Thousand of Chechen civilians have been killed or driven from their homes in several weeks of Russian military operations in the north of the country that began in the middle of September.
The refugees initially fled from their homes into other parts of Ichkeria (the Chechens’ own name for Chechenya), because of Russian air attacks on villages; thousands more then fled the country altogether, most of them to squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Ingushetia, as the air attacks became a full-scale invasion. Conditions in the camps are reported to be appalling and a major humanitarian crisis is expected as winter draws in.
Meanwhile, Russian air attacks on towns and villages all over the country have continued. Over 200 houses were destroyed, at least 32 people killed, and nearly 100 injured in the village of Elistanzhi, 45km south-east of the capital Jauhar-Ghala (‘Grozny’ to the Russians), on October 8, as Russian aircraft bombed the mosque and surrounding houses during the juma’ prayers. The attack was just one of many during a renewed wave of air-raids that day.
The Russian air attacks began in mid-September, apparently as an extension of Russian operations in neighbouring Dagestan against local mujahideen and their Chechen supporters (led by Shamil Basayev and the Arab-Chechen Al-Khattab). It soon became clear that the Russians were doing far more than retaliating to the Chechen mujahideen’s operations, as the air attacks spread to towns and villages throughout Ichkeria. At the end of September, Russian officials admitted that their troops had entered Ichkeria to establish a ‘buffer zone’ along its northern border with Russia.
On October 1, Russian prime minister Victor Putin confirmed that they had launched a three-pronged invasion of Ichkeria, ostensibly to establish law and order in ‘bandit-controlled’ areas, and to restore the ‘legal government’ of Moscow-based pro-Russian Chechens. By October 6, Russian troops had reached the Terek River, which flows west-to-east through Ichkeria, dividing the northern plains from the mountainous south of the country. Fighting has continued ever since, as Russian troops struggle to secure that northern territory against Chechen resistance. They also claim to have crossed the Terek in the west of the country, and to have captured the strategically-important western town of Bamut on October 9, but fighting there was continuing as Crescent International went to press. Also on October 9-10, Chechen forces claimed to have launched fresh operations north of the Terek.
Analysing events is made difficult by the rapidly developing situation, as well as the Russians’ record for misleading and exaggerated claims, and for not actually knowing in Moscow what is really happening elsewhere. However, it is clear that the Russians have major political objectives. On October 1, when Putin admitted for the first time that an invasion was underway, he justified it as restoring the ‘legitimate’ rule of the pro-Moscow ‘parliament’ that was ‘elected’ in June 1996, members of which are still based in Moscow. Senior members of the parliament, said that they hope to be able to return to Ichkeria to establish a new government. One, Amin Asmayev, said the government would be “loyal to Russian and the Russian constitution”.
On October 10, Ichkerian president Aslan Maskhadov proposed a plan to end the fighting, saying that he would restrict the activities of Chechen mujahideen if Russia withdrew from Chechen territory. He appealed for a cease-fire on the basis of the 1997 peace accord which had ended the war in the country. He also said that he would commit all Chechen forces to defend Ichkeria if the Russians did not agree. Russian contempt was clear as officials denied even receiving the proposals.
Aslan Maskhadov was elected president of Ichkeria in January 1997, after the end of the 1994-1996 war. He is regarded as a ‘moderate’ by the Russians and the west, but has a war-record as good as anyone else in Ichkeria. He commanded the early resistance in the Chechen capital in 1994, and was later chief of staff under Jauhar Dudayev’s successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. He negotiated the 1997 agreement, by which Ichkeria’s de facto independence was effectively recognised by the Russians, although the question of its constitutional status was deferred for five years.
Since then, the Russians have refused to deal properly with the Chechens on the basis of that agreement, maintaining instead the pretence that Ichkeria remains an integral part of the Russian Federation and that Maskhadov is leader of a Russian Autonomous Region (and thus a member of the Upper House of Russia’s parliament) rather than president of a state. It has become increasingly clear that president Boris Yeltsin and others have seen that five-year window as an opportunity to change the realities on the ground in their favour. Maskhadov has been severely criticised by Shamil Basayev and other former mujahideen leaders for the flexibility he has shown in attempting to deal with the Russians, but has recently accepted that the dealings have been a waste of time.
How far the latest Russian operations are likely to go remains to be seen. Some analysts believe that the Russians will be happy with establishing control of the northern plains, without daring to venture too far across the Terek, or attempting to attack Jauhar-Ghala, the scene of great humiliations in the past. However, Boris Yeltsin’s grasp of strategic realities has never been good, as his previous policies in the Caucasus have shown, and he has again surrounded himself with men willing to follow his lead instead of challenging him.
Russia invaded Ichkeria in 1994 in the hope of a ‘small victorious war’ which would restore some self-confidence and prestige. The possibility that they are repeating the mistake cannot be discounted. And if that is the case, then the Chechens are likely once again to have to make the same sort of sacrifices, and suffer the same sort of hardships, as they have done many times before since the Russians first tried to conquer their country early in the eighteenth century.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999