Interview with Bernard Gwertzman
Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and the Caucasus, says this weekend’s parliamentary elections in Chechnya could have been a significant step forward if Chechens had been encouraged to broaden their leadership. But she says the direction of the campaigning “has been in the hands of the Kremlin, which is managing this whole process extremely carefully.”
Hill, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says war-torn Chechnya, which has sought independence since the breakup of the Soviet Union, is now “a failed region; one that has been completely devastated and needs to be put together again from scratch.” She says Islamist jihadi groups have moved into the region.
Chechnya is “a black hole and a lawless area where there’s incredible corruption. Everyone is making money out of this war, and the atrocities that are committed there by the Russian troops and Moscow-backed authorities—including disappearances, massive human rights abuses, and torture—are having a broader impact in recruiting more people to the various groups that are fighting against the Russian Federation just as Palestine and Iraq continue to attract the attention of the Muslim world,” Hill says. “People in Washington, DC, may not be paying that much attention to what’s happening in Chechnya, but people in Riyadh and Amman and elsewhere are.”
Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in Chechnya this weekend. Is this a significant step forward?
It could have been a significant step forward had there been a really genuine attempt to bring groups that had not been involved in the political process in Chechnya into these elections by encouraging Chechens to really start choosing a broader group of leadership. However, what we’ve seen instead is that the direction of the campaigning, such as it has been over the last couple of months, has been in the hands of the Kremlin, which is managing this whole process extremely carefully; making deals with individuals who are participating in the election and instructing Russia’s political parties to go out there and manage groups of candidates. I interviewed one member of the Russian ruling party while I was in Moscow in September and asked him about what their plans were for this and he essentially told me quite openly that nobody would be allowed to participate in elections that hadn’t already had negotiations with Moscow on what their role was going to be. This is another example of a very heavy-handed approach to the democratic process from Moscow, leaving very little to chance.
What is Chechnya like today? My image of it is of just a war-torn place.
It is a war-torn society. And the problem with running elections in a place like this is that, as many of the Russian human rights groups—like Memorial, which is operating on the ground in the region—have made clear, that most of the basic social ties between people have been completely destroyed by the war. Everybody used to talk about Chechnya as a place, in the Russian imperial and Soviet periods, that was essentially governed by extended family and regional networks that substituted for older clan structures. But those networks have been destroyed. Extended families have been torn to pieces, with many people killed and missing; others have gone into internal exile within the Russian Federation; many people have moved to Moscow. Chechens, until the last year or so, were the largest group of people seeking asylum in Europe. So you really have a region that’s been blown to bits in many respects by the war, just as we would have seen in Bosnia at the end of events there ten years ago.
How many people lived in Chechnya before these wars started?
You’ve got to go back to the late part of the Soviet period. In the last Soviet census of 1989, there were well over a million people living there.
And about how many people are living there now, roughly?
We really don’t know. There was a census again in 2002 that suggested there were still over a million people, but there are also many much lower estimates. This population issue is so contentious. There are arguments over how many people have died in the war, how many people have been displaced. There have been various attempts to make counts, but nobody’s really sure whether they are really counting the people who are there permanently or people who also go back and forth. Because, obviously, many people feel that it’s unsafe to live there. They may be registered there and living somewhere else.
Remind people, what started the trouble there?
It was really very much a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the same way that we saw other regions, republics of the Soviet Union that are now independent states—Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states—pull away from Moscow. Chechnya was part of that whole wave of entities of the Soviet Union that had a very separate sense of identity, of political and social history, that set them apart from the rest of Russia. Chechnya was in fact the last part of the Russian empire that was really incorporated. If you take the whole region of the North Caucasus, it took sixty years to pacify this region and the territory that we consider to be Chechnya today wasn’t fully part of the Russian empire until long after places like Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan had been incorporated.
So from the Chechens’ point of view, given their size and their location on the edge of the Soviet Union, when the south Caucasus states on their borders—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia—declared their independence, Chechens thought they should, too. This is rather crudely put, but according to their reading of Soviet law, they had a population of more than a million; they’d been on an international frontier; and they had a distinct history. They demanded that they should be considered the same kind of political entity as the other republics. However, the Chechen Republic at that period was not a full “union republic” like the others on their borders. These were the complexities of the administrative structure of the Soviet Union, so for many technical reasons they didn’t have the same case for independence.
So we really had a political dispute that was very much part of the whole range of disputes that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union at the root of the conflict between Chechnya and Moscow. From there, it’s morphed into many different phases, becoming something of an ethnic conflict: Chechens pitted against Russians, although that was never quite as acute as it was depicted at times. And now, of course, with very strong international terrorist overtones, the creeping in of political Islam and international jihadist networks, we’ve got a very different conflict on our hands from what we had in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
President [Boris] Yeltsin who was head of Russia at the time this started—he tried to end this war, didn’t he?
Yes. But he also began it. The problem with Yeltsin was that there was a lot of personal animus with some key Chechens, both in Chechnya itself and in the broader Russian Federation. Remember, in October 1993, Yeltsin had a famous standoff with the Russian parliament, which he saw as a reconstituted Soviet Parliament, or the Congress of People’s Deputies, and the speaker of the parliament was Ruslan Khasbulatov. Khasbulatov was an ethnic Chechen and a relatively famous professor and economist, who had become a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies. In the new Russian parliament, he became speaker and Yeltsin disliked him. So Khasbulatov becomes a protagonist in the whole dispute between the Kremlin and the Russian Parliament. Yeltsin also got into a personal spat with the president of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had been a general in the Soviet Army, head of a Soviet military garrison in Tartu, Estonia, and had been very much sympathetic to the independence movement of the Baltic states, which were the main instigators in the sequence of events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Basically, misunderstanding piled upon misunderstanding in the series of events that led to Moscow’s  declaration of war on Chechnya. Chechnya had already declared itself seceded from Russia in the immediate period of the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Russian military had been encouraged to pullout; Yeltsin had pulled them out. And then Yeltsin in tried and true Russian fashion still attempted to have a hand in Chechen politics by encouraging coup attempts against Dudayev. And there was actually something of a civil war going on in Chechnya itself—lots of disputes. Again, based on the political culture of Chechens, which is rather decentralized and not really well-suited to having one single leader, there were many people with aspirations to rule the country.
Dudayev had gotten rid of the Chechen parliament—there were lots of machinations going on—and Yeltsin encouraged the use of Russian mercenaries, who were really still active in the Russian military, to help bring about a coup. They were captured by Dudayev’s forces and paraded on television—completely humiliating Yeltsin. This is very obviously a compressed and simplified version of what happened—but the next thing was a meeting of the Russian government and the Russian Security Council, in which Yeltsin was persuaded that a quick Russian military intervention, and, of course, we all know how those always turn out, should be affected to get rid of Dudayev and that would be the end of that. It would be done very quickly—the backdrop for this was the seemingly successful U.S. intervention in Haiti. The idea from the Russian military at the time came from the head of the Russian military, [Defense Minister] Pavel Grachev, who is said to have told Yeltsin it could be done in a couple of days.
This is in 1994?
December 1994. So Yeltsin thought that this would be over in a couple of days and nothing went as planned. The Russian troops were woefully ill-equipped; they didn’t go in with up-to-date maps; there was immediately an upsurge of protest from ordinary people. If you remember, there were images of elderly women all linking hands along the roads from the borders into Chechnya through the rest of Russia pleading with the soldiers to turn back. And they just went from there into what became the largest military action on Russian soil since World War II and a military catastrophe comparable to the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan.
And add to that the fact that the Russian military basically were not prepared, that they were still fighting a World War II-type military engagement, and the fact that Yeltsin had very little money to draw on in the Russian budget. He couldn’t afford what [President Vladimir] Putin can today because the Russian economy was still in its nadir—after the collapse of the Soviet Union, oil prices were still down around ten dollars to sixteen dollars per barrel and Russian oil production had basically bottomed out. Yeltsin was just not in the place in the 1990s that Putin is now, with plenty of money to keep a war going. And the pressure to end it eventually came: It was seen as an unjust war, it was too expensive; it’s kind of reminiscent of the controversy now about Iraq. We had then General Alexander Lebed, who had been an important commander and hero in the Afghan war, along with many other people within and outside the Russian military, and in the political opposition, and in civil society who pushed Russia to end it quickly.
And so in 1997, after a series of escalating terrorist attacks on the part of the Chechens, the Russians and Yeltsin pulled out of the war. But it started again in 1999.
So in the interim, did the Chechens get their act together?
No, that’s really the problem. But then again, it would be hard to expect them to do so. They didn’t get a lot of assistance from the outside. It was basically like the anticipated similar situation in the Middle East if, after an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank, everyone went away and left the Palestinians to their own devices. We can all imagine that that would not turn out too well, either. That’s exactly the same kind of problem you had in Chechnya. No political preparation or sophistication, a highly decentralized, fractured political society, no formal institutions, and you’ve got the rule of the gun. And many of the rebel fighters, like Shamil Basayev, the most notorious of the Chechen warlords, came in to take the positions like deputy prime minister/ vice president. These were people who were used to shooting people in a guerilla war, not to being in the position of making decisions about the sanitation and education systems.
And so did the troops go back in when Putin became president?
No, Putin was still prime minister. Unfortunately, Chechnya has played a role as a political actor in its own right over the last decade. And many people, both in Russia and outside, see Chechnya as being the vehicle that brought Putin into power, with the re-ignition of the war in Chechnya in 1999. What you had then was Putin responding to the terrorist blasts in the apartment buildings in Moscow, which were blamed on the Chechens, and responding as a law and order leader who would go in and clean it all up again. So we started off on another round of war, very similar to the one before—even perhaps more ruinous than the first, not so much in civilian casualties but in the impact it’s had on Russia in terms of creating the same kind of recruiting grounds for international terrorism and drawing more people in as we see happening in Iraq. It was really in that waning part of the first war, the interwar period, and at in the beginning of the second war, that we started to see the international jihadist movements moving into Chechnya and focusing on it.
About how many Russian troops are there?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure at this point because the Russians have different kinds of calculations. The point to bear in mind is that the actual Russian military—as in the Ministry of Defense of forces—have been scaled back and replaced by Ministry of Interior forces, so it’s essentially a kind of police force. At the peak, it was about 100,000 Russian servicemen; certain reports suggest 80,000 at this point, but it could be less and the point is that they’re not all based in Chechnya itself. You have the headquarters of one of the various Russian military districts, the military district that covers the North Caucasus, next door in North Ossetia, which of course is where you had the Beslan terrorist attack in September 2004.
So you have troops stationed permanently in the region, but how many are physically in Chechnya, I don’t know. The Russian government has some kind of sense, but on the outside it’s very hard to figure out. There’s different police, people who were brought in; there are also contract forces—people who are there as paid, professional forces. It’s a bit like we have in Iraq regarding how many troops we are really talking about, with independent contractors, etc.
There was a president elected and he was assassinated?
We’ve had several presidents elected in Chechnya. The first was Dzhokhar Dudayev, the former general who became the first elected president of Chechnya. When he was killed in April 1996, there were subsequent elections and his deputy, another of the military commanders who had been a member of the Soviet armed forces, Aslan Maskhadov, was elected as president and it was Maskhadov who was killed this year. Actually, he was—after the second war was launched—discredited and declared to be illegitimate as a president. There were new presidential elections in Chechnya and the president who was elected there was Akhmad Kadyrov, the former mufti, or spiritual leader of Chechnya, who had been a rebel commander, but had then basically thrown in his lot with Moscow. He was assassinated in May 2004. He was the one who was blown up in the stadium. And there were elections again with a candidate very much selected by Moscow, Alu Alkhanov, who had been a member of the security forces.
And this parliamentary election, are there real parties?
What has happened is the main Russian parties from the center, which did not really have branches in Chechnya and were not really well established in the regions—from the Russian ruling party, United Russia, to the nationalist party to the liberal democratic parties—they have all been instructed to participate in the elections and virtually develop candidates. But if you look at all of the main players in the Chechen government, they are all members of the party in power in Russia itself, United Russia.
So we’re not really seeing any spontaneous, grass-roots politics. Chechnya is a fractured, devastated society and it would have taken a lot of work on the part of the Russians to really reach out to the various interest groups. This was one of the things that people have really been pushing them to do for some time—to create a genuine political process. But if they’re not doing this across the board in the Russian Federation, it’s hard to imagine that they would do it in Chechnya itself.
Does the United States care about what’s going on in Chechnya?
We do care, actually, because, unfortunately, the situation is such in Chechnya right now that you have the “Afghanistization” of a piece of Russian territory. You have an area that is incredibly destabilizing for the rest of the Russian Federation; a conflict that has pulled in and attracted to it all kinds of nefarious groups—groups that we’re very concerned about in terms of people being in there being able to cut their teeth in terrorist activities in Chechnya. The tactics that have been adopted by the Chechens have been circulating around on the internet and many of the things we are seeing in Iraq now with these improvised personnel devices and suicide bombings have been done in Chechnya before, obviously not to the scale that we are seeing now.
So unfortunately, this iconography and the tactics of terror, of international terror, is a shared one, even though the roots of the conflict in Chechnya are very much within Russia itself. The Russian government tends to exaggerate the role of international terrorist groups in Chechnya , but let’s just say there certainly is one and we’ve linked many incidents within Europe through the various groups who have been watching the Jihadist networks. We know that many of them have got some ties in Chechnya. It’s a black hole and a lawless area where there’s incredible corruption. Everyone is making money out of this war and the atrocities that are committed there by the Russian troops and Moscow-backed authorities—including disappearances, massive human rights abuses, and torture—are having a broader impact in recruiting more people to the various groups that are fighting against the Russian Federation just as Palestine and Iraq continue to attract the attention of the Muslim world. People in Washington, DC, may not be paying that much attention to what’s happening in Chechnya, but people in Riyadh and Amman and elsewhere are.
Does anyone have a solution in mind?
Any solution is a very long-term one. It’s a process. It’s rebuilding Chechnya. It’s the same exercise that we see in Afghanistan and Iraq, unfortunately. It’s on a much smaller scale, which is why it’s getting less attention. But if we think of comparable cases in Gaza and the West Bank, Iraq, or Afghanistan, Chechnya may not be a state, but it’s a failed region; one that has been completely devastated and needs to be put together again from scratch. Chechens need to be able to develop their own viable political society and regional economy whether they remain part of Russia or not.
In Moscow and big cities in Russia, does the Chechen war get a lot of coverage?
Russian television doesn’t cover it so much. But the events of Beslan last year were covered a great deal on all the international TV channels. I saw it happen; I was actually there in Russia, but it wasn’t on Russian television. There are lots of current reports on Chechnya that are very one-sided. The Russian and Western investigative journalism there has dwindled down, although there is quite a lot of information filtering around in various ways on what’s happening. Unfortunately, people have Chechnya fatigue. There’s not a great deal of sympathy for the Chechens within the Russian Federation, although there is a desire to have an end to this conflict, even if that means, for some people, Russia pulling out again. But frankly at this stage of the game that’s just like saying Israel should pull entirely out of the Palestinian areas and leave them to their own devices. We know that can’t happen there, and it can’t happen in Chechnya. There has really to be some focused international effort on rebuilding, reconstructing, and putting this place back together again.