Trouble with Chechnya

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On September 1, 2004, the world was shocked and horrified by the terrorist attack of Chechen rebels on a Middle school in the Russian town of Beslan. Nearly 1,200 children, teachers, and parents were taken hostage on the first day of school, and held captive for 53 hours. In the aftermath of the explosions and gunfire, over 360 people were killed, and hundreds more were left injured (Kaplan, 2004). The siege of the school was the latest of a dozen bloody attacks – on targets such as airliners, trains, government buildings, hospitals, and a movie theatre - that have claimed nearly 1,000 lives in Russia over the past two years, and yet another chilling reminder of the festering tensions between Russia and Chechnya (Kaplan, 2004).

The nature of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia is a result of many factors; a tumultuous history between the two neighbours, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, Russia's attempts to dominate the Caucacus regions, oil exploitation, human rights, and international attitudes. The following discussion aims to explain the background and reasons for the perpetuation of the trouble in Chechnya, and explore the reasons for Russia's military intervention in the region. As well, the discussion will attempt to forecast what the future may hold for Chechnya, and Russia's relations with it.

"The Chechens are an ethnically distinct, traditionally clan-based group with a long history of resisting Russian expansion in the Northern Caucasus" (Yasin, 2002). The hostility existing between the Chechen people and Russia, however, predates both the Russian republic and the Soviet Union, going back to the late 18th Century, when Russia's drive to the South, initiated by Peter the Great in 1722, "led to the incorporation first of the Transcaucasus and only later of the rebellious North Caucasus" (Cornell, 1999).

Forced relocations of the Chechens and other peoples have been undertaken at several points in history by the Russian rulers. The deportation of the Chechen, Ingush, Karachai, and Balker peoples took place in three waves between November 1943 and February 1944, during World War II. "The ‘pacification' was to be final…and the nationalities involved were struck out of all Soviet official documents" (Lieven, 1998, p. 319). This deportation to Central Asia and Siberia, which was ordered by Stalin personally on the pretext of alleged collaboration with the invading German armies, led to immeasurable violations of the human rights of the peoples involved (Cornell, 1999):

"They (Chechens) were the largest ethnic group in
the Caucasus to be deported en masse by Stalin.
Tens of thousands died on the way and Chechnya
was abolished and erased from the map. The Chechens
were allowed to return home only in 1957 after Nikita
Krushchev's Secret Speech denouncing Stalin, but
even then were still second-class citizens in their own
republic, subordinate to ethnic Russians" (Politkovskaya,
2001, p. 21)

"For the Chechens, the years of exile from 1944 to 1957 tempered in them that steely national discipline…the memory of the deportation became the central defining event in modern Chechen history" (Lieven, 1998, p. 321). The deportation and exile of the Chechens from their homeland is important both because it explains, to some degree, the deep hatred for Russia and everything Russian among the Chechens, and because it sets the stage for the armed conflicts that would arise in the 1990s (Cornell, 1999).

In 1991 the Soviet Union was crumbling. Following the attempted coup in Moscow that year, demands for full Chechen independence from Russia were increasing, and the Russian government began to react by threatening the use of force. However, "the Soviet armed forces at that time were effectively leaderless and in a state of complete confusion, with Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the different republican leaders all vying for support" (Lieven, 1998, p.61). By September of 1991, Chechen...
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