A dispassionate analysis of the conflict in Chechnya after the school siege in Beslan in Russia’s province of North Ossetia affords little consolation to either side. But such tough-mindedness is essential, if only to help clarify possible lessons and outcomes of the conflict. That is the only possible route to reaching the least worst outcome for Russian and Chechen alike.
First, Chechnya clearly cannot realistically hope to achieve the sovereign independence for which the rebels are fighting. In itself, this is not a newly revealed consequence of the siege at Beslan but was in fact already clear in 1999-2000.
It is equally apparent that it is impossible for any of the elements of Russia’s security sector - police, intelligence, regular or special military forces - to win this war. No element of the Russian security community commands either the necessary professional skill or the aptitude to win by force and subsequently institute a new order based on legitimacy rather than brute force. The pacification of Chechnya appears to be impossible unless those three elements of the Russian security sector - and the state that supervises them - undergo profound reform.
However, even if a process of reform began tomorrow, it would take several years for its results to become visible - years that Russia can ill-afford to spend waiting. The well documented brutality of Russian troops’ conduct in Chechnya; their security forces’ lack of elementary competence; and similar incompetence from government officials have combined to generate the second major consequence of the Chechen conflict. This is the fact that the war has irrevocably spread beyond Chechnya.
This diffusion is not simply a question of the Chechens’ ability to strike in Moscow, at Russian aircraft departing from Moscow or at schoolchildren in North Ossetia. Nor does it pertain solely to the fact that the Chechens continue to exploit Georgia’s inability to police fully the neighbouring Pankisi Gorge. Rather it is testimony to the fact that the Chechens have frequently crossed into neighbouring provinces such as Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia without any visible impediment. Such frontier crossings reflect not only the poor performance of Russian border officials but also the Chechens’ ability to operate in these areas and to gain sympathisers, despite their own brutality and the fact that they also coerce local people into working for them.
The spread of the conflict to areas beyond Chechnya highlights Russia’s inability to bring the rebellion to a satisfactory conclusion. It also indicates the third consequence of Russia’s ‘invasion’ in 1999, if not that of 1994 - it is impossible to discover any meaningful concept of ‘victory’. Nobody seems willing to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin exactly what he means by victory, since Russian tactics appear to be modelled on those described by the Roman historian Tacitus: "where they make a desert they call it peace." Nor is it likely that the Russian president could answer that question satisfactorily.
This kind of victory, besides probably being unattainable, will almost certainly produce a power vacuum in Chechnya. As a consequence, it is almost certain that some other force will either seek to gain power in Chechnya or carry on the struggle by other means, especially as the war has now spread.
The North Caucasus is one of Russia’s most impoverished areas and the recent conflicts have not helped the region. Continued war and brutality are almost guaranteed to lead other North Caucasian men to take up arms on behalf of one side or another or to launch their own wars.
In such a scenario, the resort to war on a larger regional scale will only make it harder to solve any of the existing wars in the North Caucasus or in the neighbouring Transcaucasus. In all of these conflicts, whether they are dormant or active, analysts have long discerned the emergence of a rather stable political economy of conflict where gangsters on either side profit handsomely from continued fighting and are determined to perpetuate it in support of their own interests.
Putin - a 21st century Tsar?
It is clear that the war, while ostensibly a response to a genuine terrorist threat, has also served as a means by which Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, could reverse trends towards democratisation in Russia.
The Chechen war that began in 1999 therefore served as a pretext for muzzling the media and distorting the presidential and Duma elections of 1999-2000. It also helped to justify the takeover of key state positions by a new police- and military-based elite who rule in an old-fashioned, totalitarian fashion.
Even the murders at Beslan, in common with many other episodes of official malfeasance regarding Russian security, have been used by Putin to justify his suspension of Russian federalism. He has also used Beslan to enhance police powers, suppress the media and facilitate his undermining of the principle of property rights, as illustrated by the Yukos affair.
While many analysts regard these moves as a return to Soviet rule, it would be more accurate to state that they point towards a return to late Tsarism - which itself was no guardian of liberty. Putin’s version of police capitalism, whereby property is owned only on conditions of the central government’s sufferance; his suspension of elementary civil liberties; his increasing chauvinism; and the free rein he affords his security agencies - all this resembles late Tsarism. There is no Leninist ideology or omnipotent Communist Party to hold Putin back.
Aligned to these manifestations of an outdated, retrogressive and repressive state structure, which was recognised as an anachronism even in its own time, is the continuing reification of Russia as an imperial state. The Russian analyst Alexei Malashenko observed in 1999 that the invasion of Chechnya represented the continuation of the central authorities’ idea of the state as an empire; nothing that has occurred since that time has invalidated this view.
Russia’s threats against Georgia for failing to handle the consequences of its own misrule, for instance, as well as Moscow’s open advocacy of empire, whether ‘liberal’ or the real thing, indicates that the attraction of Russia’s imperial heritage lives on, even among former liberals.
As most historians of Russia know, empire and autocracy go together but are utterly antithetical to liberalisation and democracy. Indeed, empire and autocracy are mutually reinforcing conditions under which the state exists for the benefit of the rulers at the expense of the people. Russia’s actions in Chechnya, despite the real threat of terrorism posed by Chechen extremists and the absence of any
willingness among them to find a negotiated solution, embody the revenge of the imperial state and its agents.
Inasmuch as the war serves as the pretext for Russia’s current power and the justification for its rule in Chechnya, moves towards demilitarisation of the conflict are highly unlikely. Indeed, the Russians are moving towards greater centralisation, more force and increased corruption.