Who are these people?

Are they war-mongering gangsters or oppressed freedom fighters? Steve Crawshaw provides a complete guide to the Chechens
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The Independent Online
The Chechens

The name comes from a village where a famous battle took place between the Russians and the Chechens in 1732. call themselves Nokhchi. The society at that time was remarkable for its lack of class distinctions: there were no differences in rank apart from those of age. Chechens converted to Islam in the 17th century. They number almost a million - mostly within the borders of Chechnya itself, but with a large population living in Moscow, and 25,000 living in Turkey (hence this week's seizing of a Turkish ferry). Chechen mafias played a key role in the mafia turf wars that erupted in Moscow after the collapse of Communism. To some extent, the widespread Russian perception of "every Chechen a gangster" has been encouraged by the Kremlin itself, keen to stoke the fires of resentment against the upstart nation.

The history

The Russians have never had a happy relationship with the Chechens, to put it mildly. In 1814, the Russian governor of the Caucasus warned Tsar Alexander I that the Chechens, "by their example of independence, can inspire a rebellious spirit even among the most faithful subjects of the empire". Consequently, the governor said, he "would find no peace while a single Chechen remained alive". continued to resist Tsarist occupation at a time when other nations in the Caucasus had knuckled under. Throughout the war of the Caucasus, from 1817 to 1864, the region did not come fully under Moscow's control. Tolstoy, based on his experiences as a soldier in the Caucasian wars, wrote: "No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens from the youngest to the oldest was stronger than hate."

The last 19th-century Chechen rebellion was in 1877. But the Bolsheviks found it almost as difficult as the Tsarists to subdue the Chechens. Promises of independence were quickly forgotten after the Russian revolution of 1917 (history would repeat itself when the Soviet empire collapsed more than 80 years later).

The Republic of the North Caucasus Mountains brought together the Chechens and half a dozen other Caucasian nations, but outside the newly created Soviet Russia. However, Stalin had little time for Chechen aspirations for independence. In 1934, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Region (later an autonomous republic) was created, firmly within the Soviet embrace.

The Chechen refusal to be nailed down by Moscow was as strong as ever. Officially because they had collaborated with the Nazis - in reality, as punishment for their national aspirations - Stalin ordered mass deportations of the Chechens in 1944. Chechnya's inhabitants were rounded up and deported en masse to Siberia and Kazakhstan; nearly half the population died. This wound has never healed. In 1957 Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union got under way and Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland. Things remained resentfully quiet for the next 30 years.

Are there other Chechnyas waiting to happen?

The Caucasus is full of unexploded time bombs. There has been a clutch of wars in the past few years, including in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and between the Armenians and Azeris, over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, in Azerbaijan. The huge number of different ethnic groups means that each sub-division and declaration of independence is liable to be followed by a sub-sub-division, by yet another threatened minority. Chechnya's neighbour, Dagestan, remains unstable, and violence continues in nearby North Ossetia.

Further afield, the closest potential equivalent to Chechnya is the republic of Tatarstan, in central Russia, which declared independence from Moscow, but which has theoretically reached an accommodation with the Kremlin. It is unclear whether the long-term danger of violence has been averted.

How they make their living:

Oil holds the key. Chechnya has its own oil wells and refineries. But more significant is an oil pipeline running through Chechnya from the Caspian Sea to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, and thence to the West. Some argue that this pipeline was the reason Russia wanted to fight the war in the first place. Others argue that the war had more to do with Russia's sense of national importance, and its indignation at being humiliated by a smaller, breakaway nation. Chechnya is still heavily agricultural. The other main industries are natural gas, food processing and furniture. Muscovites are fond of claiming the Chechens are at the heart of the arms trade across the former Soviet Union.

The political background

Political parties are virtually non-existent. Clan loyalties are still important. ' main leader, now holed up in the hills, remains the former Soviet air force general, 52-year-old Dzokhar Dudayev, who was elected in 1991. With his pencil moustache and absurdly grand manner, Dudayev seemed, until the invasion of Chechnya, to be an almost laughable figure. But the invasion raised local sympathy for him, even among those who had been critical of his megalomaniac tendencies. Dudayev was based in Estonia, where he headed an air base in the town of Tartu. He shot to prominence when he refused to fire on pro-independence campaigners in the Baltic states. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel military commander, also plays an important role. He warned yesterday that the Chechens might spread their war further into Russia proper.

Theoretically, Chechnya held elections at the same time as the rest of the Russian Federation last month. But these elections had little real effect on the country's chaos: rebels seized Gudermes, Chechnya's second town, on the day voting began. Doku Zavgayev, the Kremlin's favourite candidate, was said by Moscow to have won overwhelmingly. But the turnout was reckoned by independent observers to have been very low.

One man who hopes he still has a political future in the region is the Chechen Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Russian parliament, who moved from being Yeltsin's main ally (during the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991), to becoming his main opponent (in the president versus parliament battles of the next two years). Such are the twists of Chechen politics that he is regarded as a potential Kremlin ally against Dudayev.

Conflict after Communism

declared independence in 1991, at a time when declarations of independence were multiplying across the Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev was still in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin was in favour of people helping themselves to as much independence as they wanted. But when Mr Yeltsin himself became the ruler of the Kremlin, he soon changed his tune.

The first sign of the new policy came in November 1991, when the Soviet Union had not yet officially collapsed. Mr Yeltsin sent hundreds of troops in against the Chechen pro-independence leadership, led by Dzokhar Dudayev. In the next three years there was a stand-off between the two sides. Dudayev proclaimed his country's independence though in practice he gained almost nothing.

In December 1994, Russian troops moved in to crush Chechen independence. The Kremlin seemed to believe that it could carry out a surgical operation. In reality, it took until February 1995 to subjugate Chechnya entirely, in a bloody and misconceived operation. Tens of thousands, mostly civilians, are reckoned to have died. As the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted, in Gulag Archipelago, the Chechens were the only nation that "refused to accept the psychology of submission". By the spring of last year, Grozny was, theoretically, in Russian hands but in reality a low-level guerrilla war was still going on. The Russians were hated as never before.

In June, armed rebels stormed the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Dozens of people died in a failed Russian rescue bid before the Chechen attackers were allowed to return home, humiliating Yeltsin.

A peace deal was theoretically agreed in July, but neither side took the agreement very seriously.

Indeed, the Chechen rebels became bolder as the year went on, culminating in the hostage crisis this week.