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Historical Perspective: The Chechen Conflict

Associated Press Writer

Slain Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev
AP/File/Misha Japaridze

Conflict between Russia and the Chechens dates back to the time of the czars, more than 200 years ago. The desire for a warm water port and imperial ambition brought Russian troops to the Caucasus in the late 1700s. The powerful Ottoman Empire also had interests in the rugged, mountainous region, forcing local powers to choose sides.

Christian Georgia joined with Russia voluntarily, but other peoples of the Caucasus viewed Russia with suspicion. The Muslim Chechens, who had lived in their mountainous land since before the dawn of history, resisted. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mansur (Mansur means "victor" in Chechen) the Chechens held off Russia for more than 10 years. He was captured in 1791 and died in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, three years later.

But Mansurs death didnt mean the end of Chechen resistance. When Russia again made war against the Chechens in the 1830s to solidify their border with the Turks, Mansurs name was the rallying cry for his people. The Russians built the republics current capital, Grozny (Russian for "the terrible") as a fortress intended to dominate the landscape, but it took more than 20 years for them to succeed.

Though Chechnya fell under Russias yoke in 1859, the spirit of rebellion was never quelled. War with the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s provided the Chechens with a brief taste of freedom, but Russian domination soon returned.

Taking shelter from a Russian rocket attack
AP/File/David Brauchli

The Russian Revolution offered no relief. The Communists grouped the Chechens together with the Ingush, another mountain people with whom they share a religion and a similar language, in a single republic. Despite the discovery of large oil reserves, life in the poverty-stricken region didnt improve under the Communists.

While life was hard, it wasnt until 1944 that Chechens were singled out for persecution. Soviet leader Josef Stalin feared the Chechens and several other peoples of the Caucasus would support the Nazis in World War II, though there was little evidence of Nazi sympathies. To put an end to this perceived threat, Stalin ordered all Chechens deported from their homeland to central Asia. Thousands died either resisting or on the long cold journey.

The Ingush-Chechen Republic was removed from Soviet maps.

The Chechens were allowed to return home by Nikita Krushchev in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin.

With little stake in the Soviet state, many Chechens became involved in the Russias underground economy. In post-Soviet Russia, this reputation for illegal activities is the first thing many Russians think of at the mention of Chechens.

As the Soviet Union crumbled in the 1990s, many Chechens saw their opportunity for independence. Led by Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen republic declared independence from the new Russian Federation in 1991 following a failed coup in Moscow.

The new local government wasnt stable, with Dudayev and the elected parliament in constant disagreement. The economic situation in the region began to worsen as anti-Russian rhetoric scared off investment. The Ingush were encouraged by Moscow to form their own republic, Ingushetia as part of the Russian Federation

The strident tone of Chechen rhetoric also helped push then Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin toward war against the republic of 1.2 million inhabitants. Afraid that other ethnic groups would take up the battle-cry against Russia and also looking for what seemed to be an easy victory, a covert operation was authorized.

The attempt to bomb the Grozny airport was bungled and ended up spread across newspaper front pages around the world. It was an embarrassment that Yeltsin tried to staunch with a full invasion in December 1994. But Russian forces were soon bogged down. Chechens have been known throughout history as some of the most skillful and ferocious mountain fighters in the world. Despite the loss of the major cities in the republic, their skill kept a much larger Russian force at bay for two years.

Grozny, Feb. 13, 1995
Associated Press/File/Olga Shalygin

For the first time in Russias history the media reported every setback to the Russian forces. The war became immensely unpopular. The fighting continued through the first eight months of 1996, with the rebels taking back Grozny on August 6. The Chechen leader, Dudayev, had been killed in a bomb attack in April. A new leader, Aslan Maskhadov met with a representative of Boris Yeltsin, Alexander I. Lebed, and worked out a cease-fire signed on August 31. Though Chechen independence wasnt officially recognized by Moscow, Chechnya became independent in all but name.

Despite reports of kidnappings and minor acts of terror, peace generally held until Muslim rebels entered the Russian republic of Dagestan, next-door to Chechnya, in August 1999. Russia claimed the rebels came from Chechnya. Fighting flowed over the border into Chechnya. A series of terror attacks across Russia in September of 1999, which killed thousands was also blamed on Chechen separatists. Public opinion in Russia, led by far more restricted media coverage, is firmly behind the current war.