Chechnya: Russia's ethnic cleansing

By Stan Crooke

"If you want to know who needs this war, look in Moscow, in the Kremlin, where the politicians are dividing up the money they're making on us. My boys don't have enough to eat - they want to go home, and so do I."

Speaking to the Newsweek magazine, this is how one Russian colonel stationed in Chechnya summed up his feelings about the eight-week-old invasion of the republic by 100,000 Russian troops.

Nearly two-thirds of the Chechen population have fled their homes. Over 200,000 live in squalor in refugee camps in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Between 50,000 and 100,000 remain trapped in Chechnya. And last weekend the Russian authorities ordered all civilians to abandon Grozny, the Chechen capital.

Gas and electricity supplies to the region have been cut off. Human rights observers and foreign news teams have been banned from entering Chechnya. Russia's southern borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan have been closed to foreigners and all road freight for Chechnya prohibited.

Many villages in Western Chechnya have already been reduced to rubble by Russian shelling and aerial bombardment. Now the same fate awaits Grozny. Russia's military strategy is an attempt to avoid a repeat of the disastrous invasion of 1994, when 2,000 Russian troops were killed on New Year's Eve alone. Russian forces suffered more casualties in a single night than during an entire year of the war in Afghanistan. By the summer of 1996 Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Chechnya. Now Russian generals and politicians are thirsting for revenge. Their military strategy is based on NATO's during the Kosova conflict: drop large amounts of explosives from safe distance, and only then send in troops.

Just as in 1994 the invasion has been launched in the run-up to parliamentary and Presidential elections. The military conflict has pushed economic and social issues will down the political agenda, replacing them with "defence of the national interest" against the enemy within the enemy abroad.

"Terrorists" are the enemy within. For most Russian politicians "terrorist" and "Chechen" are interchangeable terms. Prime Minister Putin has described Chechnya as a "bandit republic" which must be "eliminated".

The enemy abroad is the West. According to defence minister Igor Sergeyev: "The West's policy is a challenge to Russia with the aim of weakening its international position and ousting it from strategically important regions of the world... It is in the US national interest to have controlled armed conflict constantly smouldering in the north Caucasus."

The military "needs" a war to restore its influence and standing. Vladimir Mau, an adviser to the ex-Prime Minister Gaidar, summed up the situation in 1994: "The budget debate (April/May 1994) revealed that the military lobby had far less clout than the agrarian lobby. Slimming down the armed forces was a vital necessity. But this went against the interests of the majority of generals, and what better way of avoiding cuts than by a short small-scale war?"

But the 1994 invasion was military disaster and the standing of the military declined even further in subsequent years.

According to General Shamanov, in command of the Western front in Chechnya: "All Russians are sick of the fact that Russia is humiliated, insulted, asking for hand-outs. We have it bad today, but let us be patient, and tomorrow will come and it will get better. We will go with Putin today and tomorrow will come."

And, as was the case in 1994, there is also the question of oil. Oil and natural gas deposits in the Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan, rival those of the Middle East. For the oil and gas to reach Western Europe it needs to be pumped overland. One of the pipelines runs through Grozny, a long-established oil-refining centre.

Control of Chechnya by the Russian government would allow it to secure massive revenues from the transportation of oil through its territory. The Russian oil and gas lobby, headed by Transneft and Gazprom, would likewise be major beneficiaries.

Western criticism of the Russian invasion of 1994 was muted. Clinton even went so far as to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln claiming that he was attempting to hold together the Union. The West's response now is a combination of mild criticism and complete inaction.

Next month the IMF is due to pay another $640 million dollars to Russia as the latest instalment of its four and half billion dollar "aid" package. The IMF has made it clear that unless the invasion damages the Russian economy, then it is of no concern to the IMF.

Socialists in the West do not look to sanctions by the IMF or by governments to defend Chechnya. Workers in Europe should respond to the Russian invasion in the same way that Australian workers responded to ethnic cleansing in East Timor - by organising workers' boycotts. Defeat for Russia in Chechnya would be a body-blow not just for Yeltsin and Putin but for all the parties of the new Russian establishment.

Socialists in the west stand by the principles of the Bolshevik declaration issues in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian workers' revolution:

"To all the Toiling Muslims of Russia and the east: Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared to be free and inviolate... Know that your rights, like the rights of all the peoples of Russia, are protected by the whole might of the revolution and its organs, the Soviets of Workers' Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies."

More: Russian troops out! Sign the appeal.

More: News from Russia: demonstration and organisation against the war!