Russian Troops Out! Self-determination for Chechnya!

by the League for the Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI) and the Trotskyist Faction, 30.06.1996

Note by the Editor: The following document is a resolution adopted by the predecessor organization of the RCIT (the League for a Revolutionary Communist International) and the Trotskyist Faction (an international tendency around the PTS in Argentina) in 1996.

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In March the LRCI and the Trotskyist Faction agreed a joint declaration on the Russian occupation of Chechnya. This statement is part of the process of regroupment discussions set out by both tendencies in December 1995

In mid-January the war in Chechnya once again exploded, shaking Russia’s political system to its foundations.

When a 250-300 strong unit of guerrilla fighters loyal to Chechen president Dzhokar Dudayev —the “lone wolves”—launched a raid on an airfield in Kizlyar in neighbouring Dagestan. Forced to retreat they first occupied a hospital taking patients and a platoon of Russian OMON “special forces” as hostages.

After negotiations they departed in a fleet of buses for the Chechen border. A potentially disastrous humiliation faced Yeltsin, already beleaguered after the December elections in which the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and assorted Great Russian nationalists trounced the radical market reformers. At the same time a wave of teachers strikes was coming to a head and the first national miners strike (over unpaid wages), since 1989, took place and Yeltsin was forced to quickly cave in. Since the elections Yeltsin has dismissed market reformers and pro-western officials like Anatoly Chubais and Andrei Kosyrev. Playing the Great Russian nationalist strong leader he announced he would crush the “Chechen bandits”.

Unfortunately for Yeltsin, Russian “crack units” bungled the task and the Chechen fighters successfully dug-in with their hostages at the border village of Pervomayskoye.

Three days of all out attack by the Alpha units of elite Russian assault troops failed totally to take it from the Chechen guerrilla fighters. Yeltsin then ordered a murderous bombardment by Grad multiple rocket launchers killing not only Chechen fighters but also hostages and villagers who remained.

Yeltsin proclaimed a great victory yet within days it was revealed that more than a hundred of the Chechen fighters, including their leader (Dudayev’s relative, Salman Budayev), had escaped from Pervomayskoye. The whole bloody fiasco brought down a storm of criticism on Yeltsin. But beyond the partial criticisms of this or that episode in the war, all political wings of the restorationist bureaucracy in Russia (from the CP to the liberal leaders of Yavlinsky, from Yeltsin and Chernomydin to the fascist Zhironovsky that urged him to “napalm Chechnya”) have placed themselves in the camp of Great Russian oppressor nationalism against the oppressed Chechen nation. For all these forces the war is for “reasons of state”. If Yeltsin has not fallen due to the great crisis into which Yeltsin has been put by the brave resistance of the Chechen people it is due precisely to the support “in the last instance” that his political rivals have extended him; all of them defend oppressor Great Russian chauvinism and are enemies of the self-determination of the oppressed peoples. Yet within weeks of the bloody fiasco at Pervomayskoe thousands of Dudayev supporters were demonstrating in Grozny in front of the wrecked presidential palace. By mid- February Russian troops were again making heavy work of surrounding and storming another guerrilla unit at Novogroznensky. Clearly the Russian army, divided and demoralised is unable to win a decisive victory over a small but courageous people fighting for its independence.


Conquest of Chechnya


The recent fighting is only the latest of a series of brutal attempts to crush the struggle for national independence by the Chechen people. Just over a year ago (11 Dec. 1994) Yeltsin sent the Russian armies into the mountain republic. The capital Grozny, with a mixed Chechen and Russian population of 400,000, was subjected to a savage bombing. But the land assault on the city turned into a near fiasco. Lightly armed Chechen fighters fought the Russian tanks street by street, destroying many of them and inflicting many casualties. Yeltsin mercilessly bombarded housing blocks and government buildings to rubble. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured and 400,000 refugees from Chechnya have fled into neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. Large numbers of Russian conscript soldiers met their death or suffered maiming whilst Yeltsin cruelly concealed their fate from their families. By January 1995 4,000 Russian troops had been killed and 5,000 injured in just over one year of war. Civilian casualties in Grozny alone were given as 8,500 in the same period (Nizavisimaya Gazzeta 30.1.’95)

For six months the Chechen fighters— commanded by Dudayev— held out in the presidential palace and the survivors broke through the encircling Russian forces and withdrew into the mountains.

Up to 60,000 are waging a guerrilla war against the Russian army of occupation. In June 1995 a unit humiliated the Russians by taking hostages in Budyonovsk in southern Russia. The Russians, however, installed a puppet regime in Chechnya, headed by Doku Zavgayev, the pre-1991 Stalinist leader of Chechen-Ingushetia. In December it was recently “legitimised” by a blatantly rigged election.

Dzhokar Dudayev is, according to Yeltsin, simply a gangster guilty of siphoning off his country’s resources to amass a huge personal fortune and linked to the so-called “mafia”. If this is true then he differs little from Russia’s rulers.

Minister of Defence Pavel Grachev is under suspicion of wholesale corruption during the Soviet exodus from Eastern Europe. Virtually all politicians in power in the former CIS states, virtually every banker or “businessman” is connected with the criminal gangs who go under the collective name mafia. Dudayev, whatever his reliance on the Chechen mafia, is also a nationalist politician, even a North Caucasian nationalist, militantly opposed to Russian rule over all the republics of the region.

Dudayev’s party Vainakh (Our people) won the 27 October elections with 85% of the votes against the Islamists (Islamic Revival Party), the Greens and other parties. A week later he proclaimed Chechnya’s independence and when the Ingush objected allowed them to secede peacefully. Dudayev originally won mass support by opposing both the old nomenklatura and the new privatising businessmen. Nevertheless he only wishes to seize the state assests for himself and his clique. Chechen (and Russian) workers have no reason to place any trust whatsoever in Dudayev. He is just as much an agent of capitalist restoration as Yeltsin and his agent Zavgayev. The republic was riven from the outset with factionalism between various clans and local mafias—fomented from Moscow. At one point there were nine large armed bands operating in the republic.

In early 1992 MVD and KGB troops flew into Grozny and abortively attempted to overthrow Dudayev. Met with a mass mobilisation of the armed populace they had to surrender and were bundled out of the country in humiliating circumstances. This merely gave Dudayev manifest reasons to refuse to sign the new Russian Federative treaty on 31 March 1992. Yeltsin proclaimed that this intervention was prompted by their concern for the Russian minority living in Chechnya yet there is no evidence that the country’s 300,000 Slav population were subject to any persecution or discrimination.

Since then Yeltsin has bankrolled every opposition and supervised Russian secret service operations. He imposed an air blockade and, with less effect, a land blockade in 1993. The Anti-Dudayev forces did make progress within Chechnya over the next two years. Dudayev’s regime narrowed rapidly into a military bonapartist dictatorship, dependent only on certain clans and more and more on the so-called Chechen mafia. This is in part because social base for Dudayev amongst a potential new ruling class was very narrow.

The former ruling bureaucrats, the Chechen nomenklatura continued to support Doku Zavgayev and his new master Yeltsin, whilst the pro-market intelligentsia opposed Dudayev because he would not privatise industry and the natural resources and instead imposed heavy taxes on profits. In addition his support amongst the workers and the poor, to whom he had made demagogic promises in 1991, declined sharply. The intervention of Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the Russian parliament till November 1993 in Chechen affairs added to the divisions and conflict in the independent republic .

In mid-1994 the Chechen opposition forces sponsored by Russia headed by Labazanov and Khasbulatov invaded the republic. They scored early successes which testified to Dudadyev’s loss of support amongst Chechens. However, when the advance was halted overt Russian assistance deprived them of most of their popular support and they too suffered a crushing defeat. It was this further fiasco for their agents that forced Grachev and Yeltsin to resort to a full scale Russian invasion on December 1994. They claimed that they were intervening to crush a “criminal state” where the Mafia had seized power.

Yeltsin made his real objectives clear enough in his 1995 New Year address: “Russian soldiers are [in Chechnya] to defend Russian unity. Not a single territory has the right to withdraw from Russia”. This is a flagrant denial of the elementary democratic right to self-determination, the right to secede from the Russian Federation.

It is because Dudayev, whatever his crimes, defended the countries independence that Yeltsin launched the war. The majority of the Chechen people, rejecting centuries of Moscow’s rule under the Tsars and then under Stalinism, clearly support him in this if in nothing else.


Oppression of the Chechens


The Chechens are a historically oppressed people. The annexation of the Caucasus mountains by the Tsarist empire, which commenced in 1785 was not completed till 1864. The fiercest resistance from its largely Islamic peoples came from the Chechens, who subsequently revolted several times.

In 1921 after the Civil War the Bolsheviks recognised a unitary Mountain Autonomous Republic but in 1924, under Stalin’s Commissariat of the Nationalities, the process began of dividing up the north Caucasian peoples, fostering as many ethnicities and languages as possible. The Stalinists as well as dividing them denied them real self-determination or a federation free from Great Russian domination.

Under Stalin’s Great Purges (1936-38) thing’s went from ‘divide and rule’ to wholesale annihilation of the cultural elites and attempts to destroy Islam by forces. Nevertheless, Chechen uprisings took place in 1926, 1929-30 1940 and 1942.

But this was not the worst that the Chechen people had to suffer. In 1944 Stalin deported four entire Muslim Caucasian nations (including 400,000 Chechens) into the Kazakhstan steppe. One third of them perished during transportation alone. Stalin did this ostensibly as a collective punishment for the Chechen nationalist rising two years previously, which erupted when German forces entered the northern Caucasus. Not all Chechens supported this rising and in any case by 1944 the danger to the USSR from Germany had passed. In reality Stalin was simply trying to complete the depopulation of the region and settle it with Russians. Only in 1958, after riots in Grozny did Krushchev allow the exiled Chechens to return home en masse.

As a bonapartist with collapsing popular support, and with no majority in the parliament, Yeltsin is dependent on the high command of the army, or rather on the dominant faction within it. This faction, headed by defence minister Pavel Grachev, is itself fighting for its life within the army elite, accused of corruption on a grand scale. A whole series of top commanders have resigned over the Chechen war and a potential candidate for the presidency Alexandr Lebed, former commander in Moldova, has publicly denounced the war from the outset.

In addition to the issue of Yeltsin’s prestige there are real strategic and economic reasons to hold on to Chechnya. Whilst it has only medium sized oil reserves itself in an oilfield around Grozny it has large refinery complexes which produce aviation fuel for Russia and the other CIS states. Even more important is the fact that main the pipeline which links Russia to the enormous oil fields of Azerbaijan crosses Chechen territory. Azerbaijan itself has been openly threatened by Yeltsin for striking a deal with western oil companies and for planning to export oil via Turkey or Iran, rather than through Russia.

The Kremlin sees the whole region as a part of their “near abroad”, somewhere they must dominate if not rule directly. They fear that if Chechnya goes, others may follow and the entire region could slip out of Russian control. Tatarstan, for example, has a strong independence movement which has been crudely coerced into staying within the federation, as have the other north Caucasus republics.

Yeltsin was initially encouraged to intervene in Chechnya by the benevolent attitude shown by the Western imperialist powers who have insisted all along that “Chechnya is a part of Russia”. They were willing enough to see him as the local policeman of the New World Order amongst the “barbaric” peoples of the former Soviet Union in return for Russia’s support to pressure the Serbs into a deal in Bosnia.

But the imperialists are fickle friends. Once the invasion became bogged down in the bloody battles of Grozny Kohl and Clinton started to criticise him for the bloodshed. These hypocrites are in reality worried not by the piles of Chechen dead, but that Yeltsin himself might fall if the war is a complete fiasco.

Even if it is a success it may mark Yeltsin’s absorption into the most aggressive, would-be imperialist faction of the army and the secret police. Russia could become a “military threat” once more. In addition, they are terrified that a prolonged war with a Muslim nation may ultimately embroil others, both in the Caucasus and beyond.

But whilst imperialism’s support and understanding are important, internal pressures are the determining factor in making compromise or withdrawal impossible. Yeltsin is facing a deepening political crisis and continued economic stagnation on the road to completing capitalist restoration. As might be expected in a period of deep economic crisis, racism and the search for scapegoats, is rife in Russia.

The peoples of the Caucasus are a particular butt of racism. They are blamed for the corruption and lawlessness which the market economy has brought. Russia’s capitalist restoration process is in deep crisis and Yeltsin’s answer is an increasingly dictatorial government, using his bonapartist powers to rule and trying to recover some mass support by stirring up national chauvinist feelings against the Chechens.

Within the first year of fighting alone 4,000 Russian troops had been killed and 5,000 injured in just over one year of war, The Chechen war has however provoked opposition in Russia. There were immediate street protests when the troops went in. these involved involving veterans of the Afghan war and mothers of conscripts. The latter sent delegations to Chechnya to try to find out the fate of their sons. So far however, the widespread hatred of Yeltsin has not yet turned into mass action against him.


What is to be done?


It is vital that workers defend and extend the very limited democratic freedoms they gained after the disintegration of the Stalinist regime. Alongside defence of their political rights there is the vital task of defending jobs, wages and living conditions against the ravages of the restoration process. The recent strikes of the Russian miners and teachers show that workers are beginning to shake off illusions in the market-reformers and the paralysis which descended on them with the shock therapy of 1992.

The higher turn out in the parliamentary elections also shows a decline in political passivity which bodes ill for the present rulers. Defending the Chechens’ right to self-determination, as well as refusing to be fooled by the poison of Russian nationalism, are crucial if Russian workers are to defend themselves against the tribble social results of the attempt to restore capitalism. As Marx said “a nation which oppresses another can never itself be free”.

The Chechen fighters, the Russian workers, and the ordinary Russian soldiers themselves have the power to inflict a huge political defeat on Yeltsin. The workers have the power to use the crisis in Chechnya to drive Yeltsin and his warmongers from office.

Workers everywhere must support the right of the Chechen people in their struggle against Russian domination and oppression. The Russian people—beginning with the workers who have shown their potential in the recent strike wave—must unite their struggles and demands with those of their oppressed class brothers and struggle for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and for the unconditional right of self-determination for Chechnya.

It is the revolutionary mobilisation of the Russian people and of the ex-USSR who must call for the victory of the Chechen masses, and to have no confidence in Dudayev who at every turn wants to enlist “democratic imperialism” to help him.

As Trotsky said in his writings on Ukraine, ‘in the imperialist epoch the question of national independence is indissolubly linked to the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ For this reason we raise. the need to fight for an independent workers’ republic in Chechnya

Only the Chechen workers and peasants can do that. The Chechens as the foremost fighters for national freedom in a region with many intermixed national minorities cannot solve the question of their free and independent national life without reference to the other peoples. An isolated Chechnya will in any case be an economic disaster. That is why as a minimum they must set themselves the goal of a federation of all the peoples of the Caucasus.

Unless such a republic is based upon preserved and strengthened state ownership of large scale production and the natural resources then it will continue to be plundered by the mafia, to have a heavy toll levied on its exports by Russia and may even fall into the hands of the Western oil monopolies. Such nationalised production requires efficient and democratic planning— which only the working class of all the nationalities can bring about.

Therefore an independent federation of Caucasus republics has to be based on workers’ council (and militia) power allied to councils of the peasants and rural population. Such a power can prevent the national differences of the peoples of the Caucasus being used as playthings by restorationist elites and the Kremlin.

Last but not least the urban and rural workers of the region must unite with their Russian brothers and sisters to overthrow Yeltsin and his clique and all wings of the restorationist bureaucracy and reverse the restoration of capitalism—opening the road to a free and equal federation of workers states across the entire former Soviet Union and beyond.

In order to struggle for this perspective, which is nothing other that what Lenin and Trotsky stated in their time, it is essential to build an international Trotskyist party in Russia and the ex-USSR.