TCS Daily

Prisoner of the Caucasus

By Dominic Basulto - November 12, 2002 12:00 AM

With the war against Iraq now on hold, Russia is emerging as the focal point for what appears to be the next battle in the War against Terror. The Chechen conflict will likely take a bloody, ugly turn after the recent terrorist attack on a Moscow theater, as Russian military and security forces step-up their antiterrorism activities in the Northern Caucasus. Moreover, Russia has scuttled whatever prospects remained for negotiating a peace settlement. Meanwhile, citizens across Russia worry about terrorist strikes against hardened targets such as nuclear facilities. The combination of these factors - bloodshed, terror, a loss of faith in the state security organs - led the New York Times to run an op-ed piece ("Russia and the Wages of Terror") that basically espoused a pro-capitulation policy for Russia in order to bring the Chechens to the bargaining table.

However, as even the author of the article (the esteemed Chechen war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya) noted, the window of opportunity for dialogue with the Chechens has likely already closed. Quite frankly, there is no easy solution in the Chechen conflict. For close to 250 years, Russia has waged an on-again, off-again war against the Chechen separatist rebels. As far back as 1785, Chechen mountain guerillas launched an Islamic jihad against their Russian masters. During the 19th century, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy wrote poems and short stories about the Caucasus, including classics such as "A Hero of Our Time" and "Prisoner of the Caucasus" (which was later made into a best-selling movie in 1996). During both the Tsarist and Communist regimes, the Russians employed various tactics - divide and conquer, the creation of a 'buffer state' patrolled by Cossacks, colonial exploitation, ethnic cleansing, deportation - with varying degrees of failure.

Currently, there are three fundamental factors (and perhaps a fourth - historical inevitability) for why it appears that President Putin has no other alternatives but to continue Russian military intervention in Chechnya.

  1. There are no longer any credible centrists or moderates within Chechnya, which itself is little more than a no-man's land of loosely affiliated tribal clans, all professing a form of Islamic faith. As even Politkovskaya remarks, the current representative of the Chechen government (Maskhadov) has no political sway over the increasingly radicalized elements of Chechen society, such as the guerilla commander Shamil Basayev. The U.S. now refers to Maskhadov as 'damaged goods.' Each tribal clan in Chechnya has its own interests at stake, not all of them political. In the lexicon of Thomas Friedman, the Chechen street has become the Chechen basement - hard-core terrorists beyond the pale of diplomacy and prone to violence.

  2. There is no strong element within Russia that can act as a viable anti-war lobby. The press and media tend to tow the Kremlin line, and the truly independent war reporters (such as Politkovskaya) are marginalized. There are few, if any, independent Russian politicians, such as former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, willing to buck public opinion for the sake of a Chechen solution. Moreover, Putin has vowed to solve the Chechen problem, once and for all, leaving him little wiggle room for diplomacy. The military and security forces are dead-set on revenge. The nationalist lobby would like to see a return of the pan-Slavic imperial power of Russia. And, as the Economist noted recently, even the Russian forces within Chechnya have a stake in keeping the war machine going - they have turned the war into a profitable way to export oil, deal in weapons, and smuggle narcotics.

  3. Finally, there is no obvious mediator for any peace talks. Politkovskaya acknowledges that, without a mediator, 'it is unlikely that anything useful would result'. The obvious prospect would be a politician of stature from the Northern Caucasus, or perhaps the surrounding states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Russians certainly would not allow the UN or another international body to politicize a war that they view as a domestic issue. But, the problem is that nobody trusts the Russians - and after 250 years of genocide and deportation, perhaps this makes a bit of sense.

Given the above, it would appear that Putin is a Prisoner of the Caucasus. There is no way out, except military escalation.

Yet, let's consider the facts. The Chechens are fierce, independent, semi-Asiatic nomads, living at the periphery of the Russian Empire. They have existed for centuries as a small ethnic minority in a vast Empire and have been exploited by their masters for just as long. They live in a mountainous country of pristine beauty and have been almost mythologized by the greatest Russian poets and writers for their exotic beauty, courage, and ferocity. During the 19th century, it even became fashionable for the elite circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg to vacation in the Caucasus. Moreover, the Chechens live next-door to one of the world's greatest oil reserves (the Caspian Sea basin), which has complicated any peace settlement with them.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Chechnya is Alaska with grenade launchers and dirty bombs. Alaskans are independent, semi-Asiatic nomads (the Eskimos, Aleuts, Northwest Coast Indians), living at the periphery of the United States. They have existed for centuries as a small ethnic minority in a vast Empire and have been exploited by U.S. commercial interests. They live in an inhospitable environment of great natural beauty, and have been mythologized by American historians. At one time, it was fashionable to visit Alaska (during the 1890s Gold Rush). And the Alaskans live next door to one of the world's greatest oil reserves - Prudhoe Bay. But, from 1867, when the Russians sold the territory to the U.S. ("Seward's Folly") until 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state, the United States exploited the indigenous natives, even deporting them from their homelands and refusing to grant them equal political representation.

Is there a lesson here? Maybe it is possible to grant a measure of autonomy to an ethnic minority group without destroying the fabric of an Empire - and still maintain a controlling interest in the region's oil. Maybe President Putin does not have to remain a Prisoner of the Caucasus.



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