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A history of unresolved conflicts and brutality between Russian and Chechnya has existed since the 17th century. Apart from being the most active opponents of Russia’s conquest (1818-1917) of the Caucasus, Chechens also fought bitterly during an unsuccessful 1850s rebellion led by Imam Shamyl. The Bolsheviks seize of the region in 1918 proved unsuccessful in the long run. The area was included in 1921 in the Mountain People’s Republic after the reestablishment of Soviet rule. In 1934, Chechnya now slated as an autonomous region, became part of the Chechen-Ingush Region. As a result of its collaboration with the Germans during World War II, many residents were deported (1944) to Central Asia resulting in the death of many due to harsh conditions. They were later repatriated in 1956 and the republic was reestablished in 1957. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Chechen-dominated parliament of the republic declared independence as the Republic of Ichkeria, soon better known as Chechnya. In late 1994, Russian troops arrived to demolish the separatist movement. In a conflict that produced much bloodshed and loss of lives, Russian forces regained control of many areas in 1995, but separatist guerrillas continued to dominate the mountainous south and carried out many spectacular terrorist actions in other parts of Russia. Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev succeeded the slain Dudayev and fighting continued through 1996. Admitting defeat, the Russians withdrew following a cease-fire that left Chechnya with a de facto autonomy. With President Aslan Maskhadov having little control over the republic, Islamic law was established in 1999. With the capture of neighbouring Dagestan from Chechnya as well as a series of violent attacks by Islamic militants, Russian forces bombed and invaded Chechnya, capturing Grozny and forcing the rebels into mountain strongholds. Guerrilla and terror attacks continue to be mounted on Russian troops and other Russian cities. In 2003, voters approved a new constitution for Chechnya, and Akhmad Kadyrov was elected president, but the election was generally regarded as a sham. With the assassination of Kadyrov, considered a Russian loyalist in 2004, Alu Alkhanov, a moderate Chechen rebel leader, was elected to succeed him but he in turn was assassinated by Russian forces in 2005.
Periodical anarchy in Chechnya has only strengthened Russia’s belief that the region should not become independent and undermine its territorial integrity. Apart from a history of gory rivalry between the two regions, geopolitical and economic reasons have also fuelled Russia’s reluctance at granting Chechnya independence. Oil is a significant and crucial factor in this region. With Groznyy’s major oil refinery running through the fields of Baku on the Caspian Sea and Chechnya towards the Ukraine, a major pipeline, it serves Russian well to protect its interests in this region. With many major Western oil companies and the American government pumping some of their much needed oil from Georgia, a former constituent of Russia, it is Russia’s desire to maintain whatever influence it can over the spoils. With the contrary desire of the West of limiting Russia’s influence, Chechnya finds itself caught in the middle. Rumors run rift of the manipulation of external (western) forces to encourage and destabilize the region, promote succession and ensure a split in Russia. If Chechnya, a smaller and weaker nation, is successful, it would be more pliable to the controls of the west.
Ascribing blame for the Russian-Chechnya conflict proves to be a sticky issue with both sides being accused of brutality and terrorizing noncombatants. The collaboration of Chechen and Ingush units, as mentioned earlier, with the Germans during World War II was perceived as a threat to the nation by Stalin. This resulted in mass deportation of Chechens by Stalin to Central Asia and Siberia. Mass deportation of Chechen people caused the death of perhaps 100,000 or more of these people due to extreme conditions. With the repatriation of deportees in 1956 after the death of Stalin in 1953, the republic was reestablished in 1957. This legacy probably explains why Chechen nationalism has been more radical and anti-Russian than that of Russia’s other Muslim ethnic minorities. Also, it has been the longing of many Western competing imperial powers to try to overthrow the regime. As a consequence, this has included direct intervention in their revolution, a world trade embargo, and Hitler’s attempt to destroy them, as well as the Cold War that followed which, as is slowly being uncovered, included training and flying in assassins and saboteurs. The Soviets parallel response had been to develop a ring of steel to prevent them from implementing their varied mechanizations. Russian troops have been accused of torture, summary executions and large-scale extortion and looting. Chechen fighters have, on the other hand, being responsible for the death of many Russian soldiers each month. Russia witnessed a series of terrorist attacks between the end of August and the beginning of September 2004, roughly coinciding with presidential elections in the Chechen republic. The Chechens are blamed for near-simultaneous crash of two Russian jetliners believed to be caused by explosions. 10 people lost their lives in a suicide bomb attack in Moscow outside a subway station. However, the most lingering act of brutality in public memory has been of a school filled with hundreds of children. Some explosions caused part of the school building to collapse, killing many of the hostages. With some other hostages taking a chance to flee, militants firing, Russian commandos storming in (as well as residents who had their own weapons) and a 10 hour gun fight, many lost their lives. Some militants escaped, to the shock of many who were under the impression that the surrounding areas had been secured.
The resolution of the Russian-Chechnya conflict poses many challenges including security, return of refugees, reconstruction, rebuilding of economy, and dealing with corruption. Issues are further complicated with the Islamic call for jihad finding many recruits. The conflict of an Islamic democracy versus Islamic militancy within Chechnya along with Russia’s desire to prevent secession makes for troubled waters. Despite an “all for all” prisoner exchange envisaged in the Khasavyurt agreements, bartering for individuals continues. The Russian parliament is yet to adopt an acceptable amnesty that would release those still forcibly detained by both sides. Mass graves of unidentified bodies, and mines, etc continue to torment the general population. Unaccountability of those responsible for war crimes does little to reassure an already profound Chechen mistrust of the Russian government. Beyond the war legacy, Chechnya is yet to establish civil rights protections in law and practice. Both the Russian government and the new government of Chechnya have to take joint responsibility of displaying good faith by clarifying the whereabouts of those still missing, adopting an amnesty that will allow those forcibly detained to go home, and taking concrete steps to hold those responsible for laws of war violations accountable for their crimes. Without a willingness to respect international commitments, there is little hope that the most difficult issues of Chechnya’s status will be resolved.