Russia’s Chechnya Syndrome

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Susan Weissman

THE NEAR-GENOCIDAL WAR that Russia’s Putin-Yeltsin government is waging in Chechnya is cynical on many counts. Some might compare it to U.S. efforts to end the “Vietnam syndrome” by engaging in small wars certain of victory without U.S. casualties.

The appeal was written in late October 1999 by the Council of the Association “Scholars for Democracy and Socialism” and of the Union of Internationalists. Two of the principal signers are Alexander Buzgalin and Andrei Kolganov, leading leftist economists who have been active since the mid-eighties, first in the Marxist platform of the CPSU, later in the Socialist Party, then the Workers Party, and always as organizers of the bi-annual conference “Scholars for Democracy and Socialism.”

They organized internationalist (ie non-nationalist) protest against the first Chechen war .

We feel the statement is significant in showing the existence of a principled left opposition—although by no means anything resembling a mass anti-war movement—to the Russian government’s horrifying onslaught on the population of Chechnya, for the second time in this decade.

The Russian military was humiliated in Yeltsin’s previous bloody incursion in Chechnya from 1993-96. That war, designed to bolster Yeltsin’s popularity ratings which were hovering at three or four percent, was badly miscalculated.

Yeltsin clearly went for a quick, dirty little war like the Gulf War against a population long distrusted and disliked by Russians—and ended up embroiled in a very unpopular, bloody conflict that he couldn’t end. In fact, it took the efforts of General Alexander Lebed to bring the war to a conclusion, bolstering not Yeltsin’s political favor, but Lebed’s.

It could have ended there, but for the needs of the present regime to stay in power and protect its hold on property and money, as well as power. The ailing Yeltsin, long thought to be controlled by “the family” around him which includes his daughter Tatiana Dyachenko, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and others, was in danger of losing power in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

He had appointed a series of Prime Ministers, only to fire them when they gain their own popularity or are seen to slip from the family’s absolute control. Thus the popular Primakov was replaced by the wooden Stepashin, who then sought to continue Primakov’s policies with slight modification, and was then replaced by another marionette, the forceful Putin.

This time, however, Putin managed to play on the one sentiment within the Russian population that might be even stronger than their desire for egalitarianism—a wish for ORDER. This can be translated to mean many things, but mainly it is a desire for a return to some normality and security after the traumatic events of the last seven years which have impoverished the bulk of the Russian population.

Putin and “the family” came up with what has to be described as a brilliant scheme: recoup the Chechen disaster, restore the Army’s morale, and give the Russian people a sense that order can return and Russia can be great.

How? Take advantage of mysterious terrorist bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow by blaming the Chechen terrorists, rounding up Caucasian residents in Moscow and deporting them, and in the process reassert police control over the population—and bombing Chechyna to smithereens.

Miraculously, they have pulled it off, and gained support in the process. The surge in popularity for Putin must be read as support for the war, which in turn, must be read as support for order and a sense that Russia can succeed in something.

This need even overpowers rational thinking, because many Russians—even while applauding the effort to “get the terrorists” in Chechnya—simultaneously believe the security services themselves planted the bombs in Moscow that killed three hundred residents.

Shamil Basayev, Chechen independence leader, has repeatedly denied any involvement in the bombings, and has even made his case in op-ed pieces in the Boston Globe and Washington Post. But logic isn’t a factor here. Even while Russians admit that their own government is capable of killing its own citizens in the search for votes, the by-product of the appearance of control seems worth it.

The Vyborg strike referred to in the statement, taking place in the traditional revolutionary district of Saint Petersburg, has pitched workers against privatization. Workers are demanding a state investigation of the way the paper mill was privatized, as well as job security and the payment of back wages. The struggle is significant because the firm is prosperous, the workers are militant and have broad support, and the authorities have repressed and even killed two picketers.

Bracketed notes in the statement are editorial explanations of references that may not be familiar to ATC readers.

ATC 84, January-February 2000