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the economist - 23 dicembre 1994
The question of Chechnya.


SUMMARY: Is the claim of Chechnya to self-determination reasonable? Was it right to maintain by force the federal link that binds this region to Russia? Did the reasons of the russian violent intervention lie in the will of protecting russian minorities or in the only simple reason of preserving the security of the State?

("The Economist", December 23rd 1994, page 13.)

The case against Boris Yeltsin's decision to crush the rebel republic of Chechnya by force was made on January 13th 1991, when Radio Riga broadcast this appeal to Russian soldiers: "You may be told that, with your help, order will be established in society. But is it possible to regard violations of the constitution and laws as the establishment of peace? Violence... will bring about a new crisis in Russia itself..."

The occasion was the day on which Soviet troops killed 13 civilians in an attempt to crush Lithuania's bid for independence. The speaker was none other than Boris Yeltsin, asserting that democracies cannot be kept toghether by force alone. He was right in Lithuania then. He is wrong in Chechnya now.

Chechnya may seem an unimportant little place that few people in the West could find on a map even now. In due course it may return to its richly deserved obscurity. But Mr Yeltsin's decision to dispatch the tanks has raised a question of principle that deserves to be answered, lest other remote parts on the fringes of Russia also force their way bloodily on to the world's front pages. The central questione in Chechnya, as it was in Lithuania, is whether the breakaway region has a resonable claim to self-determination. Lituania unquestionably did. In Chechnya the kind of government pressing the claim is markedly different, but the answer is the same.

The chechens are a distinct people, not an ad hoc group seeing an opportunity and trying to make off with an unfair share of the country's wealth. Moreover their territory, Chechnya, is part of Russia only by right of imperial conquest, just as Lithuania was. Though yesterday's conquests cannot always be considered illegitimate today -most of the west of the United States was stolen from Mexico- they will inevitably look suspect if the people continue to reject their new rulers. The Chechens, like the Lithuanians, have never accepted their forcible incorporation into Russia. Chechnya was the first part of post-communist Russia to declare independence, soon after the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. In October 1991, Jokar Dudaev, who made that declaration, won the endorsement of the voters in a presidential election.

That, however, did not give the Chechens the automatic right to pull out of the Russian federation and apply for membership of the United nations. There are usually two sides to any argument about a claim to divorce, and the Russians could offer several reasons for wanting to stop the Chechens bolting.

The first might be that Chechenya's claim to independence has been rendered illegitimate by the actions of its government. It is true that the Chechen government is unsavoury. Mr Dudaev seized power by force in 1991 and in June 1994 suppressed a referendum on his presidency. The contrast with Lithuania is striking: there, a democratic regime was fighting an authoritarian Soviet state. Chechnya is more like a gangster republic fighting a Russia which has usually been willing to abide by popular decision.

Though Chechnya's voters have never had the issue of independence put to them directly, there is little to suggest they oppose it. Maybe they would prefer to be ruled by democrats. Maybe not. In any event, they do not seem to want democracy imposed by Mr Yeltsin.

How about the minorities within Chechnya? If the secessionist government has persecuted them, or failed to safeguard their rights, Mr Yeltsin could resonably claim that he is acting in defence of their interests. But though ethnic Russians make up over a fifth of the population of Chechnya, they do not seem to have been mistreated. The Chechens have a reputation for behaving like brigands, yet their banditry seems to have been practised as much outside their territory as within it, and beating up local minorities does not play much part in it.

In reality, Mr Yeltsin as sent the tanks to Chechnya not to protect ethnic Russians, still less to impose democracy. His concerns, or those of his generals, are more to do with the security of the state.

One of these is local. Just to the north of Chechnya lies Russia's cornbelt, the black-earth region of the Kuban basin. To the south lie Iran and Turkey. Russian involvement in the Caucasus has always been driven largely by its fear of Islamic influence in the south and by its desire for a buffer zone protecting its cornbelt. The fear is probably as strong today as it has ever been. Yet security worries, however understandable, do not justify Mr Yeltsin's suppression of the Chechens' bid to break away; rather they point to the need for a negotiated settlement.

The other concern is more general. Since 1991 Russia has made extraordinary progress in building a multinational state by creating a federal system which grants 20 republics (in addition to Chechnya) substantial powers of self-government. But the achivement is fragile. If Chechnya were allowed to cut and run, other parts of the federation might try to follow suit: the Tatars are notably impatient. Conceivably, the disintegration of Russia could lead to a succession of Bosnias. More likely, it would upset Russia's generals -some at least of whom have said that, in their eyes, upholding the integrity of the country is their main duty. Mr Yeltsin cannot be blamed for wanting to avoid a showdown with the army.

But he can be blamed for not being prepared to risk one, if the army is wrong. And wrong it is, if indeed it is trying to hold the federation together against the wishes of the people of its constituent parts. That is not to say that the Chechens have behaved well or wisely in their bid to break free. On the contrary, by simply declaring independence in 1991 and then making no serious attempt to negotiate with Russia, Mr Dudaev has behaved remarkably badly. And his actions, even if they succeed, could well turn out to be foolish too. As go-it-alone country of about 1m people, Chechnya, even with oil, may find any independence it wins to be illusory.

That, however, is a matter for the Chechens. If they wish to divorce in haste, they can repeat at leisure. For Mr Yeltsin the important lesson is to understand that democracies cannot be glued together by force. It is a lesson he seemed to have understood in 1991. He would do well to remember it now, before an obscure little corner of the Caucasus comes to haunt him.

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