Following a series of fistfights between Chechen conscripts and other draftees in the Russian Armed Forces, a public scandal broke out in the 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade, based in the Stavropol region city of Budyonnovsk. On February 12, four Chechen soldiers were charged with assault. A Chechen rights activist countered the charges by accusing the Russian military unit of ethnic profiling and bias against Chechens (Kavpolit.com, February 18).
Chechens have not served alongside Russians in the Russian army for over a generation—practically since the very inception of today’s Russian Federation in 1991. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria de-facto seceded from Russia simultaneously with the Soviet Union’s demise. Two devastating wars with Russia, in 1994–1996 and 1999–2000, ensured long lasting tensions between ethnic Chechens and ethnic Russians. While Moscow’s experiment with the appointment of Ahmad Kadyrov and later his son Ramzan Kadyrov as the rulers of Chechnya has had substantial success, Chechens served only in special units on the Chechen territory and their allegiances were often not to the Russian command, but to Kadyrov. As the insurgency spread to the other parts of the North Caucasus, the military draft was also limited in those republics. Chechens were kept out of the Russian army until the fall of 2014 when the draft in Chechnya was reinstated with great fanfare. However, only a small fraction of those eligible for military service in Chechnya, 500 people, were drafted (Mir24.tv, October 1, 2014). Scandals in Russian military units involving Chechens soon followed.
In the latest episode, a fistfight that started initially between an ethnic Dargin and an ethnic Armenian turned into a massive clash between ethnically non-Russian North Caucasians and ethnic Russians, which the military command did not even try to stop. Four Chechens were charged with assault, but the other side of the conflict did not appear to receive official punishment. Chechen rights activist Kheda Saratova traveled to the military unit in Budyonnovsk and spoke to the soldiers. According to Saratova, the conscripts were prepared to settle their differences privately, but Colonel Alexander Borisenko lined up the military unit and called the Chechen conscripts “the shame of the nation, bandits and terrorists.” The doctor in the medical department of the unit reportedly refused to examine the Chechen soldiers, saying that she “did not treat non-Russians” (Kavpolit.com, February 18).
According to the leader of the soldiers’ mothers organization based in Budyonnovsk, Lyudmila Bogatenkova, many Russian officers served in Chechnya, including Colonel Borisenko, “but no one allows himself to utter the kind of abominations that fly out of the mouth of this colonel.” Saratova asserted that the military prosecutor general, Vyacheslav Shatsky, falsified evidence to launch criminal proceedings against the four Chechen soldiers, basing the accusations on the evidence of a non-existent Russian soldier and his parents. Saratova also accused Shatsky of having the dubious reputation of a corrupt official. In an interview with the Kavkazaskaya Politika website, however, Colonel Borisenko denied any anti-Chechen statements and said that the people of the multinational Russian Federation should seek common ground. Prosecutor Shatsky told the website that the Investigative Committee made the decision to launch criminal proceedings against the Chechen soldiers, so that he was not involved in the decision (Kavpolit.com, February 18).
Colonel Borisenko’s speech to the soldiers indicates that Russian nationalism runs strong in the military unit. The colonel reprimanded ethnic Russian soldiers for being meek when facing the North Caucasians and called on them to organize in the face of the threat and fight back. At the same time, the colonel stressed that everybody in the Russian army is equal, but it appeared he thought ethnic Russians are at a disadvantage when facing the better organized and somewhat more daring North Caucasians (Pol-video.ru, accessed February 25).
The background of the conflict is also quite telling. A group of Chechen militants under the command of Shamil Basaev attacked the city of Budyonnovsk in 1995. Basaev captured some 1,600 hostages at a local hospital and demanded that Moscow stop the bloodshed in Chechnya, where the first Russian-Chechen war was in full swing. Notably, in his Kavkazskaya Politika interview, Colonel Borisenko also cited the attack on Budyonnovsk (Kavpolit.com, February 18).
The conflict between Russia and Chechnya appears to be so ingrained in both Russian and Chechen societies that it is hard to leave it behind. Many observers point to the Islamization of Chechnya under the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, but few observers mention that Russia has also become much more religious than it used to be. For example, a Russian Orthodox icon can be seen in the background of a photograph of Colonel Borisenko, and the unit itself is officially called the “Cossack Motorized Rifle Brigade.” Ostensibly secular and ethnically neutral, at least in appearance, the former Soviet military force has transformed contemporary Russia into an institution that pays a great deal of attention to Russian Orthodox symbols and cultural symbols that emphasize Russian ethnicity. The changes that have taken place in both Chechen society and the Russian army over the past 25 years, when the two were almost out of touch with each other, make the resumption of the Russian military draft in Chechnya highly problematic and conflict prone.