Chechnya: how, why and what next?

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The Independent Online
How did the conflict in Chechnya begin?

The immediate origins lie in the failed hardline coup of August 1991 against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Communist leadership in Chechnya failed to condemn the coup, ensuring that popular support swung behind Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Soviet air force commander turned national activist.

He was elected president in October 1991, and declared independence. Russia's president, Boris Yeltsin, who had been on the same side as Mr Dudayev when opposing the August putsch, immediately sent in troops. The intervention ended in humiliation after Mr Yeltsin's parliamentary opponents refused to approve the state of emergency. The Kremlin then imposed an economic blockade, increasing the scope for corruption and anarchy in this turbulent region.

After three years of defiance, Mr Yeltsin ordered a full-scale military crackdown in December 1994. Despite the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians and the destruction of their capital, Grozny, the Chechens continue to put up resistance and have even raided other parts of southern Russia and taken civilian hostages.

What do the Chechens want?

In a word, independence. Chechnya's history has been punctuated by uprisings against the efforts of imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and now the reborn Russian state to control the Caucasus. Last week's destruction of Pervomayskoye was nothing new: the Tsarist armies were notorious for obliterating villages, exiling or massacring men, women and children. In 1944, Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation to central Asia, ostensibly because they had collaborated with invading Nazi armies. The Nazis never in fact reached Chechnya, and Stalin's measure - rescinded by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957 - was an attempt to remove this most resistant of all Caucasian peoples to Russian and Bolshevik authority.

Why is Russia determined to hold on?

One reason is oil. Important pipelines run through Chechnya from Azerbaijan to southern Russia, and vast new oilfields are being exploited in the Caspian Sea to the east. Moscow believes an independent Chechnya would threaten its access. Moreover, the only railway linking Russia to Transcaucasia runs through Chechnya, which Moscow must control to retain its influence over Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Why has it been so hard for Russia to win?

Military incompetence, in part. Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, boasted in December 1994 that the operation would be over in two days, but got into a fearful tangle trying to capture Grozny. About 2,000 Russian soldiers have died, a rate which matches that suffered in Afghanistan, and morale is low. The Chechens are well-armed, know the local terrain and, despite losing Grozny, have continued operations from hideouts in the mountainous south. Islam is a strong motivating force, stiffening national resistance.

Is Chechnya a "world centre of terrorism" and mafia chieftains, as Russia alleges?

While the seizure of civilian hostages mars their image, Russia has also used wildly disproportionate force. The Kremlin's refusal to contemplate any outcome except total military defeat has provoked an extreme response from a people with profound historical memories of Russian repression. While Chechens are influential in the criminal underworld there is hardly any corner of the former Soviet Union that is mafia-free.

What will happen next?

More episodes of hostage-taking and sabotage outside Chechnya are likely ahead of June's presidential election in Russia. There is little reason to expect Mr Yeltsin to turn to negotiations before then and every reason to expect expanded military operations. If he loses the election, the new president may negotiate an end to the war to free his hands for other tasks. A settlement would probably require withdrawal of Russian troops and some degree of self-rule but it seems inconceivable that any Russian leader will grant full independence. Equally, it seems unlikely that the Chechens will now abandon their dream. More conflict seems inevitable.