Recently, the international community has been sickened from the abuses suffered by the LGTBQ community inside of Chechnya.
These recent and horrific human rights tragedies have introduced some people to Chechnya, but if one understands the politics of Chechnya, these events should have come as no surprise.
I have studied Chechnya for almost two decades now; in fact, understanding the Russo-Chechen wars is the main reason I pursued my doctorate in political science. I have had the honor to appear on national television and testified before a joint subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives on Chechen extremism.
What has happened to the tiny Russian republic since 1991 is one of the motivating points in why I teach and study ethnic conflict. The fighting that has occurred in Chechnya helps one see clearly political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ fears of anarchy, and what happens when humanity descends to the beast within.
Chechnya is a Muslim-dominated, semi-autonomous republic in Russia’s south, in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. It is adjacent to the republic of Georgia, and is a key strategic point for Russia, historically acting as a buffer between Iranian and Turkish influences. Massive wars were fought there in the mid-19th century to create a “safe space” between the Orthodox Russian and Muslim empires. Great literature was produced from the Caucasian Wars, as evinced through novelist Leo Tolstoy’s experiences there.
After the Russian victory, the region, including Chechnya, has been solidly controlled by Moscow. But that’s not without upheaval – multiple attempts of national independence movements; several wars; ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide; and now terrorism.
The recent violence started in 1991 when Chechnya declared independence from Russia, seeking to reap the benefits as did the 15 member states of the Soviet Union that were left over after its collapse. Russia did not believe Chechnya had the right to secede since it was only a province and not a recognized nation, as were the other countries that gained independence.
A major war resulted from 1994 to 1996. Brevity limits a thorough description of events, but briefly, for an area with a reported 1.2 million residents, in a territory roughly the size of Connecticut, the two-year war resulted in up to 100,000 missing, dead or seriously wounded civilians. That’s about a 10th of the population. Russia lost up to 14,000 soldiers in the war, and Chechnya’s infrastructure suffered destruction not seen since World War II (note that all statistics are estimates, as the scholarly community debates all reported numbers). But the Chechens, in theory, prevailed.
In 1996, the two sides came to an agreement that Chechnya would govern itself free from Russian interference until 2001, when the two sides would decide on formal negotiations for full independence of the republic. This was meant to be a cooling-off period so both sides would not resort to war once again if negotiations failed.
In this time, however, Chechnya was infiltrated by al-Qaida-linked terrorists, and Wahhabisim, a puritanical form of Islam that argued for a strict interpretation of the Quran; in this setting, it mixed with violent extremism to enforce Sharia law. Massive human rights violations started to occur as the territory began to be split between Chechen nationalists who were against the implementation of Sharia and foreign “invaders,” and those Wahhabists seeking to create a Caucasian Caliphate. It became a country under siege.
Multiple invasions of nearby territories were launched from terrorist enclaves in Chechnya and several horrific terrorist attacks inside Moscow and other cities deep within Russia proper were blamed on Chechnya. Putin came to power partially as a result and launched the second Russo-Chechen war. This war was even more tragic than the first. Entire cities were destroyed. Another 11,000 estimated Russian soldiers died along with up to 50,000 civilians. Between the two wars in the time span of a decade, about 500,000 civilians were displaced, wounded or killed.
If you were alive in Chechnya during the early 2000s, you personally lost a nuclear family member. No exceptions. That is half of the entire population suffering some form of heinous tragedy. Medical journals and researchers declared that the entire society suffered from trauma.
All this provides the backdrop for next week’s column – describing a new ruling class in Chechnya in the early 2000s that further encouraged authoritarian brutality.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Augusta University. You can follow him on Twitter, @polscountrydoc.