RUSSIA IS pursuing a brutal and relentless war in Chechnya, deliberately copying the tactics used by NATO to devastate the Balkans. Last weekend Russian leaders ordered the entire population of Grozny, the Chechen capital, to leave the city. The military is ready to destroy the entire city. The evacuation of the city will add tens of thousands of refugees to the 300,000 already fleeing the fighting.
Russian leaders have acted just like the heads of NATO during the Balkan War. They have whipped up a frenzy of propaganda to justify the fighting. They claim Chechnya is a lawless 'bandit' country and a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. They blame Chechen terrorists for launching an attack on the neighbouring republic of Dagestan in August, and for a spate of bomb attacks in Russia itself. Russian president Boris Yeltsin described his aim as the 'elimination of the breeding ground of international terrorism'.
In fact Chechnya is a small country of one million people in the Caucasus mountains. The Chechen people have long suffered bitter oppression. Chechnya was conquered by Russia 200 years ago and its people had no rights under the Tsar. Their only glimpse of freedom came immediately after the 1917 revolution. But as Stalinism tightened its grip these rights were snatched away. In 1944 the entire Chechen population, some 500,000 people, were forcibly deported thousands of miles to Kazakhstan. One third died during the journey.
After the deportations Stalin launched a campaign to eliminate Chechen culture. Chechen books were burned, and gravestones ripped up and used to pave roads. No public discussion of the deportations took place until 1989.
In November 1991, as Stalinism fell apart, Chechnya broke away from Russia and declared its independence. The Russian leader Boris Yeltsin sent in tanks to crush the movement. But the Russian army met fierce resistance and was forced to withdraw. Russian leaders continued to try to bring Chechnya to heel. That is because Chechnya occupies an important strategic position near the vast oilfields of the Caspian Sea. Russian rulers want to control the oil pipe which runs through Chechnya, and to grab a part of the Caspian's huge oil wealth.
At the end of 1994 Russia invaded Chechnya and launched a bloody war which lasted nearly two years and saw the slaughter of over 80,000 people. But Russia could not crush resistance. Chechnya became an autonomous republic. But its economy was wrecked by the war. The Chechen government is led by Aslan Maskhadov, a former commander in the Soviet artillery. His government has been unable to reverse the dire economic fortunes of the country.
Islamic ideas have won wider support in Chechnya as a response to Russian imperial aggression and the economic devastation of the country. Far from being dominated by the rural warlords, as is so often portrayed in the media, many of the leadership of the Islamists are young men who were students and migrant workers in the former Soviet Union.
As one writer, Georgi Derluguian, points out, the Islamists, with their anti-imperialist slogans, 'behaved more like classic Third World revolutionaries' than religious fanatics. The head of the Islamic movement, Shamil Basayev, was formerly a student in Moscow. His rhetoric is against both US and Russian imperialism, and he is reported to always carry a photograph of Che Guevara with him.
The Russian ruling class has been in a state of dire crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin's government has been deeply unpopular since the collapse of the economy following the financial crisis of August 1998. The mainly conscript Russian army has been in a state of disintegration ever since the 1996 defeat in Chechnya. The Russian ruling class hopes a victory over Chechnya will restore the army as a confident fighting force and reinforce Russia's ability to police the whole region.
It hopes a victory for Russia would act as a warning to the republics on Russia's borders to keep in line or face the consequences. It also wants to prove to the United States and the International Monetary Fund, on whose financial loans Russia depends, that Russia can provide stability in this oil rich region. But they are pursuing a very risky strategy.
A victory in Chechnya would also strengthen the army's hand in the ongoing power battles inside Russia itself. Last week Andrei Piontkovsky from the Centre for Strategic Studies warned in the Financial Times, 'We are living with a creeping military coup.'
So far leaders of the NATO powers have issued only mild criticisms of Russia. The US, also with its eyes on the rich oil prize in the Caspian Sea, more than anything wants stability in the region. As the bosses' Economist magazine pointed out, 'Some cynics suggest that Russia's price for behaving better in the southern half of the Caucasus, and over Caspian oil, is that the West must let it crush its disaffected peoples inside its southern frontier.'
Whatever the final outcome, the losers in Russia's war are the ordinary people of both Chechnya and Russia. Tragically events in Chechnya show - as Socialist Worker and other opponents of the war warned - that the result of NATO's war in the Balkans has been to make the world a far more dangerous and unstable place.