Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 15

The Signs of a Chechen Victory

By Maria Eismont

The war in Chechnya, which began rather unexpectedly, ended evenmore suddenly. Even as late as early August, nobody could havepredicted that the Russian army could be defeated militarily.

From the very beginning of the war, the Russians underestimatedthe strength of the rebel fighters. In attacking Grozny on November26, 1994 with Russian tanks, supported by pro-Moscow Chechen infantry,the Russian government hoped to achieve victory in one day. Afterthat, then-minister of defense Pavel Grachev said that Chechnyacould be subdued in two hours by one airborne regiment. When theysent troops into Chechnya in December 1994, the Russian authoritiesplanned to take the Chechen capital and the "bandit formations’main strong points" in a month, and conclude all militaryactions in two months.

Meanwhile, the rebels slipped quietly into Budennovsk, and a littlewhile later, into Kizlyar, and then, back into Grozny.

Doku Zavgaev and his entourage, and a number of Russian politiciansas well, maintain that the city was deliberately surrendered tothe rebels. (Mr. Zavgaev says, by Aleksandr Lebed.) In spite ofthe seeming absurdity of this version, a number of circumstanceswhich preceded the Chechen armed formations’ raid on Grozny forceone to think that there may be a grain of truth in it. For example,approximately two weeks before the raid, for some unknown reason,all the federal checkpoints guarding the western approach to thecity were removed, allowing anyone who wished to take part inthe attack to slip into the city unhindered, without meeting anythingthat could be called "resistance."

Moreover, everyone knew about the planned rebel raid — peopletalked about it in the Grozny markets, on the streets, in thebarracks, and in their apartments. The Russian special services,through their information channels, reported from competent sourceson how the separatists were planning a big operation in Grozny,but when the operation began, the rebels met no resistance inGrozny, and were able to move freely throughout the city in thefirst few hours, considering themselves the complete masters ofthe situation.

As pro-Moscow Chechen leader Doku Zavgaev later recalled, representativesof the Russian military command explained their inaction duringthe preparatory phase and the beginning of the rebels’ operationto take Grozny by their desire to "entice the enemy intoa trap" (they assumed that the rebels would send all theirforces into Grozny), so that, after destroying them in the city,they could finish with the Chechen resistance once and for all.This "plan" sounds more like an excuse for Zavgaev’sbenefit; in reality, it was just poor organization or sloppy workon the part of the federal command. But one can hardly hold thehighest levels of the Russian military command responsible fordeliberately letting the rebels into Grozny, or for deliberatelyfailing to act — as the history of the war has shown, importantdecisions are most likely made further down the chain of command.

After several attempts by Russian troops to take back Grozny endedin the ignominious defeat of several Russian units and the rebelsdug in, saying that they had no intention of leaving the cityunder any circumstances, Russia’s only chance to prove that ithad not lost the war was Gen. Pulikovsky’s order, giving the separatistsa harsh ultimatum and beginning to prepare their complete destruction,along with the civilian inhabitants of the Chechen capital, pennedin various regions of Grozny by federal checkpoints.

The war in Chechnya ended, not in Khasavyurt, where Gen. Lebeduttered the famous phrase, "The war is over. That’s it. Finished.We’re sick of fighting," but on the day the Security Councilsecretary countermanded Gen. Pulikovsky’s ultimatum. From themoment that federal troops were forbidden to retake Grozny, thepresence of the Russian army in Chechnya lost any meaning, asdid any attempts of the federal center to hold onto the mutinousrepublic.

Now, even if someone thinks that things are going badly in Chechnya,Russia has no real lever to use on the new Chechen governmentother than the force of Gen. Lebed’s arguments. But it is stupid,at the very least, to blame the Security Council secretary forpulling the federal troops out of the republic: long before thebeginning of the present negotiations, the Russian army was insuch a state of decay and demoralization that the only correctcourse of action was the one which Mr. Lebed took — to save whatwas left of the Russian military’s property and morale. Findingan honorable way to leave Chechnya seemed to Lebed to be a lesserevil than losing the army for good, especially since, accordingto the letter of the agreements, Chechnya is not irretrievablylost — Russia still has five years to find an economic and politicalsolution to the problems of the region.

The New Government and its New Order

By the time that Aleksandr Lebed awaited Aslan Maskhadov’s arrivalin Khasavyurt to discuss and sign the political agreement on thestatus of Chechnya, the situation, which had rapidly changed,had already defined the status of Chechnya, its new government,and its new laws. The Shariat courts, which had sprung up everywhere,were called upon to demonstrate the future Chechen law and judicialsystem in all their originality, deliberately flouting Russia’sCode of Criminal Procedure.

The unexpected ending of the war caught the new Chechen governmentunaware. The victory for which they had fought for the last twoyears — and as a consequence, the transfer of power into theirhands — took place so quickly that there was no time left forit to think about what it should do. Thinking that the war wouldtake at least two more years, the rebels did not take time tothink what the new, postwar, structure of the republic would be.They could only say that Chechnya would be a free, independentstate with new, just laws, which clever people would think upas soon as the war was over. The war was over, and with the withdrawalof federal troops from the republic, the Chechens achieved thekind of de facto political independence which they had enjoyedfrom 1991 to 1994. And although the Chechens are still rejoicingover their victory, the leadership of the new government in Groznyis already thinking of the laws which peacetime Chechnya willlive by.

The new Chechen legislation, proceeding from the logic of Chechnya’snewly-won independence, ought to be unlike Russian law. And insofaras, during the war, Islam became the fundamental ideology of theresistance, the new Chechen law code, in the opinion of the Ichkerialeadership, ought to be based on Islamic law. The militant cry"Allahu akbar!" with which the rebels attacked Russianpositions, the triumphal shouts of "Allahu akbar!" withwhich the inhabitants of Chechnya greeted and honored the victors,the prayers in which more and more Chechens began to join, theservices in the mosques, where only the old people went beforethe war, but are now filled with youth–all this led them to theidea of legislation based on the Shariat. Ichkeria leader ZelimkhanYandarbiev announced that a new law code, based on the Shariat,would go into effect on September 12.

Djohar Dudaev’s attempt to create an Islamic state back in 1991came to nothing at the time. The Chechens, although they reveredthe customs of their forefathers, nevertheless were not stronglyattracted to Islam, especially, since it appeared only comparativelyrecently on their territory (the Chechens only became Muslimsin the 19th century). But after the war started, Islam took ona mass of new adherents in Chechnya, since it became the "ideologicalenemy" of the Russian intervention, and embodied, for theChechens, most of whom still knew little of the Koran, everythingwhich distinguished them from the Russians.

During the war, Shariat courts began to operate in rebel-controlledterritory. The list of crimes which were punishable, as a rule,by 40 blows with sticks, was very short–drunkenness, adultery,falling asleep at one’s post, and treason. But the latter wasusually punished by death. As a rule, such Shariat courts, forthe most part, were like theatrical performances. They were heldon a certain day of the week in the village’s main square. Curiouspeople and sometimes, visiting journalists, would attend. Theywould solemnly bring out the bench. Then, no less solemnly, theparticipants in the event — the one who would be punished andthe one who was to administer the punishment — would walk out.The former would lie down on the bench, the latter, with greatflourish, would administer the prescribed 40 whacks, after which,the two, as a rule, would embrace, and the former would solemnlyproclaim that his sin had been purged.

The number of drunks on the streets of Grozny declined noticeably,and it became virtually impossible to buy hard liquor in the marketsof most cities (you could only get it at fabulous prices, "underthe table").

In addition to vodka, the rebels also declared war on looting.Ever since the war started, the Chechen rebel military commandhas had an order in effect that looters would be shot on sight.This order has been conscientiously carried out, without regardto the age, sex, or ethnic background of the person caught looting,and soon, refugees returning to their villages after militaryactivities had stopped, noticed, with amazement, that the propertythey had left behind had been left untouched.

The coalition government which the Chechen leadership promisedGen. Lebed, for the time being, looks rather one-sided — thetwo former Zavgaev ministers who joined it immediately after therebels took Grozny were only confirming their loyalty to the newgovernment of Chechnya, and, in carrying out their work in restoringthe republic’s economy and viability, will hardly have any influenceon the political course of the new Chechen administration.

But when he spoke of a coalition government, Gen. Lebed hardlyhad in mind such unanimity of views. In including people fromthe ranks of their former enemies, the new Chechen authoritiesintended only to demonstrate to the Russian government that theywould not take revenge against their compatriots whom, duringthe war, they called "national-traitors." Moreover,the more Zavgaev supporters there are in the new government, theless the peacemakers will hear from Moscow about how "theybetrayed the Chechens who were friendly to Russia," and theless the opponents of Mr. Lebed’s initiative will be able to sayabout the "dictatorship" being formed in the republic,which must be resisted "from a position of strength."

The Joint Military Patrols

There have been joint Russian-Chechen military patrols responsiblefor monitoring signed agreements before the present accords weresigned. True, the joint armistice observation commission (or atleast its Chechen representatives) formed after the negotiationsof the summer of 1995, had far less authority, but it achievedits main goal–a ceasefire. The present joint command, like itspredecessors, the brainchild of Gen. Maskhadov’s diplomacy, hasquickly coped with the task of making sure that military actionshave stopped. It differs from last year’s joint armistice observationcommission by the fact that this time, in spite of the officialparity of both sides, the Chechens are now playing the leadingrole.

These patrols, formed of equal numbers of rebel fighters and federaltroops, are, in no sense, a sign of a Russian military presencein Grozny, and, in addition to the solution of everyday problems(which each side could take care of by itself), serve more toreinforce Russian-Chechen friendship.

Of course, Russian soldiers and officers feel a little uncomfortableriding through the city with Chechen rebel fighters in vehiclesmarked both with the emblem of the joint military patrols andwith portraits of Djohar Dudaev, flying what until recently wasregarded as the enemy’s flag. But at the same time, in makingthese patrols, the federal forces feel safer than they used tofeel in their armored columns, in "territory controlled bythe Russian army."

The Russian and Chechen members of these joint patrols were quicklyable to form good soldierly relations: the older and more experiencedrebels, who remembered their service in the USSR’s armed forceswell, played the role of the "seniors," and the federaltroops (draftees, as a rule) — the role of the "juniors."But these relations took on a much "softer" tone thanthey did in the Soviet or the Russian army, where the "juniors"would often end up physically beaten. No such physical mistreatmenton the part of the "seniors" is tolerated.

As a rule, Russian soldiers do the main work in getting water,food, and military equipment for the patrol, and do all the cleaningup. Their "senior comrades" watch their subordinates’work with satisfaction, calling it "volunteer forced labor,"and guarantee their security when accompanying them on trips torebel-controlled territory.

The main job of these joint patrols, until recently, has beenfighting bandits, which, in the city, means mostly looters. Thefederal troops approve the rebels’ methods of imposing order inthe city, and consider it to be quite effective. After a few daysof joint patrols in Grozny, Russian soldiers and officers, intheir own words, are persuaded that they need to leave Chechnya,where "the boys can sort things out and impose order a hundredtimes better than we can."

The federal troops are reinforced in these thoughts when theylook at their Chechen colleagues’ relations with the local population.For the first time since the beginning of the war, residents ofGrozny are welcoming Russian soldiers, sent there by their militarycommand to "defend" peaceful Chechens from "therebels,"when they are sitting together with these rebelsin an APC which is flying the green flag.

The Rebels and the Opposition

In washing its hands, at least for a time, of Chechen problems,the Russian leadership gave its former enemies and present partnersa last piece of advice: don’t harm the opposition. It was forthis purpose that Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed flewto Chechnya, already after the signing of the Khasavyurt agreements.He received a promise in return from Aslan Maskhadov, that notonly would he not shoot Zavgaev’s supporters; he would actuallyinclude some of them in a coalition government.

The new Chechen authorities, who had, in fact, not planned tocarry out any reprisals against the people whom, during the war,they had called "national-traitors," were a little offendedat Russia’s lack of trust in them on this question. In speakingbefore journalists after a brief discussion with the Russian general,Mr. Maskhadov complained of the inaccurate information which thesupporters of the war feed Lebed each time before he takes a tripto Chechnya. "But, thank God," noted the Chechen chiefof staff, "in our meetings, Aleksandr Lebed and I have alwaysbeen able to find a common language." In spite of the Chechenleaders’ intentions of avoiding a so-called "Afghan variant,"the situation in the republic is far from what one could call"national reconciliation." The Zavgaevists, who stillhaven’t adjusted to the sudden transfer of power to the rebels,are in a state of hysteria: they can’t decide what to do — packtheir bags or form a home guard militia. And things look differentin the various regions formerly opposed to Dudaev. The districtcenter of Urus-Martan and other villages in its district, wastraditionally considered to be opposed to Dudaev, and during theevents in the fall of 1994, became the second stronghold (afterthe Nadterechny district) of the pro-Zavgaev armed forces. AfterDudayev’s supporters took control of Grozny this August, Urus-Martanbecame the refuge of the pro-Zavgaev city district bosses whomanaged to flee to the west (those who fled to the north, woundup in Znamenskoe.)

Literally within a few days after an agreement was reached betweenthe Chechen and Russian military commands on a withdrawal of theirunits from Grozny, rebel detachments entered the Urus-Martan district,and immediately became its masters. Preferring not to approachthe local administration building, where their pro-Zavgaev countrymenwere located, they were satisfied with complete control over therest of the district’s territory.

Instead of the reprisals against the Zavgaevists which all thepundits had predicted, the rebels preferred negotiations, which,according to the district’s former leaders, were proposed by well-knownfield commander Ahmed Zakaev. According to the Zavgaevists, aso-called "zero option" was suggested, in which thedistrict chief of administration would be a neutral person. Infact, however, any elections of a local leader would lead to theelection of a representative of the new Chechen government, whichthe former pro-Russian administration would be forced to recognize.

The only real positive outcome of these negotiations was the "non-aggressionpact," which the rebels have observed out of mercy towardsthe conquered, and the pro-Zavgaev militia, out of a sober assessmentof a situation in which the preponderance of force is clearlynot on their side. The extensive network of kinship ties betweenthe supporters of the new and the old Chechen governments, andthe consequent fear of blood feuds, which would inevitably breakout in a rural area where everybody knows everybody, also playedan important role here.

Something else is curious — most of the representatives of thepro-Russian administration in the local administration buildingwho had fled from Grozny, and their colleagues in Urus-Martan,formed a sort of voluntary alliance with the rebels, since, intheir own words, they were disillusioned with Russia. "Russia,by its actions, forced the people onto one side," they say."Now, she can still destroy all of us, but we won’t fighteach other any more."

The attempts of Doku Zavgaev’s entourage to get his former supportersin Urus-Martan to form local home guard militias to drive outthe rebels have led to nothing–not only the former pro-Russianofficials, but even the former members of the pro-Zavgaev militia,who have felt the change in the Russian government’s relationstowards Yandarbiev’s supporters and do not want, in their words,"to become bandits and separatists for Moscow now,"have refused to participate.

A completely different mood prevails in the historically pro-RussianNadterechny district, where another group of pro-Zavgaev officialsfled after escaping from Grozny. The Nadterechny authorities willhear nothing of any alliance or negotiations with the rebels,and the local militiamen, unlike their colleagues in Urus-Martan,are really forming a home guard. In their words, they do not planto launch military actions against the rebels, but intend to digin and arm themselves sufficiently to prevent any attempt on thepart of the rebels to establish control over the Nadterechny district.

The exact numbers of these detachments and the source of theirarms remains a secret, but it is not hard to guess that the armscould only have come from the Russian army. According to Yandarbiev’sintelligence information, Moscow is trying once again to put theplan which failed in 1994 into effect — to use the pro-RussianChechens, with the help of Russian arms, to overthrow the separatistgovernment. But such a variant is hardly likely. If the Russianleadership failed two years ago to overthrow Djohar Dudaev’s regimein this way when it was very unpopular, now that the rebel forcesare far more numerous, have learned to fight, are a lot betterarmed, and a majority of Chechens have come to hate Russian troops– and as a consequence, the very idea of being part of Russia– such an attempt to overthrow the new Chechen regime is doomedto failure. Moreover, if, in arming the anti-Dudaev forces in1994, Moscow could always resort to military intervention if itsplans failed, now, after an inglorious end to the war and thesurrender of almost all Chechnya’s cities to the enemy, any decisionto send the troops back in would not only be unpopular; it wouldbe criminal.

As regards the arming of the Nadterechny home guard, federal troopsare either leaving them arms for old times’ sake, since aftertwo years of excess, nobody will count them anyway, or they intendto station several military units in the Nadterechny and Naurskydistricts, simultaneously providing a Russian military presencein the 89th "subject" of the Russian Federation andproviding a defense to former allies. At the present time, InteriorMinistry units are deployed there, and several federal units whichhave pulled out of Grozny and the mountain regions of Chechnyawill soon join them.

Chechnya’s Future

The future of both the new government and the republic will dependon whether the new Chechen government will be able to institutea new, civilized, order — after all, Russia granted the five-yeardelay before defining Chechnya’s status so that the Chechens wouldhave time to become disenchanted with their new leaders, whichare now quite popular, and their new order, and call for the old,Russian, one back.

The problem of imposing order in Chechnya is complicated not onlyby the rebels’ post-victory euphoria, but also by the fact thatChechen detachments and individual soldiers, after obeying thecommands of their military leaders throughout the war, could,after peace comes and the requirement to obey disappears, refuseto deprive themselves of the pleasant possibility of "takingit easy" after the two long years of war and taking revengeon the Zavgaevists, appropriating the material goods of thosewho are thus repressed. Maskhadov’s authority, indisputable duringthe war, could fall sharply after the Chechen general’s call,unpopular to many Chechens, to deal harshly with anyone who hijacksa car or robs someone, even if it is a Russian or a pro-RussianChechen. Moreover, it is not yet known how well the Chechens willadapt to the laws of the Shariat, which were proclaimed officiallyfor the first time after Djohar Dudaev declared the republic’sindependence by Zelimkhan Yandarbiev’s government. These laws,which seem at first sight to be harsh, but just, could quicklylose their appeal for Chechens who wish to rest after the warand refuse themselves nothing.

All these problems, however, are but trifles compared to the victoryand the peace which it brings. Even those Chechens who predictthat a civil war is inevitable after the withdrawal of federaltroops clearly prefer "small-scale slaughter" and targetedrevenge to the carpet bombings and artillery bombardments whichclaimed innocent civilians as their victims.

Translated by Mark Eckert