Give the Chechens a Land of Their Own
September 9, 2004
By RICHARD PIPES
Sure took the NYTimes a long time to publish this serious view about what has happened in Chechnya and how Chechnyan independence is imperative. One wonders why they keep vacilating and misleading the world about what has happened in Palestine and why UN resolutions dating back to the 1940s should be implimented their or sanctions placed on Israel.
The terrorist attack in Beslan in Russia's North Caucasus
was not only bloody but viciously sadistic: the children
taken hostage by pro-Chechen terrorists were denied food
and drink and even forbidden to go to the bathroom, then
massacred when the siege was broken. It is proper for the
civilized world to express outrage and feel solidarity with
the Russian people. But to say this is not necessarily to
agree with those - including President Bush and President
Vladimir Putin of Russia - who would equate the massacre
with the 9/11 attacks and Islamic terrorism in general.
In his post-Beslan speech, Mr. Putin all but linked the
attack to global Islam: "We have to admit that we have
failed to recognize the complexity and dangerous nature of
the processes taking place in our own country and the world
in general." Reports that some of the terrorists were Arabs
reinforce that line of thinking. But the fact is, the
Chechen cause and that of Al Qaeda are quite different, and
demand very different approaches in combating them.
Terrorism is a means to an end: it can be employed for
limited ends as well as for unlimited destructiveness. The
terrorists who blew up the train station in Madrid just
before the Spanish election this year had a specific goal
in mind: to compel the withdrawal of Spanish troops from
Iraq. The Chechen case is, in some respects, analogous. A
small group of Muslim people, the Chechens have been
battling their Russian conquerors for centuries.
At the close of World War II, Stalin had the entire Chechen
nation exiled to Kazakhstan for alleged collaboration with
the Nazis. Khrushchev allowed them to return to their
homeland but they continued to chafe under Russian rule.
Because Chechnya, unlike the Ukraine or Georgia, had never
enjoyed the status of a nominally independent republic
under the Communists, the Chechens were denied the right to
secede from the Russian Federation after the collapse of
the Soviet Union. And so they eventually resorted to
terrorism for the limited objective of independence.
A clever arrangement secured by the Russian security chief,
Gen. Alexander Lebed, in 1996 granted the Chechens de facto
sovereignty while officially they remained Russian
citizens. Peace ensued. It was broken by several terrorist
attacks on Russian soil, which the authorities blamed on
the Chechens (although many skeptics attributed them to
Russian security agencies eager to create a pretext to
bring Chechnya back into the fold). A second Chechen war
began in 1999, of which there seems no end in sight.
This history makes clear how the events in Russia differ
from 9/11. The attacks on New York and the Pentagon were
unprovoked and had no specific objective. Rather, they were
part of a general assault of Islamic extremists bent on
destroying non-Islamic civilizations. As such, America's
war with Al Qaeda is non-negotiable. But the Chechens do
not seek to destroy Russia - thus there is always an
opportunity for compromise.
Unfortunately, Russia's leaders, and to some extent the
populace, are loath to grant them independence - in part
because of a patrimonial mentality that inhibits them from
surrendering any territory that was ever part of the
Russian homeland, and in part because they fear that
granting the Chechens sovereignty would lead to a greater
unraveling of their federation. The Kremlin also does not
want to lose face by capitulating to force.
The Russians ought to learn from the French. France, too,
was once involved in a bloody colonial war in which
thousands fell victim of terrorist violence. The Algerian
war began in 1954 and dragged on without an end in sight,
until Charles de Gaulle courageously solved the conflict by
granting Algeria independence in 1962. This decision may
have been even harder than the choice confronting President
Putin, because Algeria was much larger and contributed more
to the French economy than Chechnya does to Russia's, and
hundreds of thousands of French citizens lived there.
Until and unless Moscow follows the French example, the
terrorist menace will not be alleviated. It is as
impossible to track Chechens scattered throughout Russia as
it is to intimidate the suicidal fanatics among them.
Worse, the continuation of Chechen terrorism threatens to
undermine the authority of Mr. Putin, whose landslide
victory in last spring's presidential election was in good
measure due to the voters' belief that he could contain the
Chechen threat. Russians respect strong authority, and
there are new signs that Mr. Putin's inability to wield it
over Chechnya makes them wonder whether he is fit to rule
them. After the school siege, there was much muttering in
the streets that under Stalin such atrocities would not
Unfortunately, he seems determined not to yield an inch.
"We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon," he
said on Saturday. This may seem like a truism to Russians,
but in this case it is wrong. Russia, the largest country
on earth, can surely afford to let go of a tiny colonial
dependency, and ought to do so without delay.
Richard Pipes is an emeritus professor of history at
Harvard and the author of "A Concise History of the Russian
Revolution" and, most recently, of "Vixi: The Memoirs of a