By Michael Hammerschlag Dec ’94 HOME
The television images are horrific: shredded bodies strewn about, bombed out civilians huddling in rubble. The Russians are back to their old tricks. Or are they?
Russia’s move into Chechnya isn't so much a geopolitical chess move, but a reaction to pervasive crime and Mob control in Russia, where the Chechens are perhaps the most vicious and violent Mafia group. In the space of only 3 years, Russia has come completely under the domination of organized crime, with over 90% of businesses from the littlest kiosk to the biggest bank paying extortion money to mobsters. The murder rate in Russia will hit about 35,000/year in ‘94, 3 times per capita what it is in the US. 10 bank directors were murdered in ‘93 (2 parliament deputies this year); now 70% of private banks are supposedly controlled by the Mob.
4 times in the last 8 months, Chechen gangsters hijacked buses in Russia’s southern provinces (once with children)- near Mineralniye Vody; and demanded millions of dollars in ransom, which incredibly the Russians paid, then tracked and caught them after the hostages were released... the first 3 times. The last time hostages were killed, because the Russians rushed the helicopter prematurely, pressured by Chechen President Dudayev's statement that any Russian planes crossing into Chechnya (part of Russia for 120 years) would be shot down. (Dudayev parades around with US six guns on dual holsters). Later, the Russian Interior minister, displaying grisly photos, claimed the people who'd helped Moscow with a previous capture were beheaded, their heads displayed in a Grozny square. And the Chechen ministers who helped were sacked. This infuriated the Russians, already buffeted by devastating poverty and institutional collapse, who prefer to think most of their crime problems are due to southern Moslems.
Then there was the Great Bank Fraud--some 160 billion Rubles siphoned off the Central Bank (over $1 bil and maybe $30 bil in purchasing power) by fraudulent transfer orders, supposedly orchestrated from Chechnya. A huge sum to an impoverished nation. They also forged, on a massive scale, almost perfect 100,000 R ($100 then) and US $100 notes (reportedly Iran did also), destroying confidence in both Russian bills and the currency of choice for all business--US Bucksy
Chechnya is probably the most criminalized region on earth- when trains went through it entire towns would ride out and hijack them, stripping them to the metal ... and then taking the metal (120 trains this year, according to Yeltsin's address). Grozny is infested by swaggering gangsters in BMW's and Mercedes’ (who retreated quickly once the real fighting started); all the men carry guns, and deaths are followed by blood feuds that last generations. Dudayev was linked to that: his anti-Russian fervor, the resulting 3-year blockade, and his shutdown of the Chechen Parliament caused dissension that became armed revolt this summer, supported by Moscow (and ex-Parliament Speaker Khasbulatov, who hoped to become President). The final straw for Yeltsin came when children bus hostages were killed and Dudayev threatened to kill 20 Russian captives caught assisting anti-Dudayev rebels.
For the Chechen's part, they were only subjugated after a bitter 47 year war that involved the massacre of 400,000 (ending in 1878). In 1943-4, Stalin, in another mad + monstrous scheme, deported all the Chechens (1/2-1 million) to barren Kazakhstan, where hundreds of thousands died (They returned in 1957-8 under Khrushchev). Had the Russians not existed, Chechens would now number 2-3 times their population of 1.3 million. The 2 groups despise and fear each other more than any in the old Soviet Union, which is why Chechnya’s de facto secession from Russia was allowed for 3 years. In fact their antipathy is even more convoluted: the Chechen gangs were the model for Stalin and the Bolsheviks.
Yeltsin thought he would get support from a populace sick of crime + an unappreciated military, appease the nationalists, crush a brazen center of crime and the secessionist example they set, and regain control of the oil wells, refineries, and proposed pipelines: a no-lose proposition.
He thought wrong. Everyone's rose against this incursion: 85% of the citizens of Moscow + Petersburg oppose it, the Parliament voted 289 to 4 to use all means to end military struggle (although stressing was an integral part of Russia), the Communists have criticized it, the military is in open revolt:: popular Generals Lebed and Gromov have said it makes no sense and Gen Babichev, head of one of the invading columns, halted when confronted with pleading babushkas and refused to advance. "If we send tanks against civilians it'll be just like the Soviet Union", he said. Defense Minister Grachev has reportedly relieved 5 generals, including his own deputy, for insubordination. Moral is miserable in the troops, with as many as 50% refusing to fight. "All I see is drunken soldiers manning their posts, an inspecting minister said." The graphic images of the bombing are eroding what little support there is for the invasion, especially when they remember 1/4 of Grozny consists of ethnic Russians. In typical Soviet style, Yeltsin retreated to a hospital and avoided addressing his people for 2 weeks.
Worst, Yeltsin's shattered his own liberal party-Russia’s Choice, his only definitive base of support, and the only real hope for a free and healthy Russia. His own former prime minister and soulmate Gaidar has organized demonstrations against him and called for impeachment, labeling the action "tragic madness"; economist Grigory Yavlinsky, in polls the most or 2nd most popular figure and about the only credible liberal successor to Yeltsin, said "Our President is becoming dangerous to democracy".
The fragmentation of the liberals leaves the field open for the nationalists, or more likely- the communists. There are ominous parallels
with Gorbachev’s assaults in Georgia and Lithuania and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union. The overwhelming opposition to this invasion and open mutiny of the Army could mean Russia is a more normal country where people resist unjustified military adventures- or it could mean Russia is spiraling towards ungovernability and anarchy, especially if this becomes a power struggle between Yeltsin + Parliament (as it will if it lasts more than 3 weeks). Despite the apparent political maturity shown by post traumatically-stressed Russians in rejecting the evil blandishments of Zhirinovsky, a civilized government is still a fragile and tenuous thing in a country with Russia’s hideous history. As Yeltsin advisor Pain said: "There are 2 wars in Russia-one in Chechnya, the other in Moscow." The one in Moscow is the one to watch.
Copyright (c) 1994 Michael Hammerschlag END of 1st CHECHEN WAR- W. Hawaii Today
NOTE: This story of the origins of the Chechen War was not reported in any American media- the conventional wisdom was that the “evil Russian bear was rising”, when the truth was the War was 90% the Chechen’s fault- there were a dozen ways they could have avoided it, but they kept sticking their thumb in the Russians’ eye. This doesn’t excuse the brutal shelling and supposed atrocities committed by the Russians, but this stupid uninformed CW was omnipresent. The failure to report these bus hijackings (which were easily referenced on AP or Reuters) and other criminal/terrorist acts by the Chechens was some of the most sloppy, lazy, PC journalism I’ve ever seen.
P.S. That said, the latest incarnation on the war has become mindlessly brutal- now the Russians are resorting to their past in totally subjugating the Chechens, even if they have to kill them all. Yeltsin started it, based on alleged suspect apartment bombings blamed on the Chechens, but Putin has continued it without pause; now the war is 80-90% the Russians fault.
Michael Hammerschlag spent 2 years over 2 1/2 years in Russia and the Soviet Union, wrote commentary for Moscow News, &, Guardian, and Tribune, and We-Mui; did radio reports for Radio South Africa and KING-1090, and is writing a book on his experiences there.