Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

New century, old war

By Sameh Naguib

The Chechen people will have nothing to celebrate as we enter the new millennium. Some 40,000 are still trapped in the Chechen capital Grozny after Russian generals threatened last week to raze the city. Most of those hiding out from the onslaught were too old or sick to leave the beleaguered capital. Over a third of the population of the breakaway republic has been made homeless and over 200,000 refugees are facing rapidly deteriorating conditions in the neighbouring province of Ingushetia.

As voters in the rest of Russia elected a new lower house of parliament last Sunday, Russian warplanes blasted Grozny and the rebel strongholds in the south of the territory. The Chechen war is a decisive factor in Sunday's election, and although Vladimir Putin has risen from obscurity to become the most popular politician in Russia, riding on a wave of rising nationalist sentiments, it would be short-sighted to assume that the whole war was nothing more than part of the Boris Yeltsin faction's election strategy. Rather, there are deeper-rooted, more historical factors involved in the conflict which seems likely to continue well into the year 2000.

Chechnya, a small land-locked region of less than 16,000 square kilometers in the northern Caucasus, has always had a disproportionate strategic significance for Moscow as it straddles transportation routes to the Caspian and Black Sea basins. In fact, a great deal of Central Asian and Caucasian natural gas and oil travels by pipeline through Chechnya, and in the past much of it was refined in the territory.

Huge oil reserves located under the Caspian Sea and in the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which are estimated at over 25 billion barrels, rival the magnitude of reserves in Kuwait while they surpass those in Alaska and the North Sea combined. Control over these oil fields and export routes out of the Eurasian hinterland is quickly becoming the crux of one of the central conflicts in post-Cold War politics. Like the previous conflicts of the early 20th century involving the region, in which the geopolitical interests of the British Empire and Russia clashed over the Caucasus region and Central Asia, today's struggle between Russia and the West may turn on who controls the oil reserves in Eurasia.

One of the main aims of the Russian attacks on Chechnya is to ensure control of the oil pipeline which runs from Baku, via Grozny, to the Russian city of Tikhoretsk. The pipeline ends at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, designed by Russia to be the terminal for the proposed Kazakh and Azerbaijani pipelines. During its brief self-proclaimed independence under President Dzhokhar Dudayev from 1991 to 1994, Chechnya illegally exported crude oil and refined products worth hundreds of millions of US dollars.

In addition to the economic, the Russians have another motive to attempt to recapture Chechnya; namely, the danger that the drive towards secession might spread to other regions across Russia, leading to a severe curtailment of Moscow's control over its outlying regions and perhaps the eventual termination of Russian territorial integrity.

The suffering of the Chechens is not new. During the 19th century hundreds of thousands of Chechens died as the Tsarist empire expanded into the Caucasus. In 1944 Stalin had 800,000 Chechens loaded onto cattle cars and deported to Siberia. Soviet geographers were ordered to erase Chechnya from their maps. By the time Stalin's deportation order was rescinded in 1957, over 450,000 Chechens had perished.

The Chechen drive towards sovereignty began in recent years when Russia was led by Mikhail Gorbachev and Doka Zavgaev was first secretary of the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic. During Zavgaev's rule, the majority of ethnic Russians in prominent positions in the republic were removed from their posts and special economic privileges were wrested away from ethnic Russians. On 27 November 1990 the republic's Supreme Council adopted a declaration for "National Sovereignty of the Chechen-Ingush Republic". After the failure of the August 1991 coup, Yeltsin lashed out against Zavgaev and his proposed separatist agenda. Zavgaev was replaced by General Dudayev, who then came under intense pressure to seek independence from Moscow. He borrowed religious and social ideas freely, eventually adding an Islamist dimension to his vision for an independent Chechnya.

By 1994 the situation had again become unbearable for Moscow, which began preparing for war against the Chechens who, among other things, had dared to withhold tax revenues from Moscow. In December 1994, Russia started a military campaign to crush Dudayev's independence drive. The campaign, which lasted for two years, ended in disaster for the Russians, with thousands of soldiers killed. The army pulled out in disgrace in 1996 signing a peace agreement with the Chechens. However, the stakes were too high for the Russians to let go of Chechnya, and the emergence and rapid growth of a new Islamic independence movement meant that it was only a matter of time before the Russians attempted to retake the region.

One of the most interesting international dimensions of the Chechen war is the ambivalence of the western powers, particularly the US, to the actions of the Russian army, including the massive human rights violations and atrocities committed against Chechen civilians. Moscow received purely formal expressions of western concern and displeasure at what is being done in Chechnya. At the same time, close cooperation between Russia and the West continues as before, in both scope and character. US President Bill Clinton has said that Russia has a right to deal with "bandits" and "terrorists", despite Russia's propensity for labelling every Chechen civilian a "terrorist".

Although it would seem so from the media, the Chechens will not be alone in welcoming the new millennium with war, devastation and barbarism. The peoples of the Congo, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Algeria, Sudan, Kashmir, Colombia, Angola, Southern Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Burma, to name but a few, will spend the transition to the 21st century mourning their loved ones killed in violent conflicts and fearing for their lives. This century has not ended well.

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