Self-determination for Chechnya

"I swear by god we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living." These words from one of the members of the self-styled '29th Suicide Division', a group of around 50 Chechen rebel fighters who last week seized more than 800 hostages in a Moscow theatre, attest to the fanatical determination with which some groups are evidently prepared to wage war against the Putin government. It is a fanaticism born of desperation, in the face of the continued Russian refusal to accept the right of self-determination for Chechnya. The outcome of the incident is well known. Prior to storming the theatre, Russian Spetznaz forces used some form of chemical agent, reportedly rather an anaesthetic substance than a military nerve gas, to subdue the terrorists, many of whom were armed with explosive charges. The result: not just the death of the hostage-takers, most of whom appear to have been executed where they sat or lay, but the deaths of some 115 hostages from gas poisoning. Many more are still in hospital, some of them in critical condition. For Putin and his Bonapartist regime, the result could be called a sort of victory. Certainly the state-controlled media were keen to depict it as a sign of Russia's intent to crush the forces of Chechen separatism. Russian nationalism and chauvinism were stoked up on TV and radio, with vox pop interviewees obligingly demanding the harshest measures against the 'blacks', the derisory racist term which has long been used to describe Chechens and other Caucasians. Calls for the arrest and deportation of all Chechens are once again being heard and broadcast - just as they were after the mysterious bombings of 1999, in which 300 Moscow residents perished. The Chechens were blamed for those atrocities, though interestingly no one was ever brought to trial. Nonetheless it gave the government a good excuse to send 100,000 Russian troops into Chechnya on 'anti-terrorist' operations, a move that boosted Putin's popularity as a 'strong man' and certainly helped secure his election in March 2000. This time, as before, there have been other voices, like that of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which raised awkward questions about the conduct of the operation, criticising the competence and honesty of military and special services. But it was simply silenced in a way that says everything we need to know about Putin's vaunted commitment to democracy and freedom of speech. The actions of Movsar Barayev, the young leader of the group involved in the theatre siege, and his cohorts - many of them women, widows of Chechens killed in the long and bloody war which still goes on but which most people have forgotten - handily lend themselves to a certain spin on the part of the Russian and western authorities. These Chechens were not just terrorists, but islamic, and we are told that they had links with al-Qa'eda, through one Khattab, a Saudi-born associate of Osama bin Laden. (Kattab is now dead, reportedly assassinated by Russian special forces.) Thus Russia's decade-long attempt to crush Chechnya's struggle for independence and self-determination can be portrayed as just another part of the Bush's righteous 'war against terror'. True, Putin's ambivalent attitude to a full-scale war against Iraq (motivated in no small part by domestic financial and trade considerations - ie, oil diplomacy and some very juicy contracts with Baghdad) is still decidedly flaky in the eyes of the White House. But that can be put right by a suitable injection of IMF dollars, debt write-offs and the like. Leave that to the bankers and their political puppet-masters. Inevitably, in the aftermath, your mind goes back to the Kursk tragedy (Weekly Worker August 24 2000) and Putin's publicly televised humiliation in front of the families of those officers and sailors, the pride of the mighty Soviet submarine fleet, a fleet that now for the most part lies rusting and rotting, as he tried in vain to explain what had happened to it. At least this time Putin took some semblance of control - once the incident was over - rather than skulking in his dacha. We even saw him in a doctor's white coat, comforting those citizens his troops had gassed. But the same arrogant and heartless culture of state secrecy, the same bureaucratism and disrespect for the most basic of human needs and feelings, has been evident in the last few days, just as it was during the Kursk debacle. The ordeal inflicted on relatives has been deplorable now as then. Give it a week or two and heads will roll at the top of the special services, just as they did two years ago in the admiralty. How did 50 Chechens, equipped with weaponry and explosives, infiltrate the heart of Russia's capital city; what does this mean for Putin's facile claim that the Chechen situation was supposedly 'under control'? Once the euphoria of 'victory' has evaporated, ordinary Russians will surely start to ask questions. Remember that for many of them this is a deeply personal and agonising problem. Their sons, brothers and husbands, the conscript lads who are deployed in Chechnya, are being killed and wounded in the course of a prolonged struggle that has brutalised both sides. Some elements of the Russian forces have behaved deplorably: murder, torture, rape, arbitrary violence and criminality against innocent civilians, including women and children; on the other side too, there have been incidents of inexcusable brutality, with young Russians being dreadfully mutilated. Bush, Blair, and of course most of all Putin himself may hope that this latest 'provocation' by the Chechens will help deflect attention from the reality of a bitter conflict that has being going on for years. Giving Putin a free hand in Chechnya is predictably the cynical 'blood price' (to use one of Blair's memorable phrases) that must be paid for global solidarity in the 'war against terror'. But the facts of history are stubborn things. It was the Bolsheviks who in 1920 created the Chechen autonomous oblast (region), granting recognition to the population of that part of the Caucasus as part of the Soviet Republic, including recognition of their right to secede. In 1934 Stalin 'united' the Chechens with the Ingush and two years later created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, which, according to his 1936 constitution, had the right to secede - though this was, as we know, a dead letter. In the course of the 'great patriotic war', Stalin became convinced that the population of the autonomous republic were collaborating with the Hitlerites, who at that time occupied the Caucasus. Hence, in 1944, as the German army fled, many thousands were deported to Siberia and central Asia. In the wake of the implosion of the USSR, the secessionist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev secured an electoral mandate in favour of independence, becoming in the process the first president of Chechnya. To the Russian government this was unacceptable. Having failed to oust Dudayev by means of a coup, in 1994 Yeltsin sent in the troops, in a move that inaugurated the Chechen war that is still, in effect, being fought to this day. By the autumn of 1996, despite the fact that Dudayev had been killed in a missile attack, Chechen forces had consolidated and secured military successes to the point where Moscow was obliged to enter into a peace pact that amounted to de facto independence for Chechnya. The following year Aslan Maskhadov was democratically elected president and remains in that post, but the fighting goes on. He has denied any official Chechen government involvement with Movsar Barayev and he is probably telling the truth. Barayev, from Argun, south east of Grozny, belonged to a family steeped in guerrilla activity, a family that had already provided a number of 'martyrs' to whose number he evidently wished to add his own name. Last summer the body of his uncle, Arbi Barayev - a commander of the so-called 'Islamic Special Units' - was displayed on Russian TV after he was killed in a shoot-out with Russian special forces. In the wake of last week's events, with all the spin and disinformation and the 'anti-terrorist' propaganda coming out of Moscow, Washington and London, we should be clear about two things. Russia is engaged in a brutal, colonial war in Chechnya intended to maintain its hold over the Caucasus and to bolster the nationalist, chauvinist credentials of an administration that is both dictatorial and corrupt, an administration that is bent on enslaving the Russian working class in the interests its own self-aggrandisement and the interests of international capital in general. But the 'heroic' and self-sacrificial activities of Barayev - akin to those of the Palestinian suicide bombers of Hamas, who also represent a small, reactionary and unrepresentative section of an oppressed population - can achieve nothing progressive. As communists, we say that the Chechen people must have the right to self-determination up to and including the creation of an independent state. To the degree that that right is fought for by the Russian people, above all the working class, the more isolated will become the forces of Russian colonialism on the one hand and the reactionary islamists on the other. Maurice Bernal