Chechnya is a dangerous place

By Julia Kalinina | 2000-01-01 12:00:00

The Russian government claims that its current war is the only possible way to put a stop to Chechen terrorism. Julia Kalinina knows Chechnya as few other Russian do. She covered the previous war in that country for the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, living there for many months during the bombardment with Chechen families and as a hostage in the guerrillas' stronghold. While known for her hold criticism of the Russian military campaign, she is equally critical of the Chechens for maintaining possibly the most violent and crime-ridden society on earth. We asked her: Why was Chechnya's President Maskhadov unable to control the terrorists among his own people?

I am not sure that President Maskhadov really wanted to cope with terrorism-at least from the very beginning of his rule. I will explain. In 1997 when the first Chechen-Russian War ended and Maskhadov was elected as president, Chechnya was in a disastrous position-no jobs, no money, no food. Russia promised to help but did nothing. How could the Chechens survive? Most of them are not rich.

A Pariah Society Of Warriors And Tradersby tradition they are traders; they buy goods in one place and sell them else-where for a higher price. Preferably they buy something that is very cheap, perhaps of low quality, but tell the potential buyer that it is excellent. In this post-Soviet period, most traders act that way too, but the Chechens are extraordinary in their ability to deceive or even to force others to buy their products. Unfortunately, the worst stereotypes are largely true. The other peoples of Russia dislike Chechens and the other Caucasians (Georgians, Cherkassis, and Ossetians) say that it's better not to deal with them at all. Some people even say that Chechens are genetically evil, though that cannot be true. They are quick and intelligent in a specific way; they don't think much about the consequences, and so they often win in their dealings. Historically, they have violated laws and have gone to jail more often than others. Before the first war, about every fourth Chechen man spent some time in prison, mostly not for serious crimes. Traditionally, it is normal in Chechen society to solve financial problems with violence.After the first war, negative attitudes towards Chechens became even worse. They had limited freedom of movement and when they came to Russian towns they had problems with the police. Often they were arrested as ''suspicious'' because of their passports. In Russian passports we have a space for nationality. Any policeman on the street can inspect your passport; if he sees ''Chechen'' or ''lives in Grozny,'' that is a sufficient basis to arrest you for three hours at least.

Due to such unfriendly conditions, trade opportunities after the war were practically closed to Chechens. Only strong, rich businessmen could continue. President Maskhadov saw clearly that his people had only one way to survive-the criminal way.''The Russians are guilty. They created such conditions that Chechens can do nothing but take hostages. And Russians brought so much misfortune that now Chechens are justified in doing anything. Nothing will be too much. And Western countries are also guilty because they supported Russians. That means we can also take Westerners as hostages.'' As I understand the situation, Maskhadov thought along these lines in the beginning, before universal criminality in Chechnya was fully established.Chechnya is more like an ancient Greek or Roman society than a modern one. Aristotle recommended to his student, Macedonia's Alexander the Great, (who was going to the east with his army) that he treat Greeks as friends and relatives but all other people as plants and animals. When you live among the Chechens, you discover that, in the depth of their souls, they believe that robbery, rackets, and hostage-taking are normal ways to earn money and that cutting off an enemy's head is as normal as shooting him. A Chechen can use a human rights activist, for example, for his benefit, without incurring moral obligations to him. If someone takes this man hostage, no Chechen will blame him or try to liberate the hostage.A successful robber must divide his loot among his relatives, children, his soldiers and assistants, and the families of dead soldiers. If a man acts in that way, Chechens consider him absolutely right.

It is hard to deal with Chechens, not because they are Muslim or evil, but because they are an ancient people, like those of a thousand years ago. Russian rulers do not understand that Chechens are playing a different game with rules that do not match any modern way of thinking. I hope that other societies help Chechens, so it will not require hundreds of years for them to adapt. As matters stand now, though, no matter how cruel or firm Russians may be, they will lose their struggles against Chechens.

Chechen Democracy

At the same time, in a certain sense, democracy is more advanced than in Russia or Western countries. Chechens never had tsars, princes, or aristocrats. They were always equal to each other. A poor Chechen who had only one wife and one horse had the same social rights as a rich Chechen with thousands of sheep.The authorities are the eldest in the family-the father and the first son. In a village, for example, where 30 boys of the same age are growing up, the main one will be the strongest, most fearless, and tricky boy-the wildest one. He will fight with all the others many times and at last when he is about 27 they will agree that he is the leader-not the authority but the leader. If war starts, he becomes a ''field commander,'' with 20 or 30 other men from his village constituting his platoon. He cooperates with other field commanders but he doesn't obey them. If he doesn't want to participate in this or that operation he will refuse and no other general-not even Basaev or Maskhadov-can force him to do so.

That is why it is impossible for Chechens to treat their president as a president. They say, ''Every Chechen is a president for himself,'' and they always joke at their presidents and don't respect them. Even Dudaev was a constant subject for abuse, not to mention Maskhadov. He was respected only by the members of his family-his ''big family,'' his clan. For them he is an authority but not for the members of Basaev's family, or the families of other field commanders.Basaev is one of the strongest commanders because he had more soldiers, more money, and more weapons than others. And after his terrorist attack on the hospital in Budennovsk, Russia, he could expect that Chechens would elect him president. But he lost. He won approximately 27% of the votes and Maskhadov won more than 50%.

Basaev couldn't forgive this. He devoted all the following years to his internal struggle against Maskhadov. As soon as he understood that hostages and criminality injure Maskhadov, he started to provoke it by all means. Certainly not only Basaev's people were taking hostages, but due to silent support from Basaev's side, criminality became impudent: We do what we want and nobody can stop us.

Maskhadov already recognized his own mistake in the beginning of the criminal era while it was still possible to bind criminals, but soon it was too late. He had lost people's support, and the bandits' forces now exceeded the president's army. Maskhadov knew he could not win anyway and he didn't accept the challenge.That background explains why Maskhadov couldn't cope with terrorism. The ancient habits of Chechens, which had been more or less suppressed during the Soviet era, now came out. The hard hand of the communist regime could hold them tight, but it was impossible for weak demoratic rulers, who could not provide proper militia, procurators, and inevitable prosecution. And it turned out that, because of their traditions and views, the Chechens themselves just cannot accept a Chechen governor. Leaders are doomed to fight fiercely with each other, pretending it's an ideological confrontation-religious motives or separatism, or something else. But is's just personal ambition. What can help them? The right kind of president, perhaps-but not a Chechen and certainly not a Russian.

Julia Kalinina is an editor and military affairs journalist with Moskovsky Komsomlets newspaper in Moscow.

Peace Magazine Winter 2000

Peace Magazine Winter 2000, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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