The death of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin has produced numerous evaluations of his legacy, including his policy towards the North Caucasus. Many people in the North Caucasus consider Yeltsin’s regional policy to have been more harmful than helpful.
Residents of Chechnya are particularly angry with the former president. “Yeltsin has brought us nothing but grief, blood, death, and destruction. Nobody in Chechnya regrets his death because it was his fault that thousands of people died here,” one Chechen student told a Kavkazky Uzel correspondent. Markha Saidova, an old Chechen woman who had lost two sons during the war, said that as long as she lives she would always condemn all those who unleashed the Chechen war, including Yeltsin (Kavkazky Uzel, April 24).
According to Kavkazky Uzel, negative opinion about Yeltsin’s policy also prevails in Dagestan, another North Caucasian republic. Residents of Dagestan complain that the Chechen war isolated Dagestan from central Russia and brought crime, unpaid wages, refugees, and other problems during the 1990s, the decade that Yeltsin was in power.
But in Ingushetia people thank the former Russian leader for granting sovereignty to their republic, which was recognized as an entity separate from Chechnya by the Russian authorities in 1992, but they blame Yeltsin for the cruel expulsion of the Ingush from North Ossetia during the conflict between Ossetians and Ingush that occurred at the end of the same year.
Indeed, people in the North Caucasus have legitimate reasons to criticize the late president, since the authorities carried out many damaging initiatives in the region in the 1990s. But Yeltsin’s successor fares little better in their esteem. The peoples of the Caucasus can hardly say that Vladimir Putin pursues a more balanced and nuanced policy in the region, nor can they say that Putin cares more about their interests than did Yeltsin.
Moscow’s Caucasian policy during the Yeltsin decade possessed all of the attributes of Russia’s traditional imperialistic drive. The policies of divide and rule, carrot and stick, and ultimatums all were used in the 1990s. At the same time, there was something new. Yeltsin’s era was also characterized by the respect that the Kremlin had for the sovereignty of the federation’s ethnic republics, tolerance toward other religions, especially Islam, and the negotiations with the regions on equal footing. The people of the North Caucasus could enjoy what other Russians enjoyed at that time: freedom of speech and independent mass media.
Yeltsin’s Kremlin could not tolerate the Chechen demands for full independence, but it had nothing against the idea of granting significant political and economic freedoms to the Caucasian regions that wanted to stay within the Russian Federation. Ingushetia was proclaimed a tax-free economic zone and Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Dagestan were autonomous enough to choose their political leaders themselves and to have their own views on domestic policy issues. This inspired a serious power struggle among regional elites, which often resulted in assassinations or public conflict, but this limited autonomy helped to prevent the expansion of the Chechen war beyond the Chechen frontiers.
Early in the 1990s, some hot heads in the North Caucasus warned the Russian authorities that the Caucasians would support the Chechens in their armed struggle if the Russian army invaded the republic. However, during the first war Chechnya had almost no support from other Caucasian regions in its standoff with Moscow. Neither the governing elites nor the common people in Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ingushetia at that time were interested in full independence; the freedoms that they enjoyed were sufficient.
The invasion of Chechnya is one of Yeltsin’s greatest failures, but at the same time his Chechen policy contributes to Yeltsin’s place as a unique personality in Russian history.
Since the time of Alexander I, there were no attempts in Russia to start a dialogue with Chechen leaders on an equal basis. Russian authorities had regarded all Chechens as wild, unorganized bandits and wanted to eliminate them. They preferred to talk only with traitors whom they always tried to find among the Chechens. But in May 1997, for the first time in Russian history, Boris Yeltsin talked and made an equitable peace agreement with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, who had been elected during free elections in the republic. Maskhadov was a real Chechen leader who supported the independence cause, not one of the pro-Russian sycophants who just paid lip service to the tsar. After signing the treaty Yeltsin made history by saying that after 400 years, the Russian-Chechen conflict had finally ended.
Unfortunately, Yeltsin was wrong. In 1999, Putin, then prime minister, unleashed another war in Chechnya that soon went beyond the borders of the region and spread all over the North Caucasus from Karachaevo-Cherkessia to Dagestan. By this time the autonomy of the Caucasian regions had been almost eliminated, the locals had lost their rights to elect their regional leaders, and Special Forces and political and religious repression has eliminated any hint of autonomy. Now the Kremlin prefers to eliminate problems rather then seek compromises in the North Caucasus considering that those who disagree must be eliminated. As a result, separatism and anti-Russian feelings are rising among Caucasian societies and there is little hope for an immediate end to the ongoing guerilla war in the region.