Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 3

The no. 2 (January 14) issue of the pro-democracy weekly Novaya Gazeta contains an incisive analysis of the reasons for the present impasse in Chechnya by the well-known political commentator Boris Kagarlitsky.

Kagarlitsky begins by examining trends revealed in Russian public opinion surveys since the conflict began in the fall of 1999. By the autumn of the year 2000, he notes, “the number of the supporters of negotiations for the first time surpassed the number of adherents of the war. Over the course of 2001, the popularity of a peaceful regulation [of the conflict] steadily grew, while the popularity of the war fell. Only after the events of September 11, 2001 did the number of supporters of the war sharply increase. But even at that moment it was less than the number of the war’s opponents. In the ensuing months, antiwar sentiments have once again begun to grow.”

A significant portion of Russian society, Kagarlitsky regretfully admits, is indeed hostile to the peoples of the Caucasus. “But even among [Russian] nationalists,” he underlines, “there is a growing awareness that the war is senseless. It is one thing to feel hostility toward ‘aliens’ and another thing altogether to call for their extermination or, even more, to justify the death of one’s own soldiers.”

One key problem, Kagarlitsky observes, is that present-day Russian elites–both political and business elites–“never think strategically.” “In the fall of 1999,” he recalls, “the war was profitable because it helped resolve the problem of the transfer of power [from Yeltsin to Putin]. By the spring of 2000, however, the continuation of military actions no longer made any sense. But, as if out of spite, the battles did not cease.”

The Russian generals, Kagarlitsky recalls, promised to liquidate the last centers of resistance in Chechnya by March of 2000. On what reasoning were such promises based? “First, in Moscow, they deemed that the defeat in the first Chechen war [of 1994-1996] was caused by an inadequate concentration of forces and equipment, and they therefore decided this time to introduce a much stronger force. The question of how competently these forces would be directed by their commanders was, naturally, not posed. The generals sincerely believed their own myth that they had lost the previous war due to the journalists.” During the second war, journalists were placed under firm control, and the army’s rear was thus protected.

A second reason for the over-confidence of the Russian leadership, Kagarlitsky continues, was the collapse of the Chechen state which occurred during the period of “almost independence” from 1996-1999. There also emerged a sharp conflict between “the Wahhabis and the adherents of a secular state” which brought Chechnya to the brink of civil war. Given this situation, Kagarlitsky remarks, Russia’s second Chechen campaign “could indeed have been crowned with success. But in Moscow no one even conceived of how to work out a military-political strategy for reintegrating Chechnya into Russia.”

More than two years of war, Kagarlitsky writes, have demonstrated that the Russian army “is not in a condition to cope with a partisan war.” In addition, each mopping-up operation and bombing raid conducted by the Russian side objectively serves to swell the ranks of the Chechen resistance. In the current war, however, the Chechen separatists have themselves also proved “incapable of organizing broad-scale, coordinated operations. The weakness of President Maskhadov is not technical but political. He is able very well to maintain ties with the field commanders. It is another question, however, whether they will obey his commands.”

Because of the above-cited factors, the second war, Kagarlitsky notes, is acquiring “a drawn-out and stagnant character.” “The Russian forces cannot suppress the partisan movement, but the Chechen rebels also do not have the possibility of delivering a decisive blow.” Such dead-end situations, Kagarlitsky points out, are normally resolved at the negotiation table. “But the Russian leadership fears negotiations even more than a military defeat.”

Why? Because unlike Yeltsin, who was indifferent to his ratings, Putin is obsessed with his support in public opinion polls. The only way that Putin could end the war would be if he were able to scapegoat the Russian military and MVD for their conduct of the conflict. “The generals sense this and are nervous.” It is a mistake, Kagarlitsky contends, to see all Russian generals as “hawks” who want to fight on in Chechnya “forever.” But the generals do not want to be scapegoated for a perceived military defeat in Chechnya. A withdrawal from Chechnya would suit them only if it were depicted as “a political betrayal” and not as a defeat. “It is profitable,” Kagarlitsky concludes, “for Putin to scapegoat the military and for the military to put the blame on Putin.”

What then can be accomplished during this current year of 2002? Clearly, Kagarlitsky believes, the separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, must be part of any solution. “When in Moscow they declare that Maskhadov does not control anything on the battlefield, they are most likely correct. But, even while controlling nothing, he remains the sole legitimate leader of the republic…. In the event of the beginning of negotiations, Maskhadov’s legitimacy would be transformed into real political clout, something which all the field commanders would be forced to take into account.” It is Shamil Basaev and Khattab, Kagarlitsky points out, who are interested in “endless war,” since they lack any real public support in Chechnya. “The Dagestan advance [in the fall of 1999] made them unpopular. The ideology of Wahhabism has also driven people away from them.”

Even if Basaev and Khattab were to disappear from the scene, however, Kagarlitsky believes, the war would not end, since “their place would immediately be taken by new field commanders.” The disappearance of Basaev and Khattab, on the other hand, would serve “radically to reduce the sharpness of the intra-Chechen conflict.” Because one cannot count on their disappearance, however, it seems likely that a withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya “would end in a [Chechen] civil war.”

Given this complex situation, Kagarlitsky argues, what is pressingly needed is “the creation of conditions for the healthy development of [Chechen] society.” A withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya could occur only after this process had been completed. As for now, the first task is to bring about an end to the fighting. When this has been accomplished, it is then necessary “to conduct honest elections (with the participation of the forced migrants).” The result of these elections would be “a democratic representative organ whose legitimacy would be unquestionable.” In the best case, most Maskhadov and Akhmad Kadyrov would become the leaders of important factions in this legitimate political entity.

“Today,” Kagarlitsky concludes his analysis, “it is obvious that Russia cannot impose its will on Chechnya in one-sided fashion, while for hundreds of thousands of Chechens living in Russian cities the independence of Ichkeria would not constitute a resolution of the problem. In other words, the preservation in some form of political ties between Russia and Chechnya is in the interest of both the Russian and the Chechen peoples.” Diplomats will be able to find formulas to resolve this problem. What is essential is “to facilitate the economic and social rebirth of the republic.”

To sum up, Boris Kagarlitsky has provided a thoughtful and incisive analysis of the current intractable impasse characterizing Russo-Chechen relations. While one can disagree with individuals points in his suggested program–he should, for example, in our opinion, have provided for international observers of the elections he advocates–his article does offer useful pointers toward a peaceful resolution of the current bloody conflict.