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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Yeltsin's Chechen nightmare
By Steven Eke
BBC Russian affairs analyst

A Russian tank in Chechnya in 1994
The first Chechen war was widely seen as a national humiliation
Many Western leaders have praised Boris Yeltsin's role in the largely peaceful demise of the Soviet Union and Russia's faltering, initial transition to a free-market democracy.

Few of them have chosen to focus on the consequences of his decision to send the Russian army into the Republic of Chechnya.

In the event, Mr Yeltsin's war on Chechnya was a gruesome debacle.

Tens of thousands of civilians were killed; Chechnya's major towns were razed; and both Mr Yeltsin's and Russia's image were sullied the world over.

And in the end, Russia was defeated, humiliated by a forced withdrawal.

Djokhar Dudayev
Dudayev was instrumental in inspiring Chechnya's struggle

The seeds of the first Chechen war were sown when Djokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force general, was elected president of Chechnya in October 1991.

Over the next three years, Dudayev reigned over a quasi-independent territory that degenerated into a mafia heartland. It was a centre of crime, including the trade in arms, drugs and people.

Ultimately, the Russian government issued an ultimatum, asserting that the situation in Chechnya threatened the country's stability and territorial integrity.

The decision to use force was strongly backed by Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, as well as many other figures within and close to the Russian government.

This included those identified as pro-Western reformists, such as Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Indiscriminate slaughter

The Russian army was not capable of fighting the war. It was demoralised, short of money and weaponry.

Virtually untrained conscripts were sent into battle, using World War II tactics unsuited to modern urban guerrilla warfare.

Chechen woman in distress
Years of fighting left Grozny in ruins

The result was indiscriminate slaughter.

Serious human rights violations, including torture and summary executions, were commonplace.

Crucially, both Russian and foreign journalists were allowed to work in Chechnya during the first war. They risked their lives to do so, but the horrors they described had a major impact on how Russia and Boris Yeltsin would be perceived.

And yet it all ended in failure.

Eventually, the Chechen rebel forces recaptured the shattered capital, Grozny. And, in August 1996, Russia signed a ceasefire - the so-called Khasavyurt Accord.

It was widely seen as a national humiliation, sealing Russia's decline from global superpower, to an economically and morally bankrupt basket-case.

Tactics change

Yet Russia's defeat in the first Chechen war might be seen as the very first foundation stone in the country's development since then.

Chechnya map

President Vladimir Putin's ascent to power; his determination to re-assert the "might" of the Russian state; and the centralised, tight system of power he has prevailed over; have their roots in the defeat.

In August 1999, public opinion in Russia was ready for the second war, when then-Prime Minister Putin launched it.

During its three years of relative independence, Chechnya had again descended into criminality. Perhaps even more significantly, there was also a growing presence of Islamic radicals from the Middle East.

Mr Putin adopted very different tactics.

Russian special forces in Chechnya in 1999
Thousands of Russian soldiers remain in Chechnya

The army would receive anything it needed. Journalists would be prevented from working freely in Chechnya: no longer would there be talk of "Russian colonialism".

The second Chechen war, Moscow insisted, was part of the "global war on Islamist terror". At some stage, Western governments began to agree.

The killings did not end; nor did attacks on Russian civilians.

But Mr Putin, unlike his predecessor, had an idea of the end-game.

Termed "Chechenisation", it centred on finding ethnic Chechens, who would be both loyal to Moscow and enjoy sufficient status among their own people, to be imposed as administrators.

President Ramzan Kadyrov is now that loyal, unchallenged administrator.

Human rights groups say he rules by fear, using a private militia to control a cowed population.

Moscow insists that he has brought enough peace to allow impressive reconstruction work to take place, and that Chechnya has been firmly returned to its place as a constituent region of the Russian Federation.


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