The Kremlin rulers continue to speak with forked tongue when dealing with the Chechens. Russian prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko met president Aslan Maskhadov of Ichkeria on August 1 in Nazran, the Ingush capital, and promised to pay for rebuilding the devastated Caucasus republic. Yet a week earlier (July 23) Russian agents were involved in an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov. This was indirectly admitted by Russian president Boris Yeltsin when he sacked Nikolai D Kovalev, director of the federal security service, a successor to the KGB, within days of the Maskhadov attack. Yeltsin gave no reason for the sacking.
Moscow had pledged to rebuild the war-ravaged country as part of the August 31, 1996 deal under which the Chechens agreed to postpone declaring their republic independent for five years. The Chechens have not seen a miserable rouble despite living upto their part of the agreement.
Chechen vice-president Vakha Arsanov, speaking to Interfax news agency, blamed Russian agents for the July 23 attack while foreign minister Movladi Udugov described it as part of a drive to destabilize Ichkeria but said it would fail. ‘The foreign special services are wasting their taxpayers’ money,’ Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. This was a clear reference to Moscow.
All Russian forces were withdrawn from the Caucasus republic by January 1997. Much of Ichkeria (formerly Chechenya) lies in ruins after a brutal 21-month war. The Russians used every weapon in their armoury except nuclear bombs to force Chechenya to its knees but the intrepid Chechens refused to surrender. They carry a tradition that stretches back more than 200 years.
Large parts of Ichkeria lie in ruins. Johar-Ghala in particular suffered immense damage. Not a single building was left intact. This was typically Russianese; for 200 years, the Russians had indulged in similar tactics in an attempt to crush the spirit of independence of the Chechens. In 1859, Imam Shamil was forced to surrender when he was trapped in a mountain village with a handful of followers. He was given a stark choice: surrender or the entire Chechen population will be wiped out. Imam Shamil preferred to spare his people.
They rose from the ashes to continue the struggle. Though physically defeated, the flame of freedom continued to flicker in their hearts which sparked repeated uprisings, the latest engulfing the Russian army, finally forcing it to flee in 1996.
The Chechens had declared independence in September 1991, a few weeks after a failed putsch by the communists in Moscow. Chechen leader Johar Dudayev, a decorated airforce general, had stood against the putschists, yet Russian president Boris Yeltsin threatened to send in the army against him rather than the putschists’ collaborators in Grozny. The Chechens called his bluff. Yeltsin was forced to climb down, saved only by the Russian Duma (parliament) which refused to authorise the use of force against Chechenya.
But Yeltsin did not give up. If he is not inebriated by vodka, he is intoxicated by military power with an imperial hangover to boot. He believed the Russian army could repeat its past feat, at least in Chechenya, refusing to learn from the Afghanistan debacle. Venturing into Ichkeria in November 1994, Moscow first used its troops under the cover of Chechen ‘rebels’ battling the government of president Johar Dudayev. They were roundly defeated.
Then on December 11, Yeltsin dropped all pretence and admitted that Russian forces were involved. Johar-Ghala (Grozny) was subjected to a ferocious attack on Christmas eve. The fighting raged for more than two months. The Chechens put up a stiff resistance but were forced to abandon the capital because virtually every building was destroyed. They moved into the southern mountains in February 1995. From there, they continued the struggle.
On April 21, 1996, president Dudayev was martyred in a Russian missile attack. The technology was supplied by the US. Even this did not dampen the spirit of the Chechens.
Their heroic exploits are what legends are made of. It was finally in August 1996 that Shamil Busayev, a young Chechen commander with only a few hundred fighters, attacked an estimated 11,000 Russian troops in Johar-Ghala. For two weeks, the Chechens confounded the heavily armed Russian troops demoralising them to the point where 8,000 were completely surrounded in the capital. The army of the superpower was shown as incompetent amateurs against the determined Chechen volunteers.
The Russians decided that they had had enough and sued for peace. General Alexander Lebed, then serving as Yeltsin’s national security advisor, led the Russian side in negotiations with Chechen commander Maskhadov. At the conclusion of the talks, the Russians agreed to leave within five months. Two hundred years of Chechen struggle had finally born fruit.
Though defeated, the Russians continue to harbour ambitions of undermining Ichkeria. Part of the plan includes subverting its economy by withholding payments that were agreed in the August 1996 deal. This is augmented by assassination attempts on leading figures of Ichkeria. Moscow has so far failed.
So, unfortunately, has the world of Islam, which has refused to grant recognition to Ichkeria and its valiant Chechen fighters.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1998