The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Phony Peace in Chechnya and War in the Kremlin

Nov 6, 1996

Political commentators in both Russia and the West recently have focussed almost all their attention on Yeltsin’s long illness and Russia’s deteriorating political situation. While Yeltsin finally went into surgery for his heart condition, he did not do it until after he had dumped General Lebed, as head of the Security Council. Over and over, these questions are raised: will Yeltsin recover, and if so, how quickly? What effect will his prolonged absence have on the political situation in Russia?

For all practical purposes, the war in Chechnya seems to have disappeared. So has peace returned to Chechnya, as General Lebed claimed after returning from his mission there?

Certainly, a ceasefire was signed, on August 22, and finally, after much hesitation, it was more or less ratified by Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin. But part of the Russian troops are still in Chechnya. Moreover, Lebed was the person who negotiated the ceasefire. What is that agreement worth, now that he has been fired? No wonder the commander-in-chief of the separatists explained, in an interview in Le Monde: "For the moment, our soldiers do not have the right to return to civilian life. We don’t know who will be president in Russia, and peace in Chechnya is just a card in the hands of the candidates for power in the Kremlin."

In December 1994, Russia sent in troops to overthrow the Chechen regime which had been defying the Kremlin since its declaration of independence in 1991. According to then Defense Minister, General Gratchev, this intervention was supposed to take only 48 hours. Instead, its resolution is still unclear. But in the intervening two years, it has created an economic, political and human disaster.

In less than two years, between the time the Russian troops were sent into action and the latest ending of hostilities, the bureaucracy reduced a whole region to ruins, caused 80,000 deaths, according to Lebed’s estimate, and drove a tide of refugees onto the roads. But this disaster cannot be measured only in physical or quantitative terms; it is also a political disaster. The Chechen leaders who pose as their people’s representatives, most of them former bureaucrats who became nationalist leaders at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, did not originally have solid popular support or political credit; the Russian intervention has given them both.

What nationalist-religious demagogy failed to do, the Russian intervention succeeded in doing: enabling the separatist regime to impose its control over the Chechen population.

Chechnya, Yeltsin and All the Others...

The recent history of relations between the Kremlin and Chechnya is one of the results of the degeneration of the power emerging from the ruins of the Soviet Union; at the same time, the situation in Chechnya has formed the backdrop for new struggles for power in Moscow.

Chechnya started making news in the late 1980s, or again made the news, we should say. The relative freedom of expression under perestroika led to the public airing of the tragic history of Soviet peoples victimized by Stalin in World War II. The Chechens, like other peoples, were ordered deported, under the pretext of a falsely alleged collaboration with the German army: Stalin’s real aim was to reassert control over the whole Soviet population after the German invasion disorganized Soviet power.

The Chechen population had every reason to resent the central power of the bureaucracy. Nonetheless, Chechnya was not among the first to join the so-called parade of sovereignties, that is, the rush of all the top bureaucrats of the Soviet republics to set up their republics as personal fiefdoms, defying a central government weakened by years of struggle at the top.

While aiming for the post of president of Russia (which is the biggest of the 15 republics composing the Soviet Union), Yeltsin went to Checheno-Ingushya in 1991. In the midst of his rivalry with Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin sent out his famous call to the regions of the Soviet Union to "take as much autonomy as they could swallow." This was a declaration of war on Gorbachev, as well as a means of rallying the local chiefs of the bureaucracy to his cause. Six months later, Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were finished. Having become president of Russia, Yeltsin decided, along with his counterparts in Ukraine and Belarus, to dissolve the Soviet Union in December 1991.

In the last months of 1991, the authorities of many regions took advantage of the break-up of the state and its control structures to take as much autonomy as possible. This evolution became more pronounced after the official party was banned following the failure of the August 1991 coup.

In Checheno-Ingushya, this movement was led by Zhokhar Dudayev. The head of a powerful local clan (in the original sense of the word) and a Soviet general, he had made a name for himself by flirting with the separatists in Estonia, the Baltic republic where he directed the strategic bombers of the Soviet Air Force. Even before the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991, he had rallied a section of the old apparatus behind him, having himself elected president and declaring independence. Fighting broke out immediately with the other part of the republic, Ingushya, when it declared its independence from Chechnya.Neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin intervened to thwart Chechnya’s claim to independence: they had plenty of other things to deal with.

In 1992, Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya, but left weapons there to arm Chechen irregular forces who went to fight in neighboring Georgia, supporting Abkhazia which had just seceded from Georgia. The Kremlin supported this secession, just like that of South Ossetia, where Chechen mercenaries had also played a role. At that point, the Kremlin’s main goal was to get the new Georgian regime to compromise, i.e. not distance itself too much from Moscow.

Thus, Russia equipped an embryonic Chechen army, with the goal of using this supposedly independent Chechen regime to carry out its policing operations in the Caucasus. Asserting himself as a regional policeman to be reckoned with, Dudayev was pleased with this situation and ready to show Yeltsin his gratitude. In the bloody confrontation of autumn 1993 between the presidency and the Supreme Soviet of Russia, Dudayev even proposed to send troops to help Yeltsin squelch his deputies!

In the spring of 1992, Moscow obtained the formal allegiance of its "autonomous republics" in exchange for handing over much of its power to the local authorities. While Tatarstan and in a lesser measure Sakha-Yakoukya thus forced the Kremlin to hand over to them all the taxes collected on their territory and the greater part of their oil and diamond revenues, the Chechen regime refused to sign the Federation treaty. Nonetheless the alliance between Dudayev and Yeltsin continued and the federal budget continued to supply Dudayev with aid of all kinds. This generosity from a near bankrupt Russia to a rebel republic was less surprising than it seemed: Chechnya’s very independence provided a financial paradise and tax haven for Moscow’s political/business groups who were looking for ways to launder money and carry out illegal export operations.

In Chechnya itself, where power was divided among clan leaders who had generally held posts under the old Soviet system, Dudayev’s regime organized the plundering of the population. The assets of kolkhozes (collective farms) and sovkhozes (state-owned farms) were allocated to the different clans, providing them with sources of revenue. But they wanted more. They instituted organized gangsterism, ranging from kidnapping and ransoming travellers, to hijacking the oil pipelines passing through Chechnya, to trafficking of all kinds. Early in 1994, an open struggle broke out between different Chechen leaders, who sought to take more of the loot and of the power required to guarantee them the lion’s share of it. Three quarters rose up against Dudayev. The discontent of the population was reinforced by the help of certain Russian leaders who saw this as an opportunity to curb the separatist tendency. But Dudayev crushed an incipient armed rebellion, then ordered a curfew and dissolved parliament.

Even then, Russia did not stop the flow of financial payments to Grozny or of supplies to the town’s refinery. Despite the fact that a blockade of the regime had been ordered by the Kremlin, the so-called energy lobby, headed by the leader of the Russian government himself, did not intend to be stopped by such a trifle. Questioned on this matter in the Duma, the government blamed "the Chechen mafia." It’s obvious that this mafia, like many others, is omnipresent in the "grey" economy. But the mafiosi have no means to transport crude oil; nor do they have a fleet of tankers huge enough to supply a refinery. But there is a pipeline which can do this; and not only the local clans, but also the Russian government intended to keep it operating.

So What Triggered off the War?

Just before the 1994 military intervention, the Russian Vice-Prime Minister Chubais, then in charge of privatization, had decided to sell off oil production facilities to groups close to the government. The government prepared to float shares for the Grozny refinery on the stock exchange. But the government did not control the refinery at Grozny. Thus, the situation in Chechnya was not tolerable, especially since, at the same time, big American oil companies were negotiating a colossal contract to build a new pipeline taking oil from the Caspian to the North Sea. The pipeline needed to pass through Chechnya, but for that to happen, Chechnya had to be made reliable.

It was therefore necessary to quell the Chechen rebellion. Minister of Defense Gratchev expressed confidence he could do this in no time. Gratchev had his own reasons for directing a military intervention: his star had been waning in the perpetual score-settling between factions at the "court of Czar Boris." The press had been publishing details about the trafficking carried out by Gratchev, nicknamed "Pasha Mercedes," and his associates. What is more, he had come under pressure from the top military hierarchy which was fed up not only with the drastic reductions in its troops and its budget, but also with the competition coming from other apparatuses seeking to play a military role. For example, the National Security Council, the Ministry of the Interior, the former KGB (divided into several more or less competing bodies, the most important of which is the FSB or Federal Security Bureau), the border guards, and the presidential guard were all attempting to extend their influence at the expense of the army. Sending troops to Chechnya was therefore a way for Gratchev to fight for his political survival, and at the same time a means for the chiefs of staff to obtain funding and to prevent the army from becoming second-rate.

But while money is key in war, the Russian state was unable to find any. The regions were refusing to pay taxes, or were even forcing the central state to recognize their right to keep them. The main exporters, including the energy lobby, had exemptions amounting to 30% of the state’s revenue from taxes. Moreover, what had been called the shadow economy under Brezhnev had grown immensely, beyond the reach of any statistics and, of course, taxes.

The situation had reached the point that the state, in order to provide for its minimum needs, had to revert to the "Soviet" practice of requiring companies to deliver some of their goods to the state. The state was cutting back on all budgets and no longer paying its bills or its functionaries, including those of the army. In 1994, it provided only 35% of the units’ operating costs.

In the first months of the intervention in Chechnya, the army had to borrow from commercial banks, which demanded solid guarantees, in order to pay the troops. Starting in 1992, the authorities of many regions had been charged with paying for the units stationed on their territory; in exchange, those units had to lease private soldiers and equipment from local enterprises. This regionalization of military power forced the central state to allow local defense ministries to be created. One result of this is that local regions, for example Volga-Ural or Transbaikalya, refused to send "their" troops to Chechnya. Thus the military hierarchy had become less dependent on the central state apparatus than on local pieces of it, and of course on lucrative trafficking in which the commanding officers took part.

This economic dependency of the army manifested itself throughout the war in the form of generalized corruption. Bribes were demanded for discharge; officers sold arms to the Chechen forces they were supposed to be fighting. Moreover, hunger brought the Russian soldiers to come to terms with the population and often even with the Chechen fighters.

Economic dependency had political consequences: it weakened the control held by the central power over the military hierarchy. Not only was the Russian army ill-equipped for the task of driving Dudayev out and regaining control of Chechnya. It was also split, like the rest of the state apparatus, among many different power centers, based on allegiances to particular interest groups, or particular cliques in the Kremlin, or particular national political leaders or regional governors. No wonder then that, at the very beginning of the intervention in Chechnya, more than 500 high-level officers (including a vice-minister of Defense) openly criticized the decision, and some refused to lead their troops into battle.

This army, whose soldiers had no desire to butcher another people, could only go from defeat to defeat. In 1995, the Kremlin attempted to remedy the problem by replacing regiments of conscripts with professional units, dependent on the MVD (Ministry of the Interior) or the various competing sections of the former KGB. MVD chief Kulikov was put in charge of operations, replacing the army staff.

Kulikov began by dismissing dozens of colonels and generals convicted of corruption. In addition to carrying out the war against the Chechen separatists, the different Russian armed forces were engaged in an internecine war among themselves for pre-eminence. When Chechen separatists took hostages at Budiennovsk and Pervomayskaya, or when Yeltsin signed the ceasefire during his campaign for re-election, the army staff, the MVD and the KGB seemed more concerned with settling scores, even if this meant sabotaging operations conducted by rival apparatuses. This reached the point that army units sometimes bombarded MVD units and vice-versa.

Even now, with a ceasefire in place, the different apparatuses of Russia are still carrying out a war on each other. Lebed asked Yeltsin to dismiss Kulikov, but not because Kulikov would continue the war, as Lebed claimed. His request—which Yeltsin ignored—simply reflected the ongoing confrontation between representatives of competing and divided apparatuses. And Yeltsin dismissed Lebed, not because Lebed was at that moment preparing a coup, as was said, but because Yeltsin’s illness raises the question of his succession—and Lebed had managed to position himself ahead of other parts of the bureaucracy waiting to bury Yeltsin.

The President and the Challengers...

There is an end-of-reign atmosphere surrounding the talks in Chechnya, and especially around the intrigues in Moscow concerning these negotiations and the chief negotiator, Lebed.

Lebed had recently risen to spectacular prominence. The demagogic general had been able to style himself as a strongman who could crack down on corruption and disorder. Yeltsin, who had needed his support to win re- election, appointed Lebed as head of the National Security Council last July, between the two rounds of the presidential election. Then Yeltsin made him his special envoy to Chechnya, granting him "extended exceptional powers." Of course, there were many rival apparatuses whose leaders also boasted exceptional powers.

In exchange for throwing his support to Yeltsin, Lebed obtained the dismissal of two unpopular rivals (the defense minister, Gratchev, and the head of the presidential guard, General Korzhakov). Lebed undoubtedly hoped that his mission in Chechnya could earn him a reputation as a "peacemaker" and, at the same time, reinforce his bid for the presidential post. Yeltsin’s lingering illness, with the subsequent admission that he must undergo heart surgery, made it clear that the post might soon be up for grabs.

The situation which resulted might have seemed comic if it had not been played out against the backdrop of a war. Yeltsin put more and more obstacles in the way of his "personal representative," who was clearly over- eager to replace him. Or he allowed obstacles to be put by people in his entourage who consider Lebed their rival. Thus, while Lebed was negotiating a ceasefire, the army staff—theoretically subordinate to him—sent out an ultimatum to the Chechen separatists and began bombarding Grozny again. Orders and counter-orders (make peace, restore order) rained down on Lebed from Moscow. So did criticism. Not to mention the fact that shots from Russian weapons were fired at him and his emissaries in Chechnya.

Of course, Lebed is not the first to undergo such treatment. A year ago, at the time of the first ceasefire, an anonymous bomb attack killed Lebed’s predecessor on the Security Council, along with the Russian commander-in- chief and his assistants. That assassination opened the door to more fighting in Chechnya which broke out again even more fiercely.

Lebed’s situation in Moscow was hardly any more secure. Yeltsin and his entourage refused to meet him and criticized his "peace plan" in the media. Chernomyrdin, the prime minister who is aiming for the presidency, insisted that Lebed’s agreement was worthless. The mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov who is also a candidate for the succession, railed against the "traitor" who had "given in to bandits" and "sold out the interests and unity of Russia." Such accusations appeared everywhere in the press. Lebed accused Chubais of pushing for a resumption of hostilities and of giving orders to this effect, signing them in place of Yeltsin. But Yeltsin had signed a decree stipulating that a presidential decree is valid only if signed by Chubais. Lebed may have had "extended exceptional powers," but he was not the only one! Chubais himself is the new head of the presidential administration, an institution doubling for the government which Yeltsin mistrusts and accountable only to the president.

Lebed can announce to the world that peace has been achieved in Chechnya, but war is raging in the Kremlin and, as happened with previous ceasefires, this internal Kremlin war could lead to a resumption of fighting in Chechnya. The authorities may not wish it, but because the central power has been weakened by conflicting interests, they may get it.

Bureaucratic Chaos: A Threat for the Whole of Society

On September 2, Kommertsant, a Russian business daily, in discussing peace in Chechnya, asserted: "Russia is surrendering not even to another state but to something much worse: chaos."

The situation is obviously worse for the Chechen population, which has been subjected to this war and finds its country in ruins. Even if peace returned, this population still would face a threat coming from within Chechnya. The war has made it a hostage of the separatist regime. The Russian army, with its massacres, left the Chechens no other choice, and the political forces present in Russia offered them no other option but to fly into the arms of the local bureaucrats, whom they had seemed ready to throw out barely two years ago.

The Chechen population will continue to pay for the criminal policy of the Russian bureaucracy. The regime which is being restored in Chechnya will now have a justification for plundering its own people (in the name of "national reconstruction"). It also intends to impose the return of medieval practices (like the Islamic law) which Chechen people had thrown off after the revolution of October 1917.

But the bureaucrats care little about all this. Today, their gaze is fixed on President Yeltsin who is more dead than alive. Immediately after his re-election in July, Yeltsin went on "vacation," a euphemism for an open secret: his ill-health had once again prevented him from exercising power. According to the Los Angeles Times, an opinion poll released in Russia just before Yeltsin’s operation showed that only 18% of the Russians believed that he was in charge; 56% were convinced one or another other figure was; 26% had no idea who was in charge.

While the decision to operate on him may have been kept secret until the very last moment, it did not prevent rumors of all sorts from flying. Will he survive or not, and, if so, in what state? In any event, all those who hope to succeed him are preparing for an imminent race for the presidential post. The ups and downs of this struggle, which has long been going on, continue to dominate the headlines.

It’s nothing new for the bureaucracy to invest supreme power in a leader with one foot in the grave, as Yeltsin was when he began his second presidential mandate. In 1984, for example, during the crisis opened up by Brezhnev’s succession, the bureaucracy (literally) carried the bedridden Chernenko into power. His only merit was the fact that he delayed (but not for very long) the resolution of the war between top-level bureaucratic cliques, none of them yet able to take power.

In Brezhnev’s last years, however, or even under Chernenko, power still had some reality, even if the person who held it was partially or totally incapable of exercising it. But this is not the situation today. However sickly Yeltsin may be, the central power to which he is clinging is even more sickly. In the course of the past ten years, the power of the bureaucracy has been broken into pieces. In the past, it had a cohesion because of the brutal dictatorship exercised over everyone (including all the other bureaucrats). Today, no one has the power to exercise such a dictatorship. The official break-up of the Soviet Union was the extreme expression of this. But even inside each of the states which emerged from the Soviet Union, the state apparatus is fragmented and the central power of each state has scarcely any control over its own apparatus.

Obviously the population of Russia sees many daily examples of the chaos which reigns in the country and of the decomposition of the state apparatus. But the war in Chechnya has probably become the most serious and profound expression of this chaos. Chaos did not begin with the war, but it was probably accelerated by it, and in any event there is no end in sight to this situation.

Confronting this situation, the Western bourgeoisie has continued its benevolent attitude toward Yeltsin’s regime. During Russia’s presidential election, Clinton declared that the war in Chechnya was only an "internal Russian affair." Nonetheless, the Western bourgeoisie retains a wait-and-see attitude. It is careful not to invest its capital in Russia even on the scale that it does in central Europe or in China. The fact that the regime is incapable of imposing respect for itself, and of imposing order on this chaos means that it cannot create, much less consolidate the conditions required for the economy to function on a capitalist basis. And the imperialist bourgeoisie has made it clear that it is not ready to risk its capital without such conditions being established. When an American businessman involved in ownership dispute of a Moscow hotel was assassinated gangland style on a Moscow street, a Western envoy was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying: "And they ask us why we don’t bring in more money for projects here!"

This war has no doubt contributed to the further ruin of public finances, already left very thin by the enormous sums the get-rich-quick bureaucracy had drained off, legally or otherwise. The state, which was no longer paying its army in the middle of a war, did not reserve a better fate for civilians: tens of millions of pensioners, public functionaries and workers have gone without pay for months.

Actually the workers do not always go on waiting, and many fight back in strikes. Hundreds of thousands of people have struggled, just to get what they are entitled to. But those struggles are defensive ones, just to get a meager wage, and this only after a five or six-month delay which means it is already swallowed by inflation. And they know that, as soon the strike is over, the state will once again not pay its workers.

The bureaucracy, even in decomposition, continues to dominate the political arena, both in the area of relations between peoples and in the area of class relations. It is currently finishing the Stalinist regime’s work of destruction by annihilating everything which the proletarian revolution had made possible in 1917.

In a world context marked by reaction, by the retreat and near-disappearance of political forces claiming to stand for the revolutionary proletariat, no one can predict by what path such a political force might reappear in Russia.

For the Russian working class to revive its rich political tradition and dispute the bureaucracy’s power over society, it needs its own revolutionary organization. If the working class does not intervene politically in Russia, Russia will be condemned to more material and moral chaos and to more plundering by the heads of bureaucratic cliques, by the nascent Russian bourgeoisie and by imperialism.