Monday, September 06, 2004


Masha Gessen's Chechnya: What drives the separatists to commit such terrible outrages? (Slate, Sat., Sept. 4, 2004) was the first analytical piece that I've been able to read since the beginning of the horror. I used to admire Masha Gessen - I still do, but with some reservations (more about this later) - and I was very interested in what she had to say about it all.

I totally agree with Masha on this: the truth is far more complicated than what the government would like us to believe. Chechnya is a bloodbath, and even if "international terrorism" has played a part in the recent events, this is not as inexplicable and groundless as Putin is telling us; "international terrorism" and the Chechen upheaval are closely connected. Putin does not have the right to hide behind this term ("international terrorism"), without acknowledging the huge and fatal flaws in his own policies. But I doubt he'll ever change his ways and there doesn't seem to be anyone capable of forcing him to; the society is too inert, too careless, too brainwashed.

The truth is far more complicated than what the government wants us to believe; yet Masha's version of it is also quite simplified. Which is understandable: her article falls into a category that Slate calls "The Gist: A cheat sheet for the news."

She writes that "[t]he Russian Constitution recognizes the right of federation members to secede—and Chechnya tried to claim this right." This is an arguable point - and an arguable issue.

The current Russian constitution was adopted in Dec. 1993, so in 1991, the time Masha is writing about in this paragraph, the basis must have been the Soviet Constitution of 1978. Its Article 72 did indeed provide the right of each Republic to unilateral secession from the USSR. But Chechnya was an autonomous republic within the RSFSR (the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) - and while the RSFSR had the status of a sovereign state within the Soviet Union, with the right to secede, Chechnya didn't: as an autonomous republic, it was allowed to have its own constitution, which had to conform to the constitutions of the USSR and the RSFSR. Moreover, fair or not, international law considers secession of a part of a state a violation of the principle of territorial integrity of states.

But that's all theory, more or less. There is also a story of Tatarstan that's relevant to the Chechen secession attempt story - and that's more or less the reality. Here's part of an article published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

As the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 two of Russia's most secessionist-minded republics, Chechnya and Tatarstan, took different paths in their struggles for national self-determination. [...]

In 1991, under the aggressive leadership of General Dzhokar Dudaev, Chechnya chose uncompromising, armed struggle for independence. The general's strategy involved willfully declaring independence, acquiring weapons, and rejecting negotiations with Moscow unless it agreed to conduct them as if the republic was regarded independent state during the talks. In combination with Russian President Boris Yeltsin's similar intransigence in refusing to meet one-on-one with Dudaev this brought the North Caucasian republic a small civil war, two wars with Moscow, hundreds of thousands of Chechen dead, wounded, and refugees, and the near complete destruction of the republic's social and economic infrastructures.

Tatarstan, under Mintimer Shaimiev, chose a more conciliatory path, rejecting armed struggle and earnestly seeking a modus vivendi with Moscow. Kazan declared a rather fuzzy "sovereignty," negotiated with Moscow, and ultimately signed a power-sharing treaty with the Kremlin. The February 1994 treaty between Moscow and Kazan and the Kremlin's subsequent acquiescence in Tatarstan's increasingly autonomous orientation afforded the republic a broad autonomy verging on a loose confederal arrangement. Kazan was allowed almost complete sovereignty over its cultural, economic, and political affairs. Its constitution declared the republic a "sovereign state associated with the Russian Federation" and a subject of international, not Russian, law. It was given ownership of all natural and other resources, including its oil, and was allowed to keep some 75 percent of tax revenues for the republican budget.

By the late 1990s Kazan's choice to seek its self-determination within the Russian Federation appeared to have paid off handsomely. Tatarstan became one of Russia's most prosperous regions and was hailed around the world as a model for forging flexible federal-regional, inter-ethnic, and inter-confessional (Christian-Muslim) relations, standing in stark contrast to war-torn Chechnya.

Further, Masha writes: "As an ethnic group, Chechens had been mistreated by the Soviet regime, and the Russian empire before it, perhaps worse than anyone else. In 1944, the Chechens, along with several other ethnic groups, were accused of having collaborated with the Nazis and deported to Siberia."

I choked on this "perhaps worse than anyone else." Really. It's as if all of the Russian and Soviet history was about mistreating the Chechens - which it wasn't. This statement is so simplistic it's even funny.

Everyone - even the Russians themselves - had a huge share of suffering throughout this country's history - and everyone knows it.

An estimated 8 million people - of many different ethnicities - have been deported between the 1920s and the early 1960s. And that figure does not include those who rotted away in the gulag camps.

Throughout the Stalin years, the following peoples were deported from their homelands: Ingermanlands, Greeks (over 62,000 people), Germans (over 800,000), Karachais (69,000), Kalmyks (over 93,000), Chechens and Ingush (over 540,000), Balkars, Crimean Tatars (over 194,000), Bulgarians, Armenians, Kurds, Meskhetin Turks, Khemshils, Laz, Georgians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Belorussians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Koreans. And I'm sure this list isn't complete.

I am not saying the Chechens have not been wronged terribly. I'm just saying that it's not fair to be so selective. I also wish that every time someone mentions the Chechens' right to independence largely as a consequence of the 1944 deportations, they should also give some credit to the Crimean Tatars, who were allowed back into their land not in the late 1950s as some, and not even in the 1970s, but in the early 1990s, largely because Ukraine had to keep Russia from taking the Crimean Peninsula, and the returning Crimean Tatars proved helpful because they could dilute the ethnic Russian population and vote for Ukrainian independence and for Crimean autonomy within Ukraine, not for the secession to Russia. Many Tatars have returned, and many live in abject poverty, and we have not yet had any hostage situations or other horrible acts, though we may have some in a few decades, unless our schmucks who run the country do something to ease the economic hardships of the Tatars.

A minor thing: Masha keeps saying the Chechens were deported to Siberia. But most were sent to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan. I'm not sure why she insists on Siberia so much - maybe because it evokes a far more vivid image of suffering than the Central Asian republics. That's simplistic and cheap, too.

But in general, this is a solid "cheat sheet for the news" kind of article.

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