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
Jan 14, 1995
The media, seeking to sensationalize events in Chechnya, refers to the "centuries-old enmity" between a "courageous small population" and the Russian power. They marvel at the "fighting traditions" of the Caucasus, or evoke the warrior leader who held out against the Czar’s troops during the last century. By doing so, they cloud the issue more than they clarify it. They don’t illuminate things either, when they remind us of the oppressive regime imposed on the Chechens by Czarism. Of course, Russia was a country made up of people conquered over several centuries of expansion. And the regime was just as brutal for the Russian people as it was towards those it conquered.
The media also compares today’s situation to the deportation of the entire Chechen population by Stalin, a despicable episode. But then Stalin also deported the Ingush, Tatar and others for their imaginary "collective crime" of collaborating with Hitler’s troops. This doesn’t explain a lot. It just shows how bureaucratic power dealt with "national problems" when this power was exerted in the form of a bloody personal dictatorship. Now that this power is breaking up, the bureaucracy is certainly no more respectful of the people under its domination: the bombardment of the civilian population of Grozny, Chechens and Russians alike, testifies to this.
The Russian army’s intervention in Chechnya should obviously be condemned. But what is happening there is not the umpteenth twist in the long struggle of a small population against the central power in Moscow, whatever this power may be. The events in Chechnya show in an extreme form the crisis which is gripping the whole Russian federation.
Before its break-up, the Soviet Union was a federation. But so is Russia, which is made up of 89 territorial entities called "subjects of the federation". Of these 89 entities, 21 are republics, grouping together and representing one or more of the hundred or so national minorities in Russia.
The same process of disintegration of state power which led to the break-up of the Soviet Union in December, 1991 soon engulfed the different autonomous republics, and for the same reasons. During the crisis of succession and the power struggle at the summit of the bureaucracy, the local bureaucratic officials in each area wanted to seize the maximum autonomy for their territories, i.e. for themselves.
Even before the Soviet Union broke up, the leaders of the autonomous republics belonging to the Russian federation claimed the same rights as the former federated republics of the Soviet Union. As early as 1990, they launched an institutional war, proclaiming their sovereignty as a Russian autonomous republic in 1991. What this sovereignty meant remained unclear.
Some, like Tatarstan and Chechnya, openly began to speak of independence. Others, not particularly keen on the idea of "independence", not even bothering to mention the word, began to feverishly draft new constitutions and local laws to take the place of federal laws coming from Moscow. Some of these republics, such as Tuva, took responsibility for the defense of their territory; others, like Tatarstan and Bashkiria, adopted their own foreign policy, which was quite different from Russia’s.
The leaders of the local bureaucracies understood that their territories were not viable, that they were often surrounded by Russia and that their economy was completely integrated into Russia’s. These leaders were not driven by some romantic ideas of nationalism. They didn’t spout that it was "better to be poor but free" to assure that their people had the right to an independent state. For one thing, their people were generally demanding no such thing. The movement was initiated not by the people, but by bureaucratic cliques comprised generally of the party secretary, who suitably renamed himself the president or head of the local government. It also included the leaders of those soviets who survived under various titles given to them by the local executive. There was the local political "nomenklatura", who had been appointed in the past by the upper levels of the bureaucracy, and who quite soon picked up the habit of having themselves elected (or pretending to be elected) when elections became fashionable. The economic bureaucracy consisted of directors of industrial or mining companies or heads of kolkhozes. In some cases, police or army chiefs also got into the act.
In virtually all the republics or national territories, "their" people were actually a mix of national and ethnic groups. Many people were of Russian origin—45 per cent of the total population in the 21 national republics. In some cases Russians were in the majority of those republics making the most demands on the central government, as in the republic of Sakha-Yakutia. Many non-Russian peoples (notably the Chechens and the Tatars) lived mainly outside their "national republics", particularly in Moscow and the big industrial cities, where they had no wish to be turned into foreigners. And often times, the local bureaucratic clique loudly proclaiming its sovereignty was composed mainly of Russians. So much for "romantic nationalism."
National sentiments had nothing to do with what the local bureaucracies were really up to. Behind the legal, institutional, or constitutional battles the local bureaucracies hid their real motives, which were, to do what they wanted with the resources that they controlled. In other words, they wanted the right to be left in peace while they plundered their own people.
Thus besides the demand for political autonomy, all the local bureaucracies put forward precise economic and financial demands on the central government. Everywhere they demanded the reduction or complete lifting of their contribution to the federal budget. They demanded the right to grant export licenses—a promising source of bribes in those republics with natural resources—without having to receive approval from the central government. More generally, they demanded control over all or some of the companies on their territory.
When they brandished the threat of political independence, what the local bureaucracies were really doing was blackmailing Moscow to recognize their right to do what they wanted in their own republic, especially the right to appropriate local resources.
Tatarstan is an eloquent example of this. Tatarstan is the only republic except Chechnya to actually go through on its threat of proclaiming independence. But it reversed its decision as soon as the central government agreed to sign a compromise treaty in which the Russian authorities recognized that the authorities in Tatarstan had the right to conduct their own foreign trade, make their own constitution and laws, decide on their budget, levy their own taxes, organize their judicial system, have a central bank and manage the resources and the companies located on their territories—with the exception of certain companies which were still subject to negotiation between the two authorities.
Elsewhere, the central government has not gone so far in making official concessions. But in many republics where the leaders didn’t get official recognition for their control of "their" republic, they have carried on without it. So long as the local bureaucracy does not thumb its nose at Moscow, the central authorities have accepted what they did. Of course, the central government had no other option.
The local bureaucratic cliques quickly found that they didn’t need the Kremlin’s permission to lay their hands on companies located in their territories. They simply had to use the laws on privatization. Many of the so-called privatized companies in Russia are merely the local bureaucracy’s "collective" takeover of companies which were formerly state property. The IMF, acting on the behalf of the international bourgeoisie, was quite displeased: this was not its idea of the return of the means of production to private ownership...
So, the movement of local bureaucracies away from central control began in the national republics. The legal division made it easier to begin there. And when they could, they played upon national feelings.
At that point most of the local bureaucracies, including those in the purely Russian regions, were quick to follow. They employed many pretexts. In some places they played upon Russian nationalism, claiming that there was no reason why non-Russians should have more rights than "true" Russians in their own state. Or else they claimed that Tatars or Chechens outside their "national territory" received less in return for what they paid in taxes than if they paid into the national republics, since a bigger share of their taxes went to the central government instead of being kept locally. And on and on...
In June 1991, when Yeltsin was president of Russia when it was still a part of the Soviet Union, he granted economic autonomy to eight regions of Siberia. At the time, this was interpreted by the press as a step toward the creation of a Siberian government. After that, there was talk of a republic of the Urals, between Siberia and European Russia. Today the number of these autonomous regions in Siberia has multiplied to 18.
Demagogy which is now Backfiring on Yeltsin.
When he was still struggling for power against Gorbachev, Yeltsin encouraged this movement. He and his political advisers invented a novel procedure for ousting Gorbachev: they dissolved the Soviet Union, over which Gorbachev had presided. Not only was Yeltsin the gravedigger of the Soviet Union, he also contributed to the disintegration of the Russian federation, even if this movement is backfiring now on him.
The pronouncements about restoring private property, returning to a capitalist economy and opening up to the West were not only Yeltsin’s weapons against Gorbachev; these themes were intended mainly for the West, even if all of this was in line with what the bureaucracy wanted. And the most conscious bureaucrats took them as the program for a social counter-revolution which they desired. For them, it was a chance to get rich freely and quickly. The broader spheres of the bureaucracy, that is, all those who occupied positions of authority in society, were probably also receptive to the other aspect of Yeltsin’s demagogy. Yeltsin promised them autonomy, that is, the right to seize a small piece of the state apparatus and use it for their own ends.
Gorbachev had already unleashed the centrifugal forces of the bureaucracy, but his position imposed a greater sense of responsibility. So Yeltsin was better situated than Gorbachev to express the aspirations of the bureaucracy and its local fiefdoms.
While these fiefdoms made Yeltsin king, they were also quick to remind him of his debt to them. And once Yeltsin was in power, the increasing power of the bureaucratic lords obviously began to act against him.
In the crisis of September 1993, which pitted Yeltsin against Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, this aspect was obscured by the spectacular nature of the confrontation: the bloody storming of the parliament building by forces commanded by Yeltsin and Yeltsin’s dissolution of parliament. Because the authorities at the head of the territories were openly opposed to the central government, only 8 of the 89 subjects of the Federation approved Yeltsin’s dissolution of Parliament.
Yeltsin overcame this opposition, or at least its public expression, but not in a direct confrontation. On the contrary, he reached an implicit (and often explicit) compromise with the local barons. Yeltsin agreed to leave the local barons alone. And they allowed Yeltsin to assume the position of leader of all the Russian territories, above all in foreign relations.
This is the general situation within which Chechnya is merely one element.
The conflict between Moscow and the local government in Chechnya did not begin in December 1994 when Yeltsin decided to send his army against Grozny. It began more than three years ago. The same development was going on to one degree or another in all the republics of the Russian federation.
The person who embodied the local bureaucracy’s aspirations to rid itself of central government control was Dzhokhar Dudayev. Dudayev was the only Chechen general in the entire Red Army. He had ended his career as a major-general, charged with directing the strategic air force (nuclear bombers) in Estonia.
In Chechnya the local leaders were looking for a symbolic leader. When he returned to Chechnya in October 1991, Dudayev was able to use them to get himself elected president of what was still the autonomous republic of Chechnya-Ingushia. At the time, Chechnya-Ingushia had a population of 1.3 million (53% Chechen, 29% Russian and 12% Ingush). Having just been a "communist" general of the Red Army, Dudayev turned around and swore his oath on the Koran. He then proclaimed the independence of the republic. The Ingush in turn declared their own independence, and split away from Chechnya.
In fact, although Dudayev had been elected with 85% of the vote, the turnout had been very low, only 15%. The Ingush had refused to take part in the election, as had the Russians. They both feared that they would fall prey to the Chechen clans, the basic structure of local favoritism with no chance of appealing to Moscow, if independence became a reality.
In Chechnya itself, Dudayev’s power was immediately contested by the Chechen Supreme Soviet, which invalidated his election. On the basis of this decision, Yeltsin declared a state of emergency, and sent 2000 men from the "spetznaz" (elite troops). The elite troops were surrounded by Dudayev’s men, who were more or less supported by the population. Moscow’s inability to depose Dudayev made it appear ridiculous.
In a position of strength, Dudayev then dissolved the Chechen Supreme Soviet. But this did not end the fighting between Chechen political leaders. Ministers were assassinated, with no one really knowing who was responsible. Not exactly trusting anyone, in 1992-93 Dudayev took for himself the positions of prime minister and defence minister, in addition to that of president.
Dudayev then suddenly discovered that he was a Muslim, and had mosques built in every little village. However, he did not ban alcohol and tobacco ... which, along with drugs and arms, rival oil as a source of enrichment in his kingdom. Business is business.
In 1991, Dudayev had promised he would make Chechnya "the Kuwait of the Caucasus."Much has been said about the oil in Chechnya serving as a material basis for the republic’s independence. This is true and false. Certainly, the local elites now have some control over one of the biggest oil deposits in Russia, and could sell the oil rights to the big western oil companies. But given the instability of the region, and the fact that the refineries are located on the territory of other republics, the longed-for fabulous contracts have never materialized. But, luckily for Dudayev, the pipeline from Azerbaijan to the North Caucasus and Southern Russia, runs through Chechnya. So, he found an immediate way to bring pressure on Moscow and the entire region, by threatening to cut off the pipeline.
This was the gravy train for Dudayev and his clique. In addition, Moscow was far away and caught up in other problems. So Grozny became a center of all kinds of trafficking, a giant Caucasus-wide bazaar protected by Dudayev’s regime, where everything could be bought or sold, from third-rate goods imported from Turkey, Iran or the United Arab Emirates to drugs and weapons from all over the world.
The Russian blockade, in effect since 1992, was no obstacle to this trafficking. (Dudayev and his cronies could drive around in their Mercedes.) But this blockade severely hit the majority of the population, who were deprived of basic necessities (medicine, food and clothing) from industrialized regions of Russia. This poverty, combined with the regional inter-ethnic conflicts, led to a mass exodus from Chechnya with 200,000 people having fled in the last 2 years. They include Russians as well as some Chechens. Many Chechens now live in the big Russian cities, particularly Moscow, where they make a living doing odd jobs—street trading, taxi driving. And often, like all exiles, with only their muscles and their reputation as "fierce fighters" to sell, they get involved in crime.
In 1993-94 in Chechnya itself, people, to feed themselves, attacked trains, looted warehouses and stripped travellers of their belongings. Self-defence militias were created in the north (where there are a lot of Russians who, manipulated by nationalists, have revived Cossack organizations). Villages barricaded themselves against "foreigners" and peasants seized land to try to survive. Added to all of this, there was a pre-existing embryonic civil war that was clandestinely stirred up by Moscow. These actions provided Yeltsin with a "justification" for the Russian intervention; this intervention was supposed to "rescue" the population and bring it "humanitarian aid".
Yeltsin sought to get rid of Dudayev "legally" by encouraging the development of an opposition made up of his former allies, who were mainly clan leaders. Actually it would be more accurate to speak of "oppositions", since each of the 17 districts of Chechnya corresponds to a clan, which obeys the capital Grozny only when that accords with its current alliances.
In fact, in 1994 Dudayev controlled only the capital. The north of the republic was more or less under Russian influence. Argun, the second largest city, was in the hands of Avturkhanov, the leader of the Provisional Chechen Council, whom the Russians more or less put in place and supported. (During the intervention in December, by the way, Argun was the last bastion to fall before Grozny.) Similarly, Tolstoy Yurt, a few kilometers from Grozny, is the stronghold of Khasbulatov, who returned last summer to try his luck. Khasbulatov was the former president of the Russian Supreme Soviet and former enemy number one of Yeltsin.
Lately, Dudayev’s position has appeared more fragile. His former allies had deserted him: in December 1993, the former head of the army had surrounded the government buildings, calling on Dudayev to resign, the matter finally being settled by a compromise.
The shocking opulence of the rich contrasted with the dire poverty of the majority. Oil, far from guaranteeing independence, had polarized Chechnya as never before, between a few extremely rich people and very many extremely poor.
In August 1994, tanks "from nowhere" (but quite obviously Russian) supported the opposition’s offensive against Dudayev. Moscow believed that he was about to fall, since only nine of the country’s seventeen districts in the Congress of Chechen Peoples supported Dudayev’s call for "general mobilization" against "Russian aggression".
The opposition itself, however, was divided between numerous clan leaders, and it failed to oust Dudayev in August. Yeltsin, or his chiefs of staff, then decided to intervene directly.
Why did Yeltsin decide to send his troops in December 1994, after tolerating the Chechen secession for so long? Perhaps he thought he could refurbish his popularity on the basis of Russian nationalism. Perhaps he decided to make "an example", choosing one of the most openly dissident territories, but one which is small enough for a quick, successful war. In any event, the maneuver failed. Instead of bringing down Dudayev, Yeltsin has united the whole local political caste around him. And, while it remains to be seen whether he has united the whole population around Dudayev, Yeltsin has at any rate stirred it up against himself.
The intervention of Russian troops in Grozny, and the way it has been carried out, is an infamy. Its price is being paid not only by the Chechens but also by the Russian population of Grozny, a city inhabited by both communities: the bombs fall indiscriminately. As for the Russian troops themselves—they are dying in a war which is not their own and which they do not see as being their own.
None of this, however, justifies Dudayev and people like him. The break-up of the Russian federation into local satrapies is certainly not a step forward but a regression, in the same way that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a step backward.
Revolutionary communists obviously do not accept the right of the bureaucracy’s central power to deal with its problems by using violence against local populations. Just as obviously, we are opposed to all forms of national oppression, believing that all peoples have the right of self-determination.
But neither do revolutionaries forget that we are communists, and that we must state clearly, even in these circumstances, that there is no future for populations in such a break-up into tiny territories, under the rule of dictators who have no more respect for their own people than they have for the rights of people who are suddenly turned into minorities inside their own country.
Even before Dudayev’s adventure, there may have been feelings of revulsion against Moscow and national aspirations in Chechnya. Enough has happened in the past to fuel such feelings, particularly in the time period before Stalin died. But we have no way of knowing whether this national feeling led the majority of the local population to want independence, much less "independence" under a dictator—a comic opera dictator, perhaps, but a dictator all the same.
Yeltsin’s aggression against Chechnya is doubly criminal: first, because he is making the population pay for his war against Dudayev, and second because he is driving the Chechen population into the arms of Dudayev. The Russian military intervention may have provoked the kind of national reaction which Dudayev’s nationalist demagogy could not have done.
As we watch the armed conflict initiated by the bureaucracy’s central power against one of the local warlords who have emerged from this same bureaucracy, we need to remember that in the Caucasus, where some fifty million people live side by side, often intermingled, a host of warlords are leading countless bloody conflicts—Georgians against Abkhazians, Azerbaijanis against Armenians, and many others which the press never mentions—which have already caused several hundreds of thousands of deaths and literally ruined the region. All these leaders of bureaucratic fiefdoms and their armed bands regularly use nationalist demagogy in an attempt to pull "their people" behind them when they want to expand their own territory. Of course, sometimes they fight for power inside their own nationality—in which case they call on religious or clan affinities. They all look to the past, real or mythical, for arguments to bring the population behind them.
While the bureaucracy’s central government is in such a state of decomposition that it is unable to intervene militarily in most of these conflicts, it speculates on them, playing some off against others. Moscow contributes a great deal to plunging the Caucasus into a succession of sterile wars.
The bureaucracy in decay is as harmful for former Soviet society as it was in the days of the dictatorship.
The situation in the Caucasus is worse than it is in the Balkans—worse because the Caucasus is larger, has a bigger population, with a greater diversity of nationalities. And just as in the Balkans, there can be no solution for the people in the different opposing nationalisms.
In Chechnya, as in the Caucasus in general, there is essentially the same competition between bureaucratic cliques to plunder the country, as there is throughout the former Soviet Union. But the national demagogy of the leaders and the existence of armed bands make it infinitely more violent here than elsewhere.
The national question is one of a number of problems which the bureaucracy has never been able to solve. Stalin relied on bullying, Gorbachev and Yeltsin on anarchy. The bureaucracy is no more capable of solving the national question than of solving any other question of society.
Russia, like most big countries in the world, has inherited a diversity of peoples, ethnic groups and traditions. Only the obtuse minds of bureaucrats—or of the bourgeoisie—see a contradiction between this diversity and the ever-more pressing need to unite not only territories the size of Russia but in fact the whole world.
Despite its limited resources, despite the aftermath of World War I, and the barbarity of a civil war, the Soviet government in the early days after the revolution attempted to reconcile the freedom of peoples, even on a national level, with their unification into broader entities. This attempt failed before it could be taken through to its conclusion; it could not have succeeded without an extension of the proletarian revolution and the subsequent prodigious leaps, including in the field of culture and civilization, which would have been made possible by rational, planned organization of production on a worldwide scale.
Nevertheless, the policy of the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s time towards the nationalities, gives infinitely more indications of what the future relations between peoples in a region as mixed and multi-ethnic as the Caucasus could be, than does the attitude of the bureaucrats or any bourgeois commentary on the subject.
The Chechen crisis is one of the consequences of the process of disintegration taking place first in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. In turn, it may speed up this process. Political opposition to Yeltsin has certainly been stirred up by what is happening in Chechnya, and Yeltsin has apparently had to sacrifice his protege, General Pavel Grachev, the man whom he had only recently called "the best defense minister of all time and of all peoples".
But making Grachev a scapegoat will certainly not let Yeltsin unite a military hierarchy whose ranks show more and more cracks as this crisis develops.
In Russia’s current state of disintegration, there is little chance that Yeltsin will be able to restore unity in the state apparatus. As the army’s central leadership becomes more discredited, generals like Lebed and Gromov may be tempted, not only to play their own political game (they have already been doing that for some time), but to step forward as candidates for central power. This does not mean, however, that they would have any more means of patching up the disintegrating state apparatus than Gorbachev had or than Yeltsin has now.
The plundering of what was the Soviet Union has more and more set up the rule of the warlords. Only an awakening of the former Soviet proletariat could stop this slaughter.