Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 5

Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? Brookings Institution Press, Washington, 2002.

The key to Matthew Evangelista’s new book on Chechnya is its subtitle. The author, a professor of government at Cornell University, offers one of the few original, systematic discussions of a question that has attracted mostly sloganeering from both supporters and opponents of Chechen independence. Was the Russian Federation genuinely at risk in the 1990s of dissolving under a wave of secessionist movements as the Soviet Union had done earlier? Might such a dissolution have taken a violent form as in Yugoslavia? Was the Kremlin therefore justified in using force to keep the Chechen example from spreading to other regions, especially regions with strong ethnic or ethno-religious identities?

Evangelista offers a detailed narrative and analysis of the Chechen tragedy since the late Gorbachev years, one fully worthy of sitting alongside other book-length studies such as John B. Dunlop’s Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (1998). He is especially strong on the importance of individual leaders and their freely chosen decisions, arguing convincingly that neither religion nor economics nor any other large, impersonal force made the two Chechen wars inevitable. Boris Yeltsin and his hubristic advisers such as Defense Minister Pavel Grachev get a large share of blame; so does the prickly and mercurial Dzhokhar Dudaev. But what truly sets Evangelista’s work apart is his venture into comparative history; it includes an entire chapter examining five Russian provinces selected precisely because they should have been prime candidates for separatism. Tantalizingly, the five include not only Muslim republics such as Dagestan, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, but also two Slavic regions far to the east: Primorski Krai and Sakhalin Oblast. The inclusion of these provinces on the Pacific coast allows the author, as he puts it, “to ‘control’ for the effect of Islam and non-Russian ethnic identities on the prospects for separatism.”

For Americans tempted to see Chechnya as essentially just one more local battleground in an irrepressible, global confrontation between Islamic and European cultures, it is especially important to read Evangelista’s analysis of Dagestan. This province, directly bordering Chechnya, shares the latter’s Islamic piety in style (Sufi) as well as in degree. Both are significantly less secularized than the richer, more “modern” and more cosmopolitan provinces closer to the Russian heartland. Both Dagestan and Chechnya are mountain cultures with proud martial traditions, and both are borderlands conquered by the Russian Empire only in the 19th century. In the mid-1990s it was actually easier to find Dagestani than Chechen villages that had been fully taken over by Wahhabi zealots influenced by Saudi Arabia, though this movement was a tiny minority in both republics (as in Russia as a whole).

These similarities make all the more striking the near-total failure of the most extreme Chechen warlords such as Shamil Basaev to export their anti-Moscow jihad to Dagestan. Basaev’s 1999 invasion of Dagestan (still poorly understood, and thought by some to have been encouraged by his old connections in the Russian security services seeking a pretext for a new Russian attack on Chechnya) utterly failed to mobilize the grass-roots support on which the warlord seemed to be counting. On the contrary, Dagestani villagers spontaneously took up arms to resist Basaev’s guerrillas; once they were joined by Russia’s regular armed forces, the invaders had no chance.

Chechnya’s local secessionist movement never came anywhere near to transforming itself into a pan-Islamic holy war against the Slavs, even among Chechnya’s immediate neighbors such as Dagestan and Ingushetia. (The latter’s President, Ruslan Aushev, who actively worked for a negotiated settlement between the Kremlin and the Chechen separatists, once said to Russian officials “you give them independence and I promise we will never seek independence.”) Evangelista shows that the differences between Chechnya and Dagestan turned out to be more decisive than the similarities. The latter province is far less ethnically homogenous than Chechnya; indeed, it packs more different ethnic and linguistic groups into a smaller land area than any other province in Russia. Paradoxically, Dagestan’s ethnic complexity is so extreme that it seems to serve as a stabilizing force; the various ethnic elites work hard to protect their precarious balance from outside interference. The Soviet legacy of “internationalism” is still prized in Dagestan, which was spared the Stalinist trauma of mass deportation likely to continue haunting Chechens for many generations to come.

Even more different from Chechnya is Tatarstan, a highly urbanized industrial powerhouse which has been ruled from Moscow continuously since the 16th century. Ethnic Tatars just barely outnumber ethnic Slavs there, and only about one-fourth of those Tatars actually practice their ancestral Islamic faith. Tatarstan also had a leader (Mintimir Shaimiev) who successfully reinvented himself after the collapse of the Communist Party, tapping into the politics of ethnic identity and co-opting the ethnic extremists. He succeeded in mobilizing substantial support even among the republic’s Slavs for his vision of “sovereignty,” which promised to let the republic keep more of the wealth produced by its automobile and armaments factories. The 1994 treaty negotiated between Tatarstan and Moscow remains the classic example of “asymmetric federalism,” in which the ethnic republics enjoy more rights and powers than the Slavic oblasts vis-â-vis the federal center in Moscow. That phenomenon is offensive to legal purists, and it has promoted a worrisome “regionalization of autocracy”–but it has nevertheless helped keep the peace in regions which some feared would boil over like Chechnya.

Ethnicity and Islam were both irrelevant to Primorski Krai on the Pacific coast. But from its capital Vladivostok, which is as far from Moscow as Moscow is from New York, Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko opportunistically used the threat of separatism to consolidate his own power so thoroughly that Moscow was unable to engineer his removal until 2001 (and only then by kicking him upstairs to a federal ministry). This province had both a sectionalist movement led by anti-Moscow intellectuals who revived memories of its brief period of independence during the Russian Civil War, and obvious temptations to build its own trading links with the fat economies of the Pacific Rim. But here as in nearby Sakhalin the reality never caught up with the rhetoric. Once Nazdratenko had solidified his own control of the province–for example, by emasculating its parliament–he lost interest in secessionist threats, and there was no other local force potent enough to keep those threats credible. Even in this remote region, entrenched ties to the center proved stronger than the forces promoting separation.

Evangelista convincingly concludes that even without the concrete Chechen experience as a warning to other provinces, the prospect “for a ‘brushfire’ of separatist movements was never great.” A far greater danger has been that of Moscow-based authoritarianism, using slogans such as “dictatorship of law” to re-centralize power in a polity that has been dysfunctionally over-centralized for most of its history. The post-Soviet Russian Federation, he argues, has turned out to be less fragile than many feared. It therefore has even less excuse than often argued to suppress basic human rights in order to preserve its unity.