations of economic/political organisations such as the Eurasian Customs Union).

That year of 1989, however, was really a different story, as were the years before and after.

Before November 1989, violence and death were  endemic to the crossing of the Berlin Wall – crossings from east to west. East German border guards were given a “licence to kill” to shoot at defectors, and more than a thousand people lost their lives.

In the years before 1989, as Soviet leaders were attempting to reform, there were riots in Kazakhstan based on a nascent ethnic nationalism, political protests in the Baltic states, and environmental demonstrations in Armenia. Then in April 1989, Soviet troops massacred demonstrators in the capital of Soviet Georgia, Tbilisi, which was followed by inter-ethnic violence in Georgia’s autonomous/breakaway territory of Abkhazia. In June 1989, riots again occurred in Kazakhstan.

After the fall of the Wall, in January 1990 ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis – which had been escalating for years prior – exploded into open warfare, killing Soviet soldiers in Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) in the process. Gorbachev sent troops into Baku to regain control, but eventually Azerbaijan along with the other republics was to break from the Soviet Union.

T-80UD tanks in the Red square during the 1991 soviet coup d’etat attempt. Location: Northern ramp of Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge (not exactly Red Square, some 200 meters south from its formal southern edge, with Nabatnaya tower in sight)

– Photo and caption from Wikipedia (public domain).

The last major event was the failed hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, before the USSR fell proper.

Yes, there were many other non-violent, even peaceful events and incidents across the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. But it would be a mistake to forget the political violence that occurred, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was anything but peaceful, and that state and societal collapse is less straightforward, and more significant than most people expect.

Look at the state of play between Russia and Ukraine now, and international politics in general.


From Iraq to Iraq: Political violence, recently

Protestors in Malaysia: The ‘969’ anti-Muslim movement in Burma has been identified as the main instigator of violence against Muslims in that country. Photo courtesy of

Some links related to and around news about political violence over the past few weeks:


FALLUJAH, Iraq, Apr 13, 2012 (IPS) – At Fallujah hospital they cannot offer any statistics on children born with birth defects – there are just too many. Parents don’t want to talk. “Families bury their newborn babies after they die without telling anyone,” says hospital spokesman Nadim al-Hadidi. “It’s all too shameful for them.”

“We recorded 672 cases in January but we know there were many more,” says Hadidi. He projects pictures on to a wall at his office: children born with no brain, no eyes, or with the intestines out of their body.

Contextualizing Media Claims in Boston –

In attempting to place Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnaev into the mould of the stereotypical “Islamic fundamentalist bomber,” the media used several facts and claims about the brothers that, in my opinion, don’t ring true or were taken out of the Chechen and post-Soviet context and, thus, were misunderstood. I would like to draw attention to several such facts (certainly not all) and clarify them. While these details may seem small, they helped to form an image of the Tsarnaev brothers in the public’s mind, simplifying complex motivations that may exist behind this attack. Words have connotations beyond their direct meanings, and so the choice of something as small as the wrong word can change how we perceive the facts: …

The wrong kind of Caucasian – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

Ethnicity is often used to justify violent behaviour. But no ethnicity is inherently violent. Even if the Tsarnaevs aligned themselves with violent Chechen movements – and as of now, there is no evidence they did – treating Chechen ethnicity as the cause of the Boston violence is irresponsible.

One hundred years ago, the violent act of one Polish-American caused a country to treat all Polish-Americans with suspicion. Now, the Poles have become “white” – which is to say they are largely safe from the accusations of treason and murderous intent that ethnic groups deemed non-white routinely face. When a Polish-American commits a crime, his ethnicity does not go on trial with him.

But this change is not a triumph for America. It is a tragedy that it happened to Poles then, and a greater tragedy that we have not learned our lesson and it happens still – to Hispanics, to Arabs, to Chechens, to any immigrant who comes here seeking refuge and finds prejudice instead.

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Driving through Chechnya’s checkpoints

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 9-10.

There were four of us in the rattling Soviet Army jeep, known endearingly as a UAZik, pronounced wahzik, in the common parlance. Lord knows what image we projected to the well-muscled, sunburned, and deeply suspicious Russian soldiers at the checkpoints. Sometimes they were drunk. Nearly always they were scared. In Chechnya, I’d learned, checkpoints were the measure of one’s day. People did not ask, “How far it is?” [sic] but “How many checkpoints are there?” Each day we crossed at least a dozen.

On this sweltering morning in July, we had already passed seventeen. The posts were the center of activity amid the ruins of the city. Conscripts maintained the constant vigil, checking the cars and their passengers, while their officers, hands on radios, sat in shaded huts off the road. But this post was nearly empty, and the OMON officers who stopped us, a pit bull from Irkutsk, was not in a good mood. His arms and neck glowed with the burned pink skin of a new arrival. He wore wraparound sunglasses and a bandanna over his shaved head. Tattoos, the proud emblem of Russian soldiers and prisoners, covered his biceps. “Slava” (“glory”) adorned the right one. It could be a name or a desire. He wore no shirt, only a green vest fitted with grenades, a knife, and magazine clips to feed the Kalashnikov he held firmly in both hands. His fingers seemed soldered to it.

We may have looked legit, but we were a fraud. Issa ostensibly was a ranking member of the wartime administration in Chechnya, the Russians’ desperate attempt at governance in the restive republic of Muslims, however lapsed, Sovietized, and secularized. He had the documents to prove it, but the man who signed them had since been fired. Issa knew the life span of his documents was limited. At any checkpoint his “client,” as he had taken to calling me, could be pulled from the jeep, detained, interrogated, and packed off in the next flight to Moscow.

At fifty-one, Issa boasted a resume that revealed the successful climb of a Chechen apparatchik. Born in Central Asian exile, in Kyrgyzstan, five years after Stalin had deported the Chechens in 1944, he had graduated from the Grozny Oil Institute in 1971. For twenty-one years he worked at Grozneft, the Chechen arm of the Soviet Oil and Gas Ministry. He spent the last Soviet years, until Yeltsin clambered up onto the tank in 1991, in western Siberia, overseeing the drilling of oil wells in Tyumen. He spoke a smattering of French, a bit of Arabic, and a dozen words in English — all learned, he liked to tease, during stints in Iraq and Syria.

[Beginnings] Beslan (3)

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 5-7.

Before the war, few Chechens would have claimed their vision of Islam, so thoroughly diluted by seven decades of Soviet Atheism, was orthodox. The principal rules and regulations of society were set by adat, the Chechen’s centuries-old customary law. The years of war would change all that. During the republic’s isolation, Moscow did all it could to undermine the Maskhadov regime, while the Russian General Staff, humiliated by the retreat from the south, yearned for a grudge match. In the vacuum, a new religious force took hold — Wahhabism, the austere strain of Islam that emanates from Saudi Arabia. Its teachers, in the main, were young men with long beards, stern gazes, and shadowy sources of funding. On the scorched earth of Chechnya, among a generation raised on war and little else, the movement found a fast and impassioned following.

If in the first war, the Chechen rebels were freedom fighters in the Reagan mold, yearning for independence in a classic war of decolonization, the war that began anew in the late 1999 — Putin’s War that continues to this day — marked a sharp turn. It began with the invasion by forces from Chechnya into Dagestan to the east, and the series of apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities. The sparks that reignited the conflict, and provided a welcome platform to catapult an unknown retired KGB lieutenant colonel to Yeltsin’s throne, are detailed in the pages that follow. But whatever its cause, the “second” Chechen war differed markedly from the first. For the Russians, the new campaign would be even more brutal, with far more troops, sorties, and bombs. For the Chechens, in turn, the talk of sovereignty now gave way to an urge for little but revenge. And among the most militant, as Russia entered the twenty-first century under Putin, the rebellion in Chechnya would take on a new name, jihad.

NO ONE CAN JUSTIFY TERRORISM, of any species. Neither can anyone explain mass murder, whether sponsored by a state or a half-crazed gang of criminals or soldiers. It is beyond the powers of reason to comprehend how men could shoot children in the back. That is not to say we should not try.

Under Putin, Russia remains a land in upheaval. There are troubles with restive oligarchs, old epidemics of corruption and alcoholism, new ones of HIV and tuberculosis. Chechnya, however, remains the wound that unites the country in anguish. The true tally of the dead will never be known — more than one hundred thousand combining both sides is the modest estimate. The Kremlin has called the attack at Beslan “Russia’s 9/11.” The Russian president has looked to Washington and pledged to adopt George W. Bush’s doctrine of “preemption.” The Chechens, to be sure, have won no friends by the recent campaign of terror. But Putin, too, has yielded no ground, steadfastly refusing to concede that his prosecution of the war could have fueled the rebel fire.

Putin did not start the war in Chechnya. He inherited it from his enfeebled predecessor. However, under his tenure the conflict has become more radicalized and militant. Only under Putin did the Chechens devise a new weapon: suicide bombers bent on killing as many Russian civilians as possible. In June 2000, during the first summer of his reign, and days before I entered the republic, the first Chechen shakhidka blew herself up, detonating a truck bomb at an army checkpoint. By now, the evidence is clear: the Kremlin’s unyielding policy, coupled with the ineptitude and brutality of its armed forces, has only played to the hand of its most radicalized opponents.

[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.

[Beginnings] Beslan (1)

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 3-4.

Then came Beslan, the most horrific attack yet. In the far-off capitals of the West, the realm Russians have taken to calling “the civilized world,” the headlines would scream in shock. The terrorists had descended to a circle of evil without precedent. To target a school – taking hostage more than a thousand innocent civilians, the majority of them women and children, was a nadir in the annals of terrorism. Russians watched the climax of the fifty-two-hour siege at Middle School Number One in horror. They remembered their Dostoyevsky. Etched in the collective memory was Ivan Karamazov’s nihilist dictum: he could not believe in any God who would allow children to suffer at the hands of sadists.

We may never know the identities of all the men who held the school in North Ossetia hostage. At first, the FSB, the post-Soviet heirs of the KGB, said that “ten Arabs” had taken part in the attack. Vladimir Putin even repeated the claim, before his defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, a fellow KGB alumnus and the president’s closest confidante, refuted it. Among the terrorists’ corpses identified, Ivanov said, there were no Chechens. Yet that statement too, in the days that followed, was amended. Like the implausible turns of a Gogol short story, the Kremlin line seemed forever shifting, an account under construction with each new proclamation.

Under pressure, Putin made a rare concession: he vowed to open the siege’s disastrous resolution –  the deaths of more than 350 civilians, half of them children – to an inquiry. Even in the loyal hands of the upper house of the Russian parliament, the investigation would mark a first for Russian history. In the wake of the seizure of the Moscow theater in the fall of 2002, when all 41 terrorists were killed but 130 hostages died from a military gas, Putin rejected any public reckoning. Instead, he promised an internal accounting that, somewhere in the years since it quietly stalled, was never to be completed.

Westerners look to a parliamentary inquiry and hope that the tragedy of Beslan may yield a salient lesson. Russians, however, being Russian, and still suffering the sins of Kremlin rulers past, have little faith in the state’s powers of self-examination. Putin, they knew, would rage on about the toll of terror. But the families of the hundreds who died at Beslan, and the millions of Russians who now faced a new fear from St. Petersburg to Vladivostock, expected little to change. The state would redraw its hard line across Chechnya, proclaim yet again a promise of protection, and, all too predictably, leave the survivors alone to search for solace. Putin, at the same time, in the name of the antiterrorism fight, would grab yet more power.