Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 17

By Andrei Kolganov


Political terrorism has a long history. Only since the Second World War, however, have terrorist attacks against civilians become widespread. When the machinery of state terror in many countries not only demonstrated a cynical contempt for the lives of ordinary people, but also deliberately made them targets for mass terror, independent terrorist organizations also learned from this experience.

If the social causes of terrorism are not eradicated, or at least lessened, the most powerful acts of retaliatory state terror cannot achieve their aim, even if they are carried out more harshly and on a greater scale than the crimes of the terrorists. Israel’s well-oiled antiterrorist machine has allowed Israel to destroy a large number of Palestinian terrorists–but also politicians not involved in terrorism and an even greater number of totally innocent civilians. Israel has not allowed one single terrorist act to be perpetrated without wreaking terrible retribution, yet it has not been able to prevent terrorism.

Reliance on force alone in dealing with terrorism, and the growing conviction that anything is permissible in the fight against terrorism, have a corrupting influence on those who consider themselves to be on the side of the law. And then those fighting IRA terror open fire on peaceful demonstrations, and opponents of Palestinian terrorists fire machine guns at people at prayer in a mosque.

Conversely, the search for a political compromise, despite having a very slow effect, is the only reliable way if not of completely solving the problem of terrorism, then at least of significantly easing it. The establishment of Palestinian autonomy, talks on the future of Northern Ireland and greater autonomy for the Basque provinces in Spain have all created the conditions for a significant reduction in terrorist activity.


Terrorism in Russia today has two main sources. The first is the battle between criminal groups for spheres of influence; the second source is social and ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus (particularly Chechnya). Although the terrorism of criminal groups is an everyday phenomenon in contemporary Russia, it rarely affects civilians and does not claim as many casualties as the terrorist acts of Chechen origin. So what is the reason for this wave of terror which seems to have begun as recently as 1995-96?

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons were the serious errors committed by the federal government in relation to Chechnya. There was great social and ethnic tension in Chechnya: Memories of the Chechens’ long opposition to Russian expansion in the Caucasus in the 19th century, Stalin’s deportation of the Chechen people in 1944, and Chechnya’s difficult economic position all contributed to this. Political tension, however, was not very marked in Chechnya at the end of the 1980s.

While organized mass movements in favor of leaving the USSR were gaining ground in the Baltic republics, Moldavia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, calls for secession from Russia in Chechnya were not very widespread, and did not enjoy mass support. The situation changed dramatically in 1991. The local authorities in the Chechen-Ingush republic (which was soon to split into Chechnya and Ingushetia) supported the August coup. President Yeltsin’s administration set the popular General Dudaev against the local authorities. And when Dudaev not only destroyed the power of CPSU bodies in Chechnya (as happened throughout the Russian Federation after the coup), but also dismantled the local organs of state power–first the executive, and then also the legislative bodies–no objections were raised in the Kremlin.

Thus Yeltsin’s first mistake was his de facto support for General Dudaev’s illegal seizure of power. An attempt by the RSFSR Supreme Soviet and Vice President Rutskoi to put an end to this unlawful action by introducing emergency rule in Chechnya was scotched under pressure from the president’s administration.

General Dudaev was certainly not a figure with whom a political compromise could be sought. As a member of a not particularly influential Chechen clan (teip), and lacking the support of other teips, he would only be able to hold on to power in Chechnya on one condition–by turning himself into a national leader in the eyes of all Chechens. There was no shortage of examples of how to do this: He had to lead a national liberation movement. By making this call, Dudaev fanned the flames of separatist feeling. Just as in other Caucasian republics calling for independence, there were attacks on Russian military bases in Chechnya, and officers’ families were taken hostage. There were two demands: weapons and troop withdrawal.

This is where Yeltsin made his second mistake. He approved the withdrawal of Russian troops but left behind all the weapons, including heavy armaments (tanks, artillery and some aviation). Responsibility for this is also shared by the authorities of the USSR, which then still existed. But it should be noted that at that stage–in the autumn of 1991–power was effectively concentrated in Yeltsin’s hands.

Having achieved virtual independence, Chechnya encountered some extremely complex social and economic problems. These problems were exacerbated by an unrestrained growth in crime and corruption, unprecedented even by Russian standards–for Russia’s law enforcement bodies and Russian laws were not operational in Chechnya. Ordinary people in Chechnya found themselves in an almost hopeless situation. Many of them were driven to crime in order to survive. Chechnya became a criminal breeding-ground. Given that there was no state border between Chechnya and Russia, criminals had unimpeded access to Russian territory, and would then take refuge in Chechnya. The most obvious manifestations of this criminal activity were the taking of hostages in neighboring oblasts in order to receive ransom payments, and mass confidence tricks involving forged bank documents which saw tens of billions of rubles flow into Chechnya. In Chechnya itself there was large-scale pillaging of the Russian population.

The Yeltsin administration’s third mistake was its failure to take any real action in the face of this crime wave. Furthermore, Chechnya continued to be financed by the federal budget, and there was a constant supply of oil to the refinery in Djohar (Grozny), which provided the money for arming Dudaev’s units. Only in 1994 did the Kremlin begin actively supporting those Chechen groups opposed to General Dudaev. This support allowed the opposition to take control of significant areas of Chechnya and threaten the capital.

This was where the fourth–and most serious–mistake was made. Stirring from its state of inactivity, the Yeltsin administration suddenly opted to rely on force alone to resolve the Chechen problem, without backing it up with political, administrative and economic pressure on Dudaev, or with appropriate measures to support the opposition. And the use of force itself was organized with a slovenliness which even the parlous state of the Russian army and state security bodies could not excuse.

First, the anti-Dudaev opposition was provided with tanks manned by crews hastily recruited from the Russian army. Backed up by these tanks, the opposition units attacked Grozny. The attack was repelled, almost all the tanks were lost and the crews were killed or captured.

In response to this, in December 1994 Yeltsin sent regular troops into Chechnya, the battle-cry being to “impose constitutional order.” This invasion was planned just as shoddily as the attack by the opposition units. The Russian troops suffered huge losses. The storming of Djohar lasted for several months, and was accompanied by terrible civilian casualties. The marked superiority of the Russian army eventually resulted in the large Chechen units being scattered; control was gained of most of Chechnya and an administration consisting of pro-Russian Chechen politicians was set up. By historical irony, the head of this administration was Doku Zavgaev, whose overthrow Moscow had supported in 1991.

However, the Russian invasion, accompanied by major civilian casualties, stiffened anti-Russian feeling, enabling Dudaev’s supporters to wage a guerrilla war. The Chechen brigades continued to get hold of weapons and ammunition–from Russian sources among others. Even the death of General Dudaev did not bring the war to an end. Moreover, the Chechens began to make raids into Russian territory: Shamil Basaev’s sortie into Budennovsk and Salman Raduev’s into Kizlyar involved mass hostage-taking–and in both cases the terrorists were able to return to Chechnya. This same period saw the first terrorist attacks resulting in mass civilian casualties–a bomb was planted in an apartment block housing soldiers’ families in Kaspiisk and there were bomb attacks at railway stations in Pyatigorsk and Makhachkala.

Prior to the presidential elections of June 1996, Yeltsin signed peace treaties with the Chechen leaders, treaties which were purely for propaganda purposes and which in the end worked against Russia. The Chechens used the cease-fires to infiltrate the many armed groups in Djohar, and in August 1996 they launched a surprise attack on the Russian garrison. The Russian leadership took the decision to withdraw. In the autumn of 1996 in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt new peace treaties were signed. The Russians made an ignominious withdrawal from Chechnya.


It looked as though the status quo which had prevailed in 1992-94 had been reestablished. However, the situation in Chechnya itself had changed. Almost entirely bankrupted by the war, it was plunged into an abyss of social and economic catastrophe. The Chechen population was basically left with two industries which might help them survive: Homemade production of low quality gasoline and kidnapping people for ransom. Hundreds of hostages were being held in Chechnya, seized not only in the North Caucasus, but also in other Russian regions.

Such a state of affairs was very attractive for those politicians fighting under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism. During the 1994-96 war, mercenaries and instructors from Islamic countries were working in Chechnya, and there was also financial assistance from these countries. Now the Islamic extremists were exploiting the desperate position of the Chechen population to incite them to criminal escapades in the name of Islam.

Chechnya’s leaders were also in a very difficult position. Chechnya’s new president, Aslan Maskhadov, did not control the situation. Real power was divided between the field commanders, each of whom had armed units which answered only to him. “President” Maskhadov was just one of these commanders, and remained in power only because of the delicate balance of power between the various groups. These commanders had nothing to offer the people of Chechnya. They had no policies for improving the social and economic situation. Their solution was to concentrate on expansion outside Chechnya.

The aims of the Chechen leaders and the Islamic fundamentalists coincided here. Using the Wahhabites–one of the trends in Islamic fundamentalism–from 1996 Chechnya’s leaders and emissaries from Islamic countries began disseminating their propaganda in the border regions of Dagestan, focusing on the ethnic Chechens living there. Strongholds began to be created in the villages bordering Chechnya where the Wahhabites were making use of the difficult economic situation in Dagestan (a decline in production and high unemployment) to increase their influence.

And then, in August and September 1999, direct aggression was used against Dagestan. Most Dagestanis, however, were not taken in by calls to create an Islamic Wahhabite state in Dagestan. They united in support for the Russian army in its successful campaign against Chechen aggression. The response was the bombing of apartment blocks in Dagestan (Buinaksk), Moscow and Volgodonsk.


Russia’s leaders eventually came the their senses, and Prime Minister Putin took the decision to resort to measures which had been called for seven years ago: economic embargo of Chechnya and the creation of a sort of “exclusion zone” along the administrative border with Chechnya. The use of force against the terrorists cannot be ruled out either. However, all this is dealing with the consequences rather than the causes of terrorism.

Many Russian journalists who have spilt a great deal of ink in their condemnation of “Soviet militarism,” “criminal special services” and “Russian aggression against the peace-loving Chechen people,” have suddenly performed a U-turn. They have now begun to shed tears over the poor state of the Russian army and to demand a war of annihilation against Chechnya. Sadly this points to the fact that many of Russia’s “democratic” journalists have never been guided by conviction, but have pragmatically followed the political mood. Now they are motivated by a basic fear for their lives, and under the influence of this fear the thin layer of democratic varnish with which they quickly covered themselves in 1990-91 has instantly peeled off.

However, Israel’s example shows that this is not the way to eradicate terrorism. We are facing a long and painful search for a solution which will offer an honorable way out of the situation for most Chechens, and which will isolate those who are unable to renounce terrorism. In the absence of such a solution, the use of any sort of force will only serve to further prepare the ground for Islamic fundamentalists and preserve the vicious circle of mutual terror. The rudiments of such a solution may be to offer Chechnya broad autonomy within the Russian Federation and economic aid in exchange for active support in the fight against its own terrorists. Until such a decision is reached, the continuation of an economic, military and political embargo is unavoidable.

As a matter of fact, just such a solution was proposed in the early 1990s. Back then, however, Yeltsin’s administration was too strongly influenced by those who wanted to profit from Chechen separatism–to catch fish in the muddy waters of the Caucasian conflict. It will now be much more difficult to implement this decision. But there is no alternative.

Andrei Kolganov is a doctor of economics and a senior research fellow at Moscow State University.