Magazine Seeks to Explain Chechnya to Cuban Readers

The Russian-Chechen Conflict: No End In Sight

Movsar Barayev (L), the reported leader of a group of Chechen rebels holding hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater (Photo: NTV/AFP)
Movsar Barayev (L), the reported leader of the group of Chechen rebels that held hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater (Photo: NTV/AFP).

A complex and extraordinary set of circumstances determined that, as thousands marched in Washington on Oct. 26 to protest U.S. plans to attack Iraq, far away in Moscow, Russian special forces stormed the Dubrovka theater, where a group of Chechens had taken hundreds of people hostage.

Peaceful protests were held that same day in other U.S. cities, as well as in Spain, South Korea, Belgium, Japan, Mexico, and Australia. Their organizers could not have foreseen the events in Russia that were to capture the day's headlines—events that proved once more the need to fight against terrorism, not perpetuate it.

The bloody and tragic episode that took place in the Russian capital was a repetition of something we have seen elsewhere in the world. No radical philosophy carried to extremes is good thing, by whomever and for whatever purpose.

This is something that respected leaders have been saying since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Only with persistence, sincerity, reflection, and unified—not unilateral—action will it be possible to forge an effective international anti-terrorist coalition that, through sensible methods and long-term strategies, will be able to sever the roots, trunk, and branches of such a frightening phenomenon.

With regard to the Russian-Chechen conflict, not even the fiasco created by Boris Yeltsin in 1994—when he ordered the commencement of what is known today as the “First Chechen War”—can justify the tragedy caused by the suicidal Chechen group responsible for the attack on the Moscow theater, a group that reportedly belongs to an unidentified separatist faction.

Fragmented Chechen groups with different identities and allegiances have existed for years, each with its own hierarchy and command structure, and many have taken advantage of the separatist movement for personal enrichment. It appears that some even seek to maintain the climate of disorder that plagues the rugged, mineral-rich region, if only to profit from the local population, which has suffered immensely and sees no immediate solution to the conflict.

Gangs dedicated to extortion (taking Russian soldiers hostage and threatening to kill them if their families fail to pay hefty ransoms) and drug traffickers have been profiting openly from these ignoble methods, while using the cause of Chechen independence as the pretext for their despicable acts, though this is not the case with all Chechen separatists.

The Russian raid on the Dubrovka theater was not the first time drastic measures have been taken to resolve a hostage crisis, despite the heavy death toll. In 1995, hundreds of people were taken hostage by Chechen forces in a hospital in southern Russia, and a similar demand was made: End the war in favor of the separatist cause. That incident, like the most recent, also ended in terribly tragedy.


In the 19th century, the czars ordered the annexation of both Chechnya and Ingushetia to the Russian empire. During the seven decades of Soviet rule, there were no notable rebellions in the region, but when the USSR began to disintegrate in 1991, the Chechens sought autonomy, first from Ingushetia, and later on complete independence. In 1991, Gen. Dohar Dudayev declared Chechen independence, dissolved Parliament, held elections, and was proclaimed the winner.

Shortly after, a new Constitution was created and skirmishes with Russian troops ensued. Negotiations were held from 1992 to 1994, but little progress was made. At the same time, a rival group of moderates forced Dudayev to sign a pact with the Kremlin, supposedly in an effort to avoid all-out war.

But in 1994, Moscow commenced its devastating offensive in Chechnya, leaving tens of thousands dead and sending hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing (the exact figures are unknown). In 1996, following his re-election, Yeltsin ordered Gen. Aleksandr Lebed to negotiate a cease-fire with the rebels. The agreement he returned outlined two fundamental principles: the withdrawal of Russian forces and the postponement until 2002 (another coincidence?) of the decision about Chechnya's future.

The Chechen leader at the time was Aslan Maskhadov, who was overthrown by extremist groups that rejected the agreements, or by those who hoped to benefit from renewed violence. It is difficult to know what really happened.

Zamir Basayev then assumed control, and chaos spread under his rule. Arms and drug trafficking worsened. Russian forces invaded Dagestan, the oil-rich territory adjacent to Chechnya along the Caspian Sea. Then, as now, Vladimir Putin asserted that foreign interests had supported the separatists' ambitions. The Russian president has since been proved right. In the coming days and weeks it will be interesting to see if these allegations arise again, and if Putin will finally be believed when he labels those who commit such fanatical, perverted acts as terrorists.

Various governments expressed their support to President Putin for the decision to rescue the greatest number of hostages possible from the Moscow theater, in spite of the operation’s many victims, but at press time, President Bush had still not released an official statement [on the methods used to liberate the hostages]. In fact, Washington has been pressuring Moscow to reveal what type of gas was used by Russian special forces, and why they chose to use it.

Meanwhile, various analysts have noted how this event and others are being exploited for political reasons. In this case, is there no relation between the U.S. reaction to the hostage crisis and the Russians' opposition to the hard-line U.S. resolution on Iraq? Sheer political calculation perhaps?

The Caucusus include Georgia (where relations with Moscow are already soured over accusations that Chechens are taking refuge there and carrying out attacks from Georgian territory), in addition to Azerbaijan and Armenia, forming a complex mountainous web where Chechnya itself lies, along with Ingushetia and Dagestan.

It is a key area for oil production in the Caspian region. Chechen groups seek to control a pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Romania. According to different sources, Western oil companies have been supporting the most powerful groups there in order to ensure advantages for themselves in the future. Chechnya itself is rich in both oil and gas, as rich as the other Central Asian republics of the former U.S.S.R. [Chechnya is not a significant source of oil or gas compared to other Central Asian republics, but it is significant in the refining and transportation of oil and gas—WPR].

Politicians and analysts are divided between those who consider economic interests to be the principal source of the conflict and others who see a geostrategic U.S. plan to gain influence in the region. Both explanations indicate that the tragedy is far from over. Just the opposite: If the major powers do not change and the charade continues, the conflict is only certain to get worse.