Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 8

The Russian criminal world played a key role in Chechnya and continues to do so

by Victor Yasmann

There are several interpretations of the Chechen war. One schoolof thought argues that behind the Chechen conflict is a grandgeopolitical competition for the oil reserves of the Caspian basin,and Russia’s desire to guarantee its access to revenues from them.According to this interpretation, Moscow wants to dominate theoil producing states of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistanby guaranteeing that the main oil pipelines to the West will passthrough Russian territory. Cited in support of this position isthe fact that Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has committedhimself to routing the largest share of oil exports through theChechen republic to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev stands in the way of these plans,and thus the Kremlin decided to crush him. Claims that the warwas about oil became so frequent that earlier this year the Russianforeign ministry felt compelled to state that "the reportsthat the war in Chechnya is dictated by oil are wrong."

Another school of thought does not deny the importance of oil,but points to political calculations as well. Yeltsin neededa "good little war," this view holds, to increase hisstanding in the polls and to cement his ties with the power ministries. Moreover, some within the intelligence services and the militaryclearly hoped that the war in Chechny would spark a wave of chauvinist,great Russian nationalism, and that such an upsurge would strengthentheir positions as well. But if that was the aim of the December11 attack, things did not work out as planned: the Chechens resistedas they have for more than two centuries, and the Russian peoplefailed to show any enthusiasm for the bloody fighting.

There is yet a third interpretation which merits attention. It sees the entire conflict as a clash of criminal clans. Accordingto this school of thought, Dzhokhar Dudayev, or more preciselysemi-criminal elemnets within his entourage, was brought to powerin Grozny by criminal elements within the Russian nomenklaturain Moscow to promote their interests. Corrupt officials in Moscowviewed Chechnya as a "free criminal zone" which couldbring them enormous profit. Russian propagandists gladly usedone part of this interpretation to denounce the Chechens, andindeed all North Caucasians, as criminals.

In reality, however, the criminal entities involved are not specificallyChechen. Rather they are a multinational criminal enterprise–includingRussians–who viewed Chechnya as a base for their own enrichment. After declaring independence in 1991, Chechnya had no real policeor interior troops. The old Soviet interior ministry apparatusquickly ceased to exist, and the new special services createdby Dudayev were involved with security, rather than with fightingcrime. Consequently, Chechnya was a place where criminals couldoperate with a fair degree of security.

Throughout Russia, leaders of the Russian criminal underworldpaid hefty bribes to local interior ministry officials in orderto have the enterprises they were interested in transferred toChechnya. According to some estimates, over the past three years,some 1200 leaders of the Russian mafia made their way to Chechnya. Once there, they either continued their business outside therepublic or became involved in criminal businesses there.

Another group–often equally corrupt–which discovered the attractionsof Chechnya’s special status were Russian officials involved insome parts of the economy. During the past four years, Chechenoil refineries processed approximately 35 million tons of oil. Much of it came from as far away as West Siberia via pipelineswhich had been built in Soviet times. According to business weekliesVek and Kommersant, the oil from Russia continued to flow intoChechnya until the summer of 1994, despite the nominal Russianblockade of the region. Who benefited from this flow? In part,Dzhokhar Dudayev and his regime; but mostly Russian officialsinvolved in the new, semi-privatized oil companies of the RussianFederation.

This oil business was possible because, de jure, Chechnya remainedpart of the Russian state and thus goods flowing to and from itwere not subject to customs, taxes and law enforcement. This specialstatus also made Chechnya an attractive place for the trade inillegal weapons. The official Russian version of the source ofDudayev’s arms is that he obtained them from the Russian armyat the time of its withdrawal from Chechnya in 1991. In fact,from 1993 to 1995, corrupt Russian generals from as far away asGermany, Mongolia, and the Russian Far East eagerly supplied Dudayevwith weapons for cash. When Russian troops moved into Chechnya,they captured some Russian-made weapons which had been producedas late as 1994. Such an arms trade would have been impossiblewithout highly placed protectors inside the Russian government.

Yet another "resource" which organized crime enjoyedin Chechnya was the Grozny airport. Formally on the territoryof Russia, in fact it was under no one’s control and thus becamea transit site for smugglers from throughout the former SovietUnion, with thousands of flights carrying all kinds of contrabandto the Middle East and to other customers. Handling such cargoeswas simple: a scheduled flight from Yekaterinburg to Dubai wouldmake a stop in Grozny and substitute an illegal cargo for theone on its legal manifest.

All of this was working well for criminal elements in both Moscowand Grozny, but the other pressures on Moscow–a concern for oil,a desire to dominate Central Asia and the Caucasus and a fearthat Chechnya might become a precedent for other regions withinthe Russian Federation–drove Moscow to take an increasingly militantstance against Dudayev. The fact that Russian officials and businessmenwere profiting from the unique status of Chechnya probably preventedthe war from being launched earlier, but a desire to have greaterRussian control over this kind of business probably played atleast as big a role as the publicly cited reasons in leading Yeltsinto invade Chechnya last winter. It remains to be seen what roleorganized crime–both Russian and Chechen–will play in the endgame of this war, but it would be very surprising if the Russiancriminal world were not to be involved then as well.

Victor Yasmann is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.