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March 1995
Volume 13, Number 3

Chechnya Destroyed
Yuri N. Maltsev

When a people rebels and declares its independence, a central state can let them go or beat them into submission. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, we've seen some of both. In Chechnya, and adjacent Ingushetia, however, the Yeltsin government chose mass murder to maintain its evil empire.

Rather than solve its existing problems--continued socialism primary among them--Russia has chosen to create new ones. And this time, as at the end of World War II, the Russians have done so with the blessing of the U.S. government and the funds of the U.S. taxpayer.

When Boris Yeltsin unleashed his imperialist war, he said he was defending the welfare of Chechens and Russians caught in an "inter-Chechen" conflict. It was a lie. Foreign media reports soon revealed that Russia's military was placing both groups in danger. An old Russian woman who lived in Chechnya her entire life told British Independent Television that the Yeltsin government is "a bunch of irresponsible, murderous alcoholics who should be residing in prison, not the Kremlin."

Indeed. Yeltsin saw war as a way to lift the morale of a morally and financially bankrupt regime. Goliath would kill David and the masses would cheer, or so he thought. In winning a quick victory, he reasoned, he could placate both the ultranationalists and the communists. It was also supposed to serve as a warning to the other fifteen national republics to stay in the federation.

The Chechen economy, already at the bottom after 75 years of Soviet control, was destroyed during weeks of ferocious air attacks on industrial plants, bridges, utilities, and residential areas.

The story of Chechen suffering is a long one. In the early 19th century, independent Chechnya was conquered by Russia after a long and bloody war. The Chechen religious leader Imam Shamil led the resistance, and the young Leo Tolstoy, who served in the Russian Imperial Army in Chechnya in the 1840s, was so disgusted that he resigned from the army and wrote a story praising Shamil.

Vladimir Lenin referred to Chechnya as "the most backward outskirt" of the Russian empire, and he declared that the "development" of this region would be a top priority of the Bolshevik government. So a beautiful mountain country with a proud and industrious people was destroyed by the communists.

Josef Stalin, the "Great Father of Nations," sought to go Lenin one better, with the religious and ethnic cleansing of the Northern Caucasus. Stalin's 1944 deportation of all Chechens and Ingush from their homeland to uninhabitable regions of Kazakhstan is one of the most murderous pages in the history of the Soviet Union. It was years before a much-diminished people could return.

Former Speaker of the Russian parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov, an ethnic Chechen himself, told me that more than half the Chechen people were exterminated during this transfer. Chechens I met in Grozny told me blood-freezing stories of people crowded into cattle cars without food, water, or bathrooms; corpses traveling with children; the killing of protesters at the railway stations by KGB guards.

It is no surprise that this long-suffering people declared its independence at the first opportunity: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. So did fifteen other nations, which are today recognized by the U.S.

The case of the Chechens was different. According to Stalin's 1936 Constitution, only "sister union" republics were granted a "right" to independence, not "autonomous" republics like Chechnya, and the Clinton administration regards Stalin's Constitution, repealed even by the Russian Parliament, as valid.

Along with the military destruction of the republic, the Russian authorities unleashed a disinformation campaign. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev accused the Chechens of having a "criminal character," and of "running organized crime networks." Russian statists from Aleksandr Barkashov to Vladimir Zhirinovsky endorsed the bloodshed in anti-Muslim terms.

The poisonous fruits of this propaganda campaign ripened quickly. In an incident witnessed by visiting Russian legislators, nine Ingush civilians were murdered by Russian soldiers, and an ethnic Bashkir Muslim soldier, along with the Ingush minister of health, were killed by drunk Russian fellow servicemen. Russian soldiers were reported as murdering, raping, and looting in Chechnya and Ingushetia. In a candid moment, this was confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

But loyalty to Yeltsin began to wane among Russian troops. They began disobeying orders, fraternizing with civilians, and deserting (or resigning, as it's known in the private sector). Top Russian generals, including two deputy defense ministers, condemned the invasion. One of these generals--Boris Gromov--knew this sort of warfare first hand: he was commander-in-chief of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

The Clinton administration has frequently cited its good relations with Russia as one of its few foreign policy achievements. So Al Gore was on hand to give the go ahead on the first day of the war.

How could Clinton and Yeltsin cooperate so nicely after years of Cold War antagonism? Perhaps this isn't surprising. Strip away the pomp and pretense, and superpowers can be seen as centralized Leviathans that have grown rich and militarily powerful by looting their own vast populations. Sometimes their respective interests require them to oppose each other, as they did in the Cold War. Other times--when, for example, they face "internal" independence movements that threaten the superpower model itself--they work in tandem.

Americans are sophisticated about the nature of the U.S. government. Yet they have trouble thinking clearly about the Russian government, thanks to years of pro-Gorbachev and pro-Yeltsin propaganda in the U.S. media. In Russia itself, however, matters are different. Parliamentary deputy Sergei Kovalev and many others denounced the bloodshed, renounced official disinformation, and called for political dialogue with Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev, who was elected by his people.

But Yeltsin's entourage responded that civilian deaths are "normal." Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister for Human Rights(!), calmly spoke of "unavoidable" violations of rights. The Chechens were even accused of blowing up their own apartment buildings to make the Russians look bad.

Another deportation may even be in the works. Chechens do not want to live under Russian rule, yet the Russian central state insists on controlling their homeland. Officials of the Russian Federal Migration Service have admitted to arranging "accommodation" for Chechen refugees in seven regions of central and southern Russia. A bureaucracy has already been set up to arrange the transfer.

The words "migration accommodation" are designed to cover the forced ousting of Chechens from their land, and the crushing of their dreams of independence. The 400,000 residents of Grozny are already victims to one of the most abominable forms of statism. Where will these people go? To a place where the Kremlin can ensure that secession is impossible. But then the "Russian Federation" will be proven a lie: there is no federation unless people who want to be free are allowed to go their own way.

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Yuri N. Maltsev, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, teaches Economics at Carthage College

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