The standoff in Chechnya continues

The events unfolding in Russia are of a dramatic nature. Gunmen are holding 350 children, parents and teachers in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. The taking of these hostages is the latest in a series of attacks that have shaken Russia in the recent period. All this is a product of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya. Earlier this week there were new elections in Chechnya and another stooge of Moscow was elected president. This has not served to pacify the area.

The events unfolding in Russia are of a dramatic nature. Gunmen are holding 350 children, parents and teachers in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. Twelve adults were killed when between 20 and 30 gunmen took the school. According to official reports the gunmen are linked to Chechen rebels, but the Chechen separatist leaders have denied any responsibility.

The latest news is that a loud explosion was heard and smoke has been seen rising from the building. Cars outside the building are burning. The gunmen have been shooting and throwing grenades at the police. The situation is becoming more desperate as each minute goes by, and there could be another bloodbath, as in the case of the Moscow theatre.

The taking of these hostages is the latest in a series of attacks that have shaken Russia in the recent period. Over the last few years Chechen rebels have been involved in several dramatic operations in which hostages have been taken and many have been killed. The most striking was the death of 129 hostages in a Moscow theatre two years ago. In all over 300 hostages have been killed in such attacks during the last ten years. But in the recent week the situation has escalated, with two Russian planes being brought down by terrorists.

All this is a product of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, a region of Russia which declared its independence back in 1991, at the time of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. In 1994 Yeltsin sent in troops to bring back Chechnya under Russian control, but by 1996 the Russian army was clearly showing its limitations and suffered a serious defeat and in 1997 withdrew.

An unclear compromise was reached about the status of Chechnya, and it was in this context that the troubles erupted again, with a spate of hostage-taking and terrorist attacks. By 1999 the Russian government, under Putin, decided to return to harsher methods and launched a new war against the separatists, finally imposing a Moscow controlled puppet administration on the region.

In October of last year Akhmad Kadyrov was “voted” president. It was clear that Kadyrov was a stooge of Moscow. He was for a greater “autonomy” of Chechnya while remaining a part of the Russian state. While all this was happening, Russian troops remained in Chechnya, in constant conflict with the hard-line rebels.

Kadyrov was eventually assassinated in May of this year while celebrating VE day in the Chechen capital Grozny, and that is why earlier this week there were new elections in Chechnya and another stooge of Moscow was elected president, Alu Alkhanov, the head of the Interior Ministry in Chechnya.

The elections were reminiscent of Soviet times. The Kremlin backed Alu Alkhanov predictably won with a “landslide victory”. With a majority of the votes counted in Chechnya’s presidential election, he was backed ‑ according to official figures released at 10 o’clock on Tuesday morning ‑ by 73% of the electorate.

Officially turnout hit 70% but this does not correspond to eyewitness accounts. The mood in Grozny, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in the street, thwarted by police in his attempt to destroy a polling station, was far from jubilant. This result, however, has not pacified the region. In fact it has sparked off a new round of terrorist attacks, the taking of the school in North Ossetia being the latest.

Despite the official position that everything is calm, the past week has seen a spate of violence. Last weekend a group of masked men set up a check-post in Grozny dressed as policemen to check documents, and shot anyone who was working for the federal forces, as well as civilians. According to the BBC 70 people died although other sources give a higher figure. And on Tuesday evening of last week two aeroplanes were blown up in mid-flight in synchronised attacks, leaving 90 dead.

Since many voters didn’t see a candidate worth voting for, such actions, together with the threat of rebel fighters to kill those whoever voted, persuaded many Chechens to stay at home. One journalist reporting for the business daily Kommersant noted that the polling stations she visited were empty. When she did find some people gathered outside one polling station she asked who they voted for and was told:

“Tomorrow you’ll find out who is supported in Chechnya, when the election committee announces (the result). But don’t you know who will be the President? Haven’t you seen the queues outside the polling stations? No – but tomorrow we will have a very high turnout. 80% - like in Soviet times. Because the President has already been chosen.”

Alkhanov and the legacy of Akhmat Khadirov

And it wasn’t difficult to tell that the victory of Alkhanov had been decided in advance. He had the lion’s share of television air-time, posters showing him with the Russian President, as well as news reports showing the pair of them paying their respects at the grave of Akhmat Khadirov.

In the same article in Kommersant, Magomed, 22, explains that he voted for Alkhanov because “he’s a policeman, that means he has an understanding of order.” However Magomed himself added that he wanted “a civilian candidate, a businessman”, underlining that the urgent priority in Chechnya is to rebuild the economy, the housing, schools and hospitals, making possible the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. This also explains why Alkhanov’s main rival, Malik Saidullaev a Chechen businessman currently based in Moscow and full of false promises of foreign investment, was disqualified from standing by the electoral commission. As a result Magomed concluded, “of all the candidates I can only vote for Alkhanov. I haven’t heard of any of the others.”

Only a few months ago Alkhanov was a relatively unknown chief of police in Chechnya. Following Khadirov’s assassination Kommersant’s weekly political journal Vlast analysed the figures who might contend for President, and Alkhanov is, with hindsight, conspicuous in his absence. His name was not mentioned. And it is precisely the fact that he is unknown, that he could only win his position through a Soviet style election and is dependent on Moscow for his position that Moscow can trust him as their man in the region. Moreover as a politician (read policeman) who understands order and has no power base with which to upset the fragile balance of interests in the region, he is a suitable compromise candidate between the Kremlin and the groups that were loyal to Khadirov.

The real situation is the opposite of Alkhanov’s claim that his victory confirms that the Chechen people want the Russians to control Chechnya, and that the situation is under control. If Putin was actually popular there he could allow free elections, confident that the people would elect a pro-Putin candidate of their own accord. If he really did have control he would not need to base himself on the Khadirov clan and the fear they inspire in people. And there would be no need for the special constitutional status, which assigns a President to Chechnya. Instead it would be ruled like any other province or republic within the Russian Federation by a governor and a regional parliament.

You can get quite a clear idea of Alkhanov’s police background and his professed loyalty to the Khadirov faction from his response to Izvestiya, 31 August:

“I have the warmest personal and professional relations with Ramzan Khadirov because to me he is the son of our first president, a person who did everything for his people that it was possible to do, and even that which was impossible. First and foremost my attitude to Ramzan is through the prism of (my relations with) his father. And also: Ramzan Akmatovich, though he is young, successfully fights against terrorism, wahaabism, not hiding behind anybody’s back and making his mark in this battle, so that the Chechen Republic can live and work in an orderly and stable environment…”

It’s no surprise then that Alkhanov is bent on carrying on with the policies and the team of Khadirov. Yet under Khadirov’s leadership nothing was resolved. In itself his death exploded the myth that his rule brought peace to Chechnya.

After the assassination, President Putin went to meet Khadirov’s family and see the situation on the ground for himself, and could not believe the devastation that he saw from his helicopter as it landed in Grozny. And Putin’s promises of peace are in similar ruins – he says that Russia has won the war but the reality is that there is no end in sight to the violence on the ground. The latest events bring this fact sharply into focus.

Instead of protecting people and preserving order the state in Chechnya is characterised by the night raids and lawlessness of Khadirov’s private army of up to 6,000 men and the federal forces. Perhaps the most striking examples of the anarchy are the incidents of Russians attacking Russian positions in order to steal weapons and even boots.

Such are the fissures within the Russian state in Chechnya that there can be nothing but terror and lawlessness. The Kremlin is neither in control of its generals or of Khadirov’s army, which is run by Ramzan Khadirov, the well-known violent bully that Moscow in words gets on with. However, for its part Moscow bases itself on the Ministry of Internal Affairs, (thus Alkhanov, its former chief of in Chechnya), and the FSB, better known by its Soviet name – KGB, (which Putin was the former head of in Russia).

These tensions are made more volatile because the Russians do not trust the Chechens and vice versa. Khadirov began his political career as an Imam who sided against the Russians in the first war from 1994-6. As President, Khadirov threatened to kill the families of Chechen independence fighters if they did not capitulate, then amnestied former allies that did give up, and gave them plum jobs even though they neither regretted their past struggle against the Russian state or criticised those who are still at war with Russia. The Russian army chiefs disagreed with this policy, and have the view that the Chechens cannot be trusted to be tough in fighting other Chechens. In turn, pro-Khadirov Chechens argue that Russia is provoking the war in its own interests, and could end the war if it wanted to. They say the Chechens themselves could manage to resolve their faction fighting if only the Russians left them alone. This might even be true but the fact is that neither the Kremlin or Khadirov’s faction really want an end to the war.

As is well known Putin was first elected President on the back of the second military campaign in Chechnya. Now the threat (and consequences) of Chechen terrorism in Russia undeniably prop up his ratings and his call for tighter security. It’s true that sometimes it is inconvenient for him to be reminded that he has not delivered on his promises to restore order to Chechnya, but since he controls the media this small detail can largely be ignored. Equally the conflict serves the interests of the Khadirov faction, even if it puts their lives at risk, because it is the source of their power.

Neither of the cliques that rule in Russia or in Chechnya are honestly concerned with peace or the welfare of their people but with their own interests, wealth and prestige. In both cases power is wielded in the hands of small groups of people, isolated from the rest of society, who use the pretext of the war and rebuilding Chechnya to embezzle billions of roubles every year. According to the government audit over 2bn roubles (nearly $100m) was unaccounted for last year. After all a bureaucrat can argue, “the money was spent on the bridge it was allocated for, but the bridge was then destroyed.” The real figure is no doubt much greater.

And on top of unaccounted for federal funds there is the black economy in Chechnya. Gazprom loses over 1bn cubic metres of gas every year from pipes that go to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya itself and the south of Russia. According to an article from Kommersant on May 18, Chechengazprom is responsible for the exploitation of gas. Though formally controlled by the Ministry of Energy it is actually in the hands of “a so-called oil gang, close to Ramzan Khadirov”. The article concludes that any change in the gas sector is unlikely given the futile four-year battle of the government oil company Rosneft against the illegal extraction and processing of oil in Chechnya. In other words Ramzan Khadirov and co. might be putting their lives at risk like his father did but they’re gangsters and they must run the risks that all gangsters do.

This illustrates why it is precisely because the Khadirov faction are only out to further their own interests that the Kremlin had to find a compromise candidate agreeable to them. They will use their force to defend their business interests should the Russians, or anybody else, threaten them. As long as the war continues and the Kremlin is unable to rule directly in Chechnya such criminal groups can prosper, and come to temporary arrangements with the Russians, who need the backing of local power brokers.

This morass could drag on for years. On a capitalist basis there is no solution. As long as the resources and industry of the region are in the hands of corrupt and bankrupt cliques the people will be stamped underfoot in the charge for plunder. But it could also become part of a wider conflict in the Caucasus, an area that is now the scene of competition between Russian and US imperialism for control of the oil and gas resources of central Asia and the Caspian Sea. Chechnya borders Georgia, which has been involved in border clashes with Russian troops in south Ossetia. And it is also next to Dagestan, where there have been protests against the head of the region’s state council, which may or may not come to a head during a proposed national meeting on September 10.

In such a potentially volatile situation the short gains that Putin’s popularity receives from appearing to be tough on Chechnya can run up against the Kremlin’s long-term goal of directly controlling its southern flank. At the moment Chechnya is at most partially governed by the Kremlin via the secret police and the Russian forces. In the context of wider regional instability Putin might not be able to tolerate the independence that his Chechen allies have enjoyed in the past, which could lead to conflicts within what is now the pro-Moscow coalition, as well as between them and their declared enemies in Chechnya and the region generally. If there wasn’t a conflict of interests between the Kremlin and the Khadirov clan no one would be interested in Alkhanov’s relations with Ramzan Khadirov, and the former policeman wouldn’t see the need to try and fool people with exaggerated praise for both father and son.

The blind alley of terrorism

Most people in Chechnya are against the state terrorism committed by federal forces against the civilian population, and against acts of individual terrorism, which they understand strike against people with no connection to the war in Chechnya, as with the passengers on board the planes on Tuesday. The point is though that terrorism and state terrorism feed off each other. Just as acts of brutality will be committed by federal forces in response to the latest terrorist attacks in Russia, so will this response in turn lead to further terrorist attacks against Russian targets. The present standoff in North Ossetia is just another striking confirmation of this unfortunate fact.

Most Chechens are not involved with any military activity. The priority is peace, and decent jobs and housing. If the Russians really wanted peace and seriously organised a programme of reconstruction there would be no question of the war continuing. But this isn’t the case. As the situation stands there isn’t positive support for Russia or the local leaders, rather a passive acquiescence. Many Chechens are resigned to having neither peace nor prosperity as long as the conflict continues, and are trying to get round the poverty they find themselves in by working harder. But this passive resignation can turn to active resistance when Chechens lose members of their family and come to the conclusion that there will not be peace as long as Russia interferes in Chechnya.

Many papers claim the latest example of this cycle of violence is Amanta Nagaeva. Although not formerly a suspected terrorist known to the FSB she is, according to her passport, the woman who blew up the Tu134 on its way to Volgograd. Apparently she became a terrorist after her brother was killed in a raid by federal forces after four military personnel were killed in his village by Chechen independence fighters. If this is the case then it is the latest case of female suicide bombers. Their acts are a propaganda gift to the Russian media, who like Putin’s good friend George W Bush, labels every independence fighter a terrorist, in order to confuse this distinction and justify imperialist aggression. While Marxists support the just struggle against imperialism and for national liberation on the part of the Chechen people we are implacably opposed to terrorism.

Such terrorist attacks are not actually seen as part of the struggle for Chechen liberation just as they cannot be explained by the revenge killings that take place in the Caucasus. They are alien to the moderate Sunni branch of Islam practised in Chechnya and the product of the madness of Islamic fundamentalism, which was spawned in the US sponsored war against the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Unfortunately, due to the vacuum in society in the former Soviet Union, Islamic fundamentalists have hijacked the Chechen war.

In fact it is possible that the latest terrorist attacks are actually a further example of how fundamentalism has been superimposed onto the Chechen war by the fundamentalists and the state propaganda. It is clear that there must have been a motive of religious fanaticism but it has not been proven that the alleged suspects, Amanta Nagaeva and Satsita Gebirkhanova, were in any way connected with the fundamentalists. Therefore there has been some speculation that it may be possible that they were not the terrorists and do not provide an organic link between the resistance of Chechen people and the turn towards fundamentalist terrorism. Instead of showing a relationship between the fundamentalists and the Chechens they may have been used as pawns by terrorists, killed for their documents so as not to betray the terrorists’ new false identities. That is one interpretation. Admittedly it is difficult to identify visually bodies that were at the centre of an explosion but it is possible to conduct DNA tests, which they haven't done yet.

The Izvestiya newspaper sent a correspondent to Grozny to find out about the lives of the suspected terrorists and provides evidence, though not conclusive, for such a view. He discovered that the suspected terrorists were last seen on a bus in Dagestan on August 22 with Amanta’s sister Rosa and another friend Mariam Taburova. This group of women had a stall in the central market in Grozny and said they were going to Baku on a trip they made every couple of months to get new goods, particularly school stationery in the run-up to the new academic year. A cursory glance at the lives of these girls and their families indicates that they were wholly absorbed in their daily struggle to make ends meet, working 12 hours a day from 7-7, without having the time to occupy themselves with religious ideology. Rosa Taburova, mother of Mariam, was quoted as saying, “Mariam didn’t have any sort of Wahaabi books at home (in their village) or in Grozny. She didn’t even read books!”

Information is now coming out in the press that one of the suspected women, who was from a richer family and had connections in Moscow, may have had links with religious hardliners in Chechnya before she moved to Grozny. On the other hand, it is hard to make head or tail of the conflicting reports because obviously it is a politically sensitive subject and open to distortions and lies. The point remains that if the identities of the women actually corresponded to their passports then they are completely different from any other suicide bombers that have gone before, and it would be likely that they were linked to terrorists not so much within Chechnya (and would have been known to the FSB) but outside of Chechnya, maybe in Moscow or Baku.

So it is possible that these girls really were terrorists, but it would have been quite a feat for people who have never seen an airport or been on a plane to carry out. And if this was so, where are the two who weren’t on board? Sergey Ignatenko, the head of social communication at the FSB admitted to Izvestiya today that “there is a possibility that somebody else could have used the documents of the girls”. The only way to solve this case is for their families to identity the bodies, something other relatives were allowed to do on Thursday and Friday of last week, but for some reason this has not yet happened in their case.

Perhaps the authorities are worried that if proven, such a chain of events in which both Chechens and Russians were killed by fanatics aiming to exploit the war for their own ends might provoke hatred to the real terrorists, sympathy to the Chechens and disgust with the mess that Russia’s imperialist policies have led to. And who can trust the authorities to reveal the truth when they ordered the state TV to deny even the possibility of a terrorist attack on Wednesday of last week because it contradicts their lies that everything in Chechnya is going according to plan?

For a new October!

What the rulers throughout the world fear more than international terrorism is the unity of the working class. Acts of individual terrorism against civilians in Russia play a reactionary role because they cut across the revolutionary unity of workers in Russia and in Chechnya. Given the size and power of Russia, Chechnya would not be able to achieve and maintain independence without this revolutionary unity. And this is impossible as long as Russia remains a capitalist state, ruled by a parasitic clique of state apparatchiks and oligarchs who greedily gaze at the mineral wealth on their doorstep.

Marxists condemn Russian imperialism in Chechnya and we defend the right of the Chechen people to govern themselves if they so which. We support the call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechen territory. However, we also have to explain to the Chechen people that on a capitalist basis, given the present conditions of imperialist rivalry in the Caucasus there is no possibility of genuine national independence for Chechnya, or any other republic. In practise freedom from Russia would mean being drawn into the American sphere of influence, repeating the example of Georgia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been a nightmare for all the peoples that have had to live with new poverty, want and national antagonisms. It is time to stop this madness of capitalism and war! It is necessary to link the desire for national liberation in Chechnya with a new socialist revolution in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union!

Under capitalism the more developed level of industry and communications today sharpens the imperialist rivalry between nations, which need more and more raw materials and markets for the profits of their multinationals. But this greater level of development also brings with it tremendous possibilities that only a socialist plan of a federation of socialist states can realise. Without being plagued by the peasant backwardness of the Russia of 1917 there would be no stopping the working class from forging a new and voluntary federation of socialist republics that this time would spread through Europe and Asia and the whole world.