Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Chechnya: The war is over, but the situation remains complex

By Aleksei Malashenko

In the last week of February, the Moscow Islamic Research Institute and the Peace and Accord Federation issued invitations to a round-table on "Chechnya Between Past and Future." To the organizers’ surprise, several well-known politicians and journalists who had always attended such events did not show up. One deputy of the State Duma admitted honestly that, now that war was over, Chechnya "wasn’t interesting anymore." And it seems that he is not the only one who is bored by the subject.

It is a paradox: the causes of the war have not yet been ascertained; its victims have not been counted; it is still unclear how Russian-Chechen relations will be built or even what will happen to Chechnya, and yet the Russian establishment and the corps of journalists which serves it have already lost interest in the region. Yet it is possible to understand the professional pen-pushers and politicians: the Chechen issue has ceased to bring dividends. It is no longer a convenient pretext for such people to call attention to themselves. Other acute problems have emerged in and around Russia.

In Chechnya itself, after the presidential elections, the stage of hard, routine work has begun. To say that this stage is difficult is to say nothing at all. I would like to direct the reader’s attention to just a few of the circumstances that make it so complicated.

No one knows the exact number of casualties or the total amount of material damage caused by the war. Therefore, no one has any idea how to calculate how much postwar reconstruction will cost. The number of casualties varies, on both sides, to an unbelievable degree. Estimates of the number of the inhabitants of Chechnya who died during the war vary between 40,000 and 150,000 people.

The Russian army has not published its casualty figures. A train of refrigerated wagons is still standing in Rostov, with 300 unidentified bodies of Russian soldiers. In Djohar-gala, the painful process of exhuming the bodies from mass graves has only just begun.

According to the Russian researcher Vladimir Mukomel, 35,000 people perished during the conflict in Chechnya, compared with 24,000 who died in Karabakh and 23,000 who were killed in Tajikistan. Bear in mind that the population of Tajikistan is several times larger than that of Chechnya.

"They’ve finally shot the flesh-eating dogs. They got a taste for eating corpses and started going after live people," a Chechen notes in passing, speaking in matter-of-fact tones about everyday life in his city.

It is impossible accurately to assess the economic losses. The statistical vacuum is, once again, filled with emotion. No television reporting — even the most capable — can give you a sense of what a large city is like once it has been razed to the ground. The sense of unreality is so great that, at times, it seems that all this is a movie set which will soon be taken away, and clean streetcars will appear behind it. But they won’t appear — the streetcar depot on Minutka Square was destroyed. Not a single large enterprise in Chechnya is functioning. There is no public transportation.

The water supply system has been almost completely destroyed. Ecological catastrophe looms over Djohar-gala, which now has over 300,000 inhabitants. The sewage system was devastated. Restoring it was to have been the International Red Cross’ biggest project but, following the murders of Red Cross doctors and nurses in Novye Atagi, that idea has been put on hold.

The well-known Chechen jurist Abdulla Khamzaev, who teaches at the local People’s Academy, maintains that 46,500 homes were destroyed during the course of the war in Chechnya. Most of Chechnya’s livestock are dead: rural inhabitants recall how pilots dive-bombed not only the herds of sheep but also the shepherds guarding them — old men and children.

So there are no precise figures either on how much was destroyed or on how much reconstruction will cost. We may never find out the truth about this. Meanwhile, everyone in Chechnya is busy calculating how much they are entitled to in indemnities (they think that Russia lost the war) or compensation. These sums are being calculated both in the highest echelons of power and at the family level. And while the total, which varies between $3 million and $15 million, is only a rough estimate, every Chechen family is scrupulously counting up how much they are entitled to get for their house, which was burned, their furniture, which was destroyed, and their sheep, which were shot. For example, Ruslan Akhtakhanov, one of the Chechen administrators, has sued Russia for five billion rubles.

Djohar-gala can claim $90,000 for every Chechen killed in the war. And by the way, this figure is not taken out of thin air; it comes from corresponding practice in the United States.

If Chechnya’s financial claims against Russia come to dominate relations between them, this could seriously exacerbate the situation. First of all, even if the Russian government intends to satisfy Chechnya’s demands, it simply does not have the money for it. Second, as Russian professor Aleksandr Rogozhin correctly noted at our round table, a peasant from Smolensk will not understand why he has to pay for other people’s houses which he had no part in destroying. Third, and finally, it is still not clear, from Russia’s point of view, whether this is a matter of rebuilding part of Russia’s own territory or of paying money to a foreign country. (In this case, we are abstracting ourselves from the question of how much the Chechen problem has cost the Russian Federation.) After all, the central government has its own counter-claims connected with the actions of the Chechen criminal class — the illegal pumping of money into Chechnya from Central Russia, robberies of trains, drug trafficking, and many other things.

The subject of Chechen claims is no less critical than the question of Chechnya’s political status. And that question — which is what they fought for — has also not been decided. At one point, some expert proposed that this question be "fudged" to avoid heating up passions unnecessarily. This is exactly what is being done now. At the negotiations in February between Chechen first deputy premier Movladi Udugov and Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin, both pretended not to notice that one was behaving as if he were the representative of a foreign country, while the other was treating him as if he were a delegate from a Russian region.

President Aslan Maskhadov himself seems to be reluctant to make repeated use of freedom-loving slogans. Some explain this by saying that, for the Chechens, winning independence is a stage through which they have already passed and about which there is, consequently, no longer any point in talking. Others say that moderate Chechen politicians are deliberately avoiding the question. And finally, there are those who whisper (even in Djohar-gala) that "We don’t care about independence."

This latter thought could have another interpretation. In particular: some specialists are advancing the thesis of Chechnya’s economic helplessness, arguing that Chechnya has no professional class of its own and that it is tied to the Russian financial system (according to rumors, some of the Chechen national currency has already been printed but it cannot be issued since no one has any confidence in it).

One of the key problems is, of course, that of oil and the oil pipeline. One can either write about it in great detail or simply state that it exists. I am forced to choose the second path. If the oil pipeline to the Black Sea terminals goes from Komsomolskaya to Tikhoretsk to Novy Port, skirting Chechnya, that will be a catastrophe for Chechnya. Chechnya will therefore do everything it can to prevent ensure that this does not happen. And if it does happen, Chechnya will make sure, by means which are clear to everyone, that the route is unprofitable. If the pipeline goes through Chechnya, only the other hand, clearly it will bring colossal profit to the republic. But it will also bring with it no small burden of responsibility: the Chechens will have to guard the pipeline reliably, including from their former comrades-in-arms.

In any case, the pipeline will be a joint Russian-Chechen project. It could either make it possible for relations to be normalized between Moscow and Djohar-gala, or it could become a bone of contention.

There is also the risky opinion for which no one has any need: an independent republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria. That would be nothing but a headache for the world community as a whole, the Muslim world included. The only country which recognizes Chechnya is the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, which itself is not recognized by anybody. Even if one of the Baltic states followed suit, no other country is likely to do so. Legitimating someone else’s separatist movement means creating a neighbor which poses a danger to the region and to oneself, especially when borders are as shaky as they are at present. If Turkey decides to show more sympathy for Chechnya than suits Moscow, Ankara will be reminded of its own separatists — the Kurds — who, like the Chechens, also thirst for international sympathy.

As regards the Islamic world as a whole, its position throughout the conflict has been distinguished by flexibility. On the one hand, the mass media have not minced words about the actions of the Russia federal forces in Chechnya but, on the other hand, their politicians have sighed and said that the Muslims need a strong Russia as a counterweight to Western power. They instinctively fear a unipolar world in which they would have no ally (or even a potential ally) equal to the USSR, which has sunk into oblivion.

In Chechnya, they understand that they have no one to rely on. Except, of course, for Russia, even if it is not now ready to take its "prodigal daughter" back. Sooner or later, it will be forced to take her back in some form or other. For it would be dangerous to any regime to have such a fierce and unpredictable enemy on one’s own border.

In Djohar-gala, where everyone assures each other today that they won the war with Russia, they are stubbornly looking for ways to patch up relations with her. A reasonable and worthy alternative for both sides would be to accept Chechnya into the Commonwealth of Independent States. And while membership in the CIS was for the Central Asian countries a means to a civilized divorce with its former colonial power, for Chechnya, it would be a step towards a rapprochement with Russia.

To no small extent, the introduction of the Shariat law has made it possible to establish order. Islam has evolved over the last three years from a "fashion" into an ideology of resistance. In accordance with Chechnya’s recently-adopted constitution, Islam is now the state religion of the republic and a factor of national and social consolidation. Only careless journalists underestimate or mock its role. What is going on in Chechnya today is nothing other than a continuation of the process of its Islamization, which began in the 18th century and was stimulated by Imperial Russia’s intervention into the Caucasus. Nowadays, at the end of the 20th century, history is repeating itself. "Russia is beating Islam into us," the late (although some still doubt that he is really dead) President Djohar Dudaev once told an interviewer. And he was right. Movladi Udugov’s campaign slogan of "Islamic Order" was no mere speculation; it expressed the need of a significant part of Chechen society. In any event, Russia now has a radical Muslim enclave either within its borders or on its external border.

Yes, the appeal to Islam in the republic is the best means of national consolidation. But the logic of the internal struggle will inevitably pose the thorny problem of what to do about the "collaborationists" (first among which is the former leader of the pro-Moscow Chechen government and member of the Federation Council, Doku Zavgaev, now Russia’s ambassador to Tanzania). In order to avoid a settling of political scores and simple blood vengeance, the parliament adopted a law which deprived Moscow’s "proteges" of the right to hold political posts and forbade them to engage in educational or religious activity for ten years. They were stripped, too, of the traditional attributes of a mountain dweller: they have been forbidden to wear papakhas [Caucasian fur caps] and ordered to shave their mustaches. That may sound funny. For Luxembourg, perhaps, but not for Chechnya, where the desire to build a modern state has to contend with Muslim traditions and the customs of the Caucasus.

Yes, the Chechen question is less interesting today for politicians and journalists than it was a year ago. And thank God for that. The routine of the postwar period is coming.

Aleksei Malashenko is a Doctor of Historical Sciences, affiliated with the Moscow Carnegie Center.