by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #23, February 4, 2000)
A war for oil and political advantage
Carving out a sphere of influence
The oppression of the Chechens
The `Chechen revolution' and its aftermath
The right to self-determination
A plot against Russia?
. Russia, a country of almost 150 million people, is waging a dirty war against Chechnya, a small country of only one million people. Over 100,000 Russian troops have invaded Chechnya; towns and villages have been looted and ravaged; over 200,000 Chechens have been uprooted; and the Chechen capital Grozny has been subjected day after day for months to tons of bombs. This is the second war that free-market Russia has waged against Chechnya since it broke away from Russia in 1991. And just as Russia captured Grozny in the first Chechen war of 1994-96, but lost the war anyway, so too this war won't end with the capture of Grozny.
. The Russian government says that it is just fighting against some Chechen terrorists and Islamic fanatics who attacked Russian positions in neighboring Dagestan, but in fact it is waging a war against the Chechen people. Moreover, Chechens and other darker-skinned peoples living in Moscow and other parts of Russia have been subject to harassment and expulsion. The new, free-market Russia--the Russia of former President Yeltsin and now acting President Putin, the Russia which is hailed by President Clinton and the European Union--is showing itself to be an imperialist predator, just like the other big powers.
. This war is not in the interest of the Russian workers. For the last decade of free-market experiments, the Russian workers and those of neighboring countries have suffered a calamitous decline in their living standards. A minority of Russians have grown super-rich, while unemployment has zoomed, health care and education has broken down, pensions and wages frequently aren't paid, and industrial production has plummeted. But the Russian government and the newly-rich tell the workers that they have a common interest in subjugating neighboring countries like Chechnya. In reality, Russian workers have an important interest in opposing this war. Not only are Russian conscripts cannonfodder, but Russian workers must unite with the workers of neighboring countries in order to wage an effective class struggle against the bourgeoisie which is profiting from their misery.
. This war also shows the mercenary nature of the Western powers, despite their hypocritical show of concern about the devastation of civilians. Clinton and the other leaders of Western imperialism have repeatedly stated their agreement with Russia's declared aims in invading Chechnya: they object only to the excessive savagery of Russia's methods, fearing that it might inflame the region. The Cold War is over, and the free-market government in Russia is now an ally of the other imperialist powers, even if the alliance is partial and shaky. So long as this relationship lasts, Russia will be granted the prerogatives of a fellow-imperialist power, such as denying the national rights of various unfortunate small peoples. That's why the Western powers have allowed Russia, when concentrating troops in Chechnya, to exceed the limitations on troop strength set down in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and why they helped finance Russia during the first Chechen war. The Western powers are interested in making profits off the Caucasus, not in upholding people's rights.
. The only just solution to the present war in Chechnya is for the Russian military to get out and
for Chechen independence to be recognized. The ending of the first Chechen war without
recognition of the right to self-determination of Chechnya is what has paved the way for the
second Chechen war. Moreover, the only way that workers and socialist activists around the
world can encourage the building of international bonds with the Chechen working masses is by
defending the right of Chechens to decide for themselves whether Chechnya should be part of
Russia, independent, or part of some other state. So long as Russia continues to strangle
Chechnya, whether by harassment or by invasion, the economic and political situation in
Chechnya will continue to deteriorate and Islamic extremism will gain further influence.
Meanwhile, whether competing with Russia for influence or working together with the Russian
government, the Western imperialist powers will only be concerned with their own strategic and
economic interests, not with the welfare of the Chechen people.
A war for oil and political advantage
. The Russia government presents its war on Chechnya as simply an operation against some terrorists who invaded Dagestan. It thus seeks to put itself in the best possible light, since the incursion of Islamic extremists from Chechnya into Dagestan was not particularly popular there. But the defeat of the raids on Dagestan didn't require invading Chechnya: that was just a pretext. The Russian government's real reasons for starting the second Chechen war quite different:
* The immediate cause of the war was the desire of the Yeltsin government (and then its successor, the Putin government) to drown its domestic opposition in a wave of chauvinism by means of a little war. The Chechen people were to be sacrificed for the sake of a political maneuver: war was to be waged, towns devastated, thousands of people killed, refugees sent running across the countryside, all so former President Yeltsin could install Vladimir Putin as his successor and have him win an election.
. Yeltsin's government was quite unpopular due to the economic miseries suffered by the Russian people. He appointed Putin Prime Minister in the middle of last year, and Putin became the spokesperson for a policy of revenge against the Chechens. Putin's popularity soared on the strength of Russian victories in bombarding villages and plundering towns. As a result, the Yeltsin government won a resounding victory in the parliamentary elections of December 19, 1999, with a new party supporting Putin coming in just behind the largest opposition party, Zyuganov's so-called "Communist" Party of the Russian Federation, which is actually a state-capitalist and Stalinist party and itself is no friend of the Chechen people. Then, as the new millennium began, Yeltsin resigned as President, thus making Putin the Acting President. This means that presidential elections will be moved forward to March 26, at which time Putin hopes to surf a river of Chechen blood to victory. One reason that the Russian government was so anxious to take Grozny is to allow Putin to boast of his Chechen victories in the upcoming presidential campaign. But Chechen resistance and rising Russian casualties may put a spoke in Putin's plans.
* Aside from the immediate political calculations, this is also a Russian war for oil. Chechnya's own oil fields have been in decline for decades, but they're still useful for North Caucasian supplies. Even more significant is that Chechnya has important refining facilities and also has a key oil pipeline across it. If Russia wants to offer Western oil companies a ready-made route for Caspian sea oil to Europe through Russian territory, Chechnya is important for it, although Russia also has plans to build a new pipeline that skirts Chechnya. Actually, the agreement that ended the first Chechen war included cooperation with respect to the oil pipeline. Indeed, the Chechen government has always been interested in making deals with Russia over oil, since this would be highly profitable for it. With respect to oil, and other economic issues, there would in all likelihood remain close connections between Russia and an independent Chechnya. But the Russian bourgeoisie is not satisfied with this; it has the imperialist itch for total control. It controlled Chechen resources by fiat in the past, and it wishes to do so in the future.
* The Russian bourgeoisie also supports the subjugation of Chechnya as an important sign of Russian power in the Caucasus overall. It fears that losing control of Chechnya erodes its ability to bully the now-independent Transcaucasian republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union. And it wants to demonstrate to the North Caucasian regions in the present Russian Federation that it won't allow any of them to leave, on pain of suffering the fate of their neighbor Chechnya. This is not simply a question of oil, but a question of seeking to dominate a strategic region, and a question of the old Russian rivalry with Turkey over the Caucasus.
* The present war is also revenge for the loss of the first Chechen war. The peace settlement of
1996 (Khasavyurt accords) did not settle the status of Chechnya: it left the issue of independence
to be settled by the end of 2001. In practice, Chechen authorities were completely independent of
Moscow, but Chechnya was still economically and politically strangled by Russia and not legally
recognized by Russia or any other country in the world. So the Russian government simply
waited for another opportunity to deal with Chechnya. And the Russian military, in particular,
wanted an opportunity to erase the memory of an ignominious defeat. Just as many American
conservatives and militarists believe that the U.S. could have defeated Vietnam, if only the
politicians hadn't interfered, so too do powerful forces in the Russian military believe that they
could have defeated Chechnya. They regard the Khasavyurt accords that ended the first Chechen
war as treachery. For that matter, they are also nursing other wounds: thus they blame the loss of
the war in Afghanistan on Gorbachev. After more than a decade of what, in their eyes, amounts
to treason, they want a chance to show what the Russian military can do. This is not just a matter
of regretting the past, but of seeking to show that Russia is still a military power to be reckoned
with. This attitude is also manifested in the Russian bourgeoisie's desire that Russia should be
included in military arrangements around the world. And it can also be seen in Yeltsin's
repeatedly responding to criticism of Russian atrocities in Chechnya by reminding the world in
December that "Russia has a full arsenal of nuclear weapons" (New York Times, December 9)
and by Putin abandoning, in early January, Russia's no-first-use policy about nuclear weapons.
Carving out a sphere of influence
. While the Chechen wars are among the worst things that the new, free-market Russia has done in the Caucasus, they are consistent with the overall way in which the Russian bourgeoisie has sought to maintain its influence there in the last decade. The Russians had been dominant in the Soviet ruling class, but the Soviet Union had dissolved in December 1991, as the old Stalinist system of state-capitalism collapsed. This accelerated centrifugal tendencies which the Russian bourgeoisie has been striving to combat.
. The Soviet Union had been composed of "union republics" that were supposed to have the right to self-determination according to the old Soviet constitution: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, they all became independent (some having become independent a few months earlier).Moreover, there are about 89 autonomous republics and regions inside the Russian federation. These areas did not have the right to self-determination according to the old Soviet Constitution, and indeed didn't necessarily have non-Russian majorities, but they did demand additional rights. Indeed, Yeltsin himself, in the period leading up to the dissolution of the USSR, had sought support from these areas with the appeal to "take all the sovereignty that you can swallow"."Sovereignty" was quite a popular slogan at the time, and it was undoubtedly given different meanings by different people.
. With the dissolution of the old bonds of Soviet days, Russia sought to build up new bonds. It began negotiations on a new "union treaty" with its autonomous areas, while it spearheaded the formation of the "Commonwealth of Independent States" (CIS), with which it sought to unite with a number of the former Soviet republics. Well, it is perfectly natural that new forms of association should arise between various of the countries which previously were in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the form of the Soviet Union, which was supposed to unite nations while preserving their national rights, was not the problem: this form was supposed to implement the Leninist view concerning the importance of the right to self-determination, even under socialism. The problem was that the Soviet revolution degenerated into Stalinist state-capitalism and, among other things, made a mockery of the promises of national rights. It was the decades of Russian domination that destroyed the Soviet Union. In the future, new attempts at association will undoubtedly be made. This would certainly take place after new proletarian revolutions, but a tendency in this direction may also manifest itself under capitalism. There are economic and social ties between various of these areas, so that, everything else being equal, such association might be economically advantageous. It might take a number of different attempts at association before something stable arises, and the regions won't necessarily be grouped together in the same combinations as occurred in Soviet days (e.g. some might group with Russia and some with other neighboring countries). And of course, the bourgeoisie ruling these countries will associate them only for the sake of greater exploitation. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the working class, such association might help promote unity of action in the class struggle over a wider area.
. But the Russian bourgeoisie has not been satisfied with promoting a union based on the economic and social gravitation of different regions towards each other. It has sought to coerce various countries into the CIS, and to make the CIS into another tool of Russian domination. For example, it has sought to carve out a sphere of influence in the Caucasus.
. The more southern part of the Caucasus is the Transcaucasus, composed of three former republics of the Soviet Union: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. While the Armenian government was enthusiastic about the CIS, Russia has resorted to arm-twisting with respect to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Russia backed a coup against Georgian president Gamsakhurdia, overthrowing him at the start of 1992, although fighting continued for several years. The next Georgian president, Shevardnadze, still might not have led Georgia into CIS, so Russian sponsored a secessionist revolt in the Abkhazia region of Georgia in 1992. Weakened by this in-fighting, Georgia decided to accept Russian troops on its territory and join the CIS.Meanwhile, Russia's backing of the Abkhaz revolt had some unintended consequences: for one thing, Russia supported and trained various Islamic militants and Chechens to fight in Abkhazia, including Shamil Basayev, thus helping to create a nucleus for the armed forces that later defeated Russia in the first Chechen war as well as training the man who led the recent incursions into Dagestan.Russia has also used similar dirty methods in Azerbaijan, where Russia strongly backed the overthrow of President Abulfaz Elchibey.
. The Russian bourgeoisie has used such methods not just with respect to the independent republics in the CIS, but in order to pressure various of the autonomous regions of the Russian republic in the North Caucasus. The Chechen wars are the most blatant example, of course. But the first Chechen war only took place after various other methods of pressure had failed, such as an economic blockade of Chechnya, the so-called "half-force option" of arming opposition groups with heavy weapons and tanks so they could attempt a coup in Grozny, and attempts to assassinate Chechen President Dudayev (the Russians finally succeeded in this in 1996, near the end of the first Chechen war). All in all, the Russian methods in the Caucasus resemble many of the methods that the American bourgeoisie has used to keep Central America in line, from "low-intensity conflict" against recalcitrant governments to blockade to direct invasion; indeed, the Russian government has shown a good deal of interest in the American doctrine of "low-intensity conflict".
. By this means, the Russian bourgeoisie is seeking to consolidate a sphere of influence in the Caucasus. No spheres are guaranteed to be permanent. But although the Western powers are seeking ties and influence with the Transcaucasus and profits from commercial deals, they currently--to a certain extent--recognize the existence of such a Russian sphere. Chechnya is recognized as Russian, no matter what the opinion of the local population. And the outside powers have relatively few complaints about the "low-intensity conflicts" generated by Moscow in the region.
. However, the problem with carving out a sphere of influence with such methods, is that it
generates opposition and hatred among the local populations. It doesn't unite the peoples of the
region with Russia; it pushes them further away, just as Russian domination during the days of
state-capitalism did. It may only be "fair"--as bourgeois world politics go--that the Russian
bourgeoisie tries to build up its own sphere, as the other great powers do, and that it be allowed
the same dirty methods as the Western bourgeoisie. But it would follow that it is only
"fair"--from the point of view of the anti-imperialist-minded working people--that Russian
imperialism meet the same condemnation as American, French, British and German imperialism.
The oppression of the Chechens
. We have seen the motives and some of the methods of the Russian bourgeoisie. But what has led the Chechen people to their fierce and protracted resistance against overwhelming Russian military force? It is not love of the ineffectual Chechen governments and lack of social services which have followed their breakaway from Russia in 1991, and still less is it love of the local power brokers who have flourished in the absence of governmental authority. It was their desire to break down the old system under which they had lived.
. Chechnya had not always been part of Russia. It wasn't until the second half of the 19th century, after the fierce series of wars and uprisings of 1817-1864 called the Caucasian war, that Russian control was consolidated over the Chechen clans and all the Caucasus. Many of the small nationalities of the Caucasian mountains lost a good part of their population by death and forced relocations. The Chechens, having been one of the major forces in the Caucasian War, suffered heavily. An indelible mark was left even on the land itself, as what the Americans tried to do to Vietnam with the herbicide "Agent Orange" the Tsarist Russian army did to Chechnya with the ax. The forests of the Chechen lowlands had to go, as they provided cover for the guerrilla war of the Chechens. Even so, there was another rebellion in Chechnya in 1877-8.
. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 changed matters in the Caucasus. For the first time, a Russian government paid attention to the national rights of the various nationalities. It also attempted to foster social progress in Chechnya, established a written alphabet for the Chechen language in order to encourage literacy, and sought to bring Chechens into governmental, political and economic organizations. Relations between the Chechens and the new Soviet government went through some difficult periods, as different social groupings among the Chechens reacted differently to the prospect of social change, and as various issues concerning national rights and how to deal with pre-capitalist economy (such as prevailed among Chechens at that time) were a matter of controversy among the Soviet forces themselves. But, overall, this was a period of progress.
. Unfortunately, the Soviet revolution died, and instead a Stalinist, state-capitalist society was consolidated in the Soviet Union. The Stalinist party was still called the "communist" party, but there was no longer anything Marxist or communist about it. The Chechens suffered particularly heavily from the forced manner in which the Stalinists implemented collectivization; from the purges of the 1930s, which decimated the Chechen activists who had joined the Soviet Communist Party or were otherwise part of the secular intelligentsia which was starting to develop; and from the attempt to stamp out Islam by coercion. And then, in 1944, the Stalinist government deported the entire Chechen population to Soviet Central Asia, mainly Kazakhstan.Chechnya was cleared of Chechens, with Russians, Cossacks, and others brought in to take over Chechen homes and towns, and the exiled Chechens were defined as suspicious people, subject to police supervision and restricted to lower-paying jobs. (See the chronology for further description of the brutal reality of the Chechen exile, and also a discussion of the fraudulent pretext used to justify the exile.) It wasn't until Stalin's death in 1953 that conditions began to improve for the Chechens, and not until 1957 that they were allowed to return to Chechnya.
. The Chechen exile is not some event of ancient history. Just about all of the older Chechens who played a role in the tumultuous events of the 1990s were exiled or born in the exile. Jokhar Dudayev, the first president of Chechnya, was a baby, less than a month old, when he, his parents, and his siblings were deported to Kazakhstan. Aslan Maskhadov, the current president of Chechnya, was born in exile in Kazakhstan. Ruslan Kasbulatov, the Chechen who was at one time the leader of the Russian parliamentary opposition, was also deported to Kazakhstan as an infant. And the list goes on.
. When the Chechens returned to Chechnya, they still faced obstacles. Not only did the mass of Chechens receive little education and training in the exile, but they also faced discrimination in their own homeland. As a result, Russians and other nationalities had most of the higher and professional positions, while Chechens suffered massive unemployment, with 40% rural unemployment even in good times. Chechnya appears to be among the poorest and most backward regions of the Soviet Union or perhaps even the Caucasus, although many of the available figures concerning Chechen conditions have limited value: they usually aren't broken down according to how different sections of the population were affected (skilled urban workers, mostly non-Chechens, had different living conditions from rural, unskilled workers), and they generally don't take into account the underground economy which helped sustain many Chechens. Moreover, aside from the economic problems, the Chechens were subjected to an insulting propaganda from the Soviet state authorities in Chechnya, such as the notorious celebration of the 200th anniversary of the supposed voluntary union of Chechnya and Tsarist Russia.
. But throughout the 60s through the 80s, the Chechens regained a number of positions. Their
high birth rate helped them become the majority in their homeland once again, and they gradually
began to fill various positions. But as the Soviet Union fell deeper and deeper into economic
stagnation, the majority of Chechens found their economic position worsening. In a pattern
familiar around the world, including in Chiapas where the Zapatista rebellion brought out, oil
wealth and other riches can coexist with an indigenous population in great poverty. Larger and
larger numbers of Chechen youth become migrant workers in the summer, looking for work
elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and their families in Chechnya depended on the money sent back
The "Chechen revolution" and its aftermath
. Things came to a head in Chechnya as a general ferment against the old state-capitalist system (falsely called "communism" by both the Western bourgeoisie and the Stalinists) spread throughout the Soviet Union at the end of the 80s and very beginning of the 90s. As unrest swept the Soviet Union, demonstrations took place in Chechnya on a variety of issues, from the language question to environmental ones. The attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 by party hard-liners gave rise to mass indignation in Chechnya as well as Russia: the resulting mass upsurge led to the victory of the "Chechen revolution". It differed from the outcome in some other Soviet republics in that the old party apparatus was completely thrown aside.
. Due to the calumny which the Yeltsin showered on Chechen President Dudayev for years, refusing even to negotiate directly with him, one might imagine that they were always bitter political enemies. Actually, many Chechens were backers of Yeltsin during this early period, seeing in him the best hope to break up the old Soviet system. And Russian President Yeltsin, so long as he wasn't sure of the outcome of his power struggle with the old party apparatus, bid for support among the autonomous regions and republics of Russia; as we have seen, he encouraged them to "take all the sovereignty that you can swallow". As part of this, he allied with Chechen radicals such as Jokhar Dudayev. But as soon as Yeltsin felt that his power was secure, he then sought to stamp out the expectations of sovereignty that he himself had helped create, and he broke with Dudayev and the Chechen movement.
. Moreover, the expectations of people throughout the Soviet Union in the breakup of the old system were soon to be disappointed. They wanted a better life, but all they got was a shift from state-capitalism to private capitalism. In Chechnya, there was de facto independence, not recognized by Russia.
. But what was the social character of the new Chechen regime? No doubt it had a general bourgeois nationalist character, but it is hard to find much additional information about it. It appears that the Chechen President Dudayev attempted to maintain some of the social supports from Soviet times; thus, a bread subsidy keeping the price of this staple low was maintained until July 1993. According to one source, he speculated about "true socialism untainted by bureaucrats and petty greedy scoundrels". But meanwhile the economy appears to have been privatized, and it can be recalled that the leaders of the "Chechen revolution" had been supporters of that champion of free-market reforms, Yeltsin. Moreover, as Russia cut off most economic ties with Chechnya as punishment for its declaration of independence, the Chechen economy collapsed. In many ways, the economic disorganization in the period from the "Chechen revolution" until the start of the first Chechen war in November 1994 resembles the effects on Russia of the radical free-market reforms of Yeltsin. In Russia, millions of workers weren't paid wages, pensions were also in danger, and health and education declined, while in Chechnya the same things happened, but much more completely. In Russia, the number of state bureaucrats grew, although state services declined, and the same thing could be seen in Chechnya. In Russia, Yeltsin bombed parliament in October 1993, while Chechen President Dudayev had declared the dissolution of the once-supportive Chechen parliament earlier that same year. And neither in Russia nor Chechnya did the government do much to help the masses cope with the economic disaster.
. The Chechen government was not a working class government. Although there had been some strikes during the "Chechen revolution", working class organization did not seem to play much of a role in Chechen politics. While there was a noticeable proletarianization of much of the Chechen population during the exile and afterwards, Chechen politics was dominated by businessmen, Chechens who had made it into the former Soviet elite, traditional leaders, smugglers and people grown rich on the underground economy, etc. Many Chechen youth had experience as migrant workers, but this didn't translate into any form of class organization back in Chechnya. And the devastation of the Chechen economy, in wiping out jobs, wiped out workplace organization.
. Discontent spread in Chechnya, and the Chechen elite was split into various factions. A Chechen opposition to the Dudayev government arose, but what it stood for is another question.Indeed, the Yeltsin government covertly manipulated much of this opposition, making it into a plaything for Russian subversion of Chechnya. But one thing the Chechen masses still wanted was to stay independent of Russia. So when the Russia invaded at the end of 1994, most of the Chechen population rallied around the Dudayev government, leading to Russian defeat in the first Chechen war.
. The first Chechen war not only further devastated the Chechen economy, but it intensified the
influence of Islamic militancy. A radical form of Islam spread especially, or perhaps mainly,
among the fighters. After the war, despite the great victory against Russian aggression, the
economy continued on the way down. The government was almost totally ineffectual, unable
even to prevent the rampant kidnappings that scared away aid workers, engineers, doctors and all
foreigners and further isolated Chechnya. There was nothing in the civilian economy to offer the
militants who had fought the first Chechen war: most young men were unemployed. Nor was any
there any revolutionary trend with an analysis of what the problem in Chechnya was and what
Chechens should do about it. In this situation, supported by a number of leaders of the first
Chechen war, such as Shamil Basayev, an Islamic opposition to the government grew, and the
government itself took on more and more Islamic features. The second Chechen war has forced
an amalgamation of the government and the Islamic extremists in order to fight the Russian
invader. This amalgamation has presumably let the influence of Islamic radicalism reach even
higher levels, although there are also some reports of discontent with the religious extremists.
The right to self-determination
. Thus Chechnya's government is not working-class, revolutionary or socialist, nor are the local power brokers in Chechnya, who may exercise more authority than the government. Indeed, the political evolution of the Chechen government since independence is tragic. But support for the right to self-determination of Chechnya does not mean supporting the ideological and political ideas of the current Chechen leadership. It does not prevent one from encouraging the formation of an alternate Chechen political trend, based on class-conscious workers, although it says something about the permissible methods for outside influence on Chechnya. It means, simply, recognition that it is up to the Chechens to settle their affairs, and that the outside oppression will only bring calamity to Chechnya and the entire region. The last decade of Russian strangulation of Chechnya has not only killed many Chechens and devastated the country, but created dangerous social conditions.
. Recognition of the right to self-determination is especially important for the world working class movement. It doesn't mean dividing the working class into hermetically-sealed, self-contained national units, who lack concern for each other. On the contrary, it is the only way the working class can forge unity across national lines. Thus Russian workers who oppose the war on Chechnya are working for unity across national lines, while the Russian bourgeoisie, waging war on Chechnya in the name of "territorial integrity", is dividing the Chechen and Russian peoples. Indeed, the Russian government is consciously seeking to divide the working people of Russia and Chechnya, as the first prerequisite for this war, as seen in its promotion throughout Russia of chauvinist hysteria against Chechens living in Russia.
. There are, of course, different types of "unity" across national lines. The only durable unity is a fraternal unity. This must be a voluntary unity: it cannot be created by a bayonet. The workers in one country will naturally seek to influence the internal situation in other countries and, in particular, can and must support the development of the class struggle in other countries, but this is done through encouraging the class-consciousness and organization of the local working masses of other countries.
. Today many small nations are breaking away and forming their own countries. There is an
explosion of new countries around the globe. Does this mean that the right to self-determination
is harmful and will result simply in hundreds and hundreds of mini-states? But history doesn't
proceed in a straight line. The recognition of the right to self-determination will, in the long run,
help lead to the voluntary amalgamation of countries and, finally, the tearing down of the border
posts which are now proliferating so widely. Chechnya, for example, is a very small country. It is
likely that, if left alone, it would gravitate towards various forms of association with other
countries and, eventually, towards amalgamation with some grouping of its neighbors. Indeed,
even during the "Chechen revolution", as it fiercely insisted on its independence, it still wanted
certain forms of association with its neighbors. Thus, from the start, the first president of
independent Chechnya, Jokhar Dudayev, insisted that he wanted to join the CIS and have
relations with Russia, but on the basis of equality. But the Russian bourgeoisie is not seeking to
attract Chechnya through providing advantageous economic and social conditions: it simply
wants to subjugate and exploit Chechnya by fiat. And this oppression is precisely what keeps
driving Chechnya away from Russia. The path towards unity across national lines leads through
the elimination of national oppression. This is why a truly socialist working class movement,
advocating global unity of all workers, will defend the right to self-determination (as well as
defending the right of national minorities).
A plot against Russia?
. There are some opportunist trends on the left that, however, deny that the basic issue in the Chechen wars is the national oppression of the Chechens, and instead hold that what is going on is a plot against Russia. Some imply that the Chechens are fighting some sort of contra war against Russia or that what is going on is a "U.S./NATO war against Russia". Some, like the CPUSA, are silent over the rape of Chechnya; they write articles like "U.S. strategy: Middle East vs. Middle Asia" (1) about the commercial rivalry over who will profit from the extraction and shipping of Caspian sea oil, and they do so in such a way that the implication is that all the events in the Caucasus are simply a consequence of U.S. strategy. This is promoted as an "anti-imperialist" view of these events. In fact, it just echoes the stand of Russian nationalists, who deny that the class relations in Russia have anything to do with the problems of Russia--instead, everything is a foreign plot. If the Soviet Union dissolved and many of the resulting countries are wary of Russian intentions, this supposedly doesn't have anything to do with the way the Russian bourgeoisie has bullied these countries, but is only a Western plot. If the Chechens want independence from Russia, this supposedly doesn't have anything to do with the fact that the entire Chechen nation was sent to Central Asia in cattle cars in 1944, and that they were second-class citizens in Chechnya after their return, but is only a plot of Western oil companies. And if Russia today is jealous over oil revenues going to Azerbaijan and Georgia, even though they are among its CIS partners, this supposedly doesn't say something about whether Russia views the CIS as a new tool of Russian domination, it is only Russia asserting itself against Western aggression.
. Thus there is a lot of talk about the question of what pipeline will be used to get oil from the Caspian Sea onto the world market. One possibility is a pipeline through Russia to the Black Sea; another is a Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that passes from Azerbaijan through Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan; there is an Iranian proposal; etc. The Russian government prefers a pipeline through Russia, which would allow it to profit from every barrel of Caspian sea oil, although little of that oil is Russian. (At the same time, a Russian oil company, LUKoil, has a 10% share in the Baku-Ceyhan consortium put together by Azerbaijan.)
. No doubt the stakes are high over which pipeline to build or maintain. There is indeed a rivalry over who will develop and profit from Caspian sea oil. Caspian Sea countries are involved.American, British and other Western oil companies and governments are involved, and will probably supply the most resources and have a disproportionate influence over these decisions.Russian oil companies don't have the resources to supplant Western oil companies, and are thus at a disadvantage in these commercial rivalries. Indeed, Russian oil companies are calling in Chevron and other Western firms to help develop even domestic Russian oil fields, and certainly can only take a secondary role in the huge international deals involved in Caspian Sea oil. Thus Russia supplants its commercial strength, which is limited, with its military power in the Caucasus. From the point of view of the dividing the world among the great powers, this might only be "fair". From the point of view of the struggle for liberation of the working class, this is a bloody crime of an imperialist power.
. Thus, as pointed out earlier in this article, the Chechen war is indeed a Russian war for oil. But the "Chechen revolution" was not an invention of the oil companies or the U.S. government. The U.S. and other Western powers are guilty of fighting their own bloody wars for oil, such as the Persian Gulf war, but the Chechen wars are Russia's responsibility. Indeed, the Western powers have steadfastly declared that Chechnya is part of Russia. Clinton, in April 1996 during the latter part of the first Chechen war, compared the Russian effort to Abraham Lincoln's struggle against secession in the American Civil War.(2) And at the recent summit conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in mid-November last year, as Russia trampled across the Chechen lowlands and laid siege to Grozny, Clinton asked for a political solution in Chechnya but emphasized that he "deplore(d) Chechen violence and terrorism and extremism and support(ed) the objectives of Russia to preserve its territorial integrity and to put down the violence and the terrorism."
. Nevertheless, the implication from certain left trends is that the U.S. created and fostered the Chechen struggle. The history of Russian-Chechen relations is supposedly irrelevant in explaining why this struggle broke out. For the sake of argument, let's ignore for a moment the historical facts about how the "Chechen revolution" really broke out, and what's happened to Chechnya since then. Let's ask, what would be the supposed objective of the implied U.S.backing of the Chechen independence forces? Is it to seize territory for a pipeline needed by the Western oil companies? But Russia's complaint is that the West is interested in building an oil pipeline that doesn't go through Chechnya or Russia at all, such as the Baku-Ceyhan line.
. Is it to block the use of Russian pipelines that go through Chechnya? But the Chechens are willing, even eager, to see the use of these pipelines, since it would provide much needed revenue to Chechnya. It is Russian intransigence, as well as the instability in Chechnya created by a decade of Russian pressure, that has sabotaged this line. Moreover, the trans-Balkan pipeline, which the West has recently displayed new interest in, would be of use in conjunction with the Russian pipeline, and would close the door on building the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. (3)
. Is the West simply acting to create a state of disorder, so that Chechnya becomes economically unusable despite Russian or Chechen intentions? But this disorder has reached the point of an Islamic extremist incursion into Dagestan. Such things not only go against the interests of all the oil companies, the Western ones included, who don't want to see the rise of an Islamic insurrection in the Caspian Sea area, but contradict the U.S. strategy of opposing the Islamic radical movement.
. Moreover, during the last decade, U.S. policy has been, not to destabilize the Russian government or wage a war against it, but to back the Yeltsin government to the hilt. Mind you, its shaky alliance with the Russian bourgeoisie is no more a virtue of U.S. bourgeois policy than was its war against Russian state-capitalism. The U.S. bourgeoisie has backed the free-market bourgeoisie in Russia, as one exploiter dealing with another. It has reveled in the Yeltsin's government free-market reforms as the condition of the majority of the population has worsened, and it hopes that Putin will follow in Yeltsin's footsteps. The Western powers have definitely shown themselves enemies of Russian workers, as well as of the workers in their own countries.But they have done this by backing their class brothers--the Russian bourgeois government. The relations between Russia and the Western powers may break down: wars between the imperialist powers were a fact of life in the last century. But the last century also saw many examples of imperialist powers facing fierce resistance from small, exploited countries.And that is what has been happening in Chechnya.
. If Russia was really waging an anti-imperialist struggle for the use of Caspian sea oil revenues for the sake of the people, it would not be invading Chechnya. Nor would it be seeking to strip oil revenues from its CIS partners. So long as the Russian bourgeoisie continues such methods of dealing with its neighbors, it will generate its own opposition far more surely than any Western intrigue could.
(1) (2) (3)
(1)People's Weekly World, December 11, 1999. (Return to text)
(2)Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus, p. 316. (Text)
(3)The present proposal for a Trans-Balkan pipeline would route it through Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania (but not through Kosovo, Serbia or Montenegro). It links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. The Russian pipeline ends up with oil taken to the Black Sea, and from there it has to be taken by tanker to the Mediterranean, and this involves passing through the Bosporus straits. This brings up environmental problems. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline through Turkey, on the other hand, avoids the Black Sea and ends up directly on the Mediterranean. Since Turkey wants the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline built, it might use the environmental issue to limit the movement of oil through the Bosporus. The Trans-Balkan pipeline, by taking oil overland from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, avoids the Bosporus and would complete the route for oil passing through the Russian pipeline. Such oil would only have to be taken by tanker from the end of the Russian pipeline at Novorossisk on the Black Sea to a Bulgarian port on the Black Sea. So if the Trans-Balkan pipeline is built, there would be little need to build the Baku-Ceyhan line. The West's interest, albeit lukewarm, in the Trans-Balkan pipeline shows that the commercial rivalries over Caspian Sea oil are not what is presented by the Russian nationalists or by various opportunist groups on the left. (Text)
Last changed on October 16, 2001.