Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 46

December 11 marked the tenth anniversary of the Russian military intervention that began the first of the two modern Russo-Chechen wars. Russian, Western and Chechen media alike featured commentaries on the start of then President Boris Yeltsin’s campaign to “restore constitutional order” in the breakaway republic and what has happened over the intervening decade.

“Upon leaving office in 1999, President Yeltsin admitted that the war in Chechnya was a mistake,” Yulia Kalinina wrote in Moskovsky komsomolets on December 10. “That is the plain truth. The commitment of troops into the Chechen Republic in December 1994 was a fatal mistake by the Kremlin, for which the citizens of Russia are paying and will for a long time be paying with their lives. The revival and flourishing of political terror is the single real result of the ten-year battle to preserve Chechnya as part of Russia. The rest of its results are so insignificant that it is more correct to call them not results, but illusions, which one wants to believe, but life refutes them so often that to believe them just doesn’t work.” Kalinina wrote that according to official statistics, 11,242 Russian servicemen have been killed in Chechnya since the start of the war in 1994, while the unofficial count of the number of soldiers killed in action there is “more than 25,000.”

Anatoly Kulikov, the State Duma deputy and former Interior Minister who commanded the Russian forces in Chechnya from February-July 1995, said in an interview published in the newspaper Gazeta on December 13 that he believed the violence in Chechnya would continue for decades. “Fifty years have already passed since the defeat of the nationalists…in the western Ukraine, and the hatred toward the Soviet army – that is, toward Russia – remains strong,” Kulikov said. “In Chechnya, the shed blood has not yet cooled and continues to flow. So just imagine how much time is needed for it to cool. I think that they will manage to overcome the active phase of opposition quickly enough. But mutual trust and goodwill will not come soon.”

Kavkazcenter declared in a commentary published on December 12 that Russia “has lost the war in Chechnya and lost it for good.” “It is agonizingly difficult for someone who came to power on the wave of the second Russian-Chechen war to admit to these truths,” the Chechen separatist website wrote. “To do so, the Russian colonel Vladimir Putin would need to repeat the political exploit of the French general Charles de Gaulle, who came to power in 1958 under the slogan ‘Algerie Francais’ (‘Algeria is French’) and recognized the senselessness of the Algerian war in 1961. But unlike the fighting French general, the agent of the criminal grouping simply does not have such courage. He finds it much easier to continue to kid himself and to send more and more piles of cannon fodder to the slaughterhouse.”

Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights group, called the consequences of Russia’s two military interventions in Chechnya “very depressing,” reported on December 11. “The human rights situation in Chechnya is very difficult and, unfortunately, they have not managed to defeat terrorism,” he said. “One cannot say there is a Chechen trace in all terrorist acts, but on the whole the continuing war in Chechnya is contributing to that phenomenon.”

Thomas de Waal, Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and co-author, with Carlotta Gall, of Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, wrote in a commentary published by the IWPR on December 4 that ten years of war have left “a silent majority of ordinary Chechens” stuck between two extremes.

“It is hard to think of a more unlucky group of people,” he wrote. “They have suffered ten years of bombing, torture, looting and extortion from the Russian army and the depredations of the Islamist fringe…Most Chechens I speak to now say independence has disappeared from the agenda. The issues are survival, rights, security and reconstruction. It is clear to me that given how Russia’s security forces have caused Chechnya’s problems, not solved them, the only way to break the cycle of violence is to internationalize it with monitors from abroad. But Moscow and the outside world are still a long way from acknowledging this. How much more pain will it take – how many more Beslans, dare I say, though I dearly hope I am wrong – before Russia and the rest of the world own up to their responsibilities to this unhappy place?”