Chechnya redux

There is every reason to believe that Russia's President Boris Yeltsin is taking a leaf out of Josef Stalin's book. In 1944, the Soviet dictator deported the people of Chechnya to Central Asia. Some 200,000 died on the way. The name of their republic was expunged from the history books. Fifty-five years later, Mr. Yeltsin is making war from the air and on the ground to stifle Chechnya's demand for independence. It is a resumption of the offensive he began in 1994. Once more, the people have suffered, in the hundreds of thousands, as casualties and refugees.

Stalin erased Chechnya because, he said, the people had collaborated with the German invader - although the German Army never reached the province. Today, Yeltsin says he is fighting terrorists and criminals who threaten the security of the North Caucasus region and of the Russian Federation. His prime minister, Vladimir Putin, says he will "eliminate" what he calls a bandit republic. Another high official says flatly that refugees will be "resettled." Moscow appears to want Chechnya without the Chechens.

Both sides are playing out a violent drama more than 200 years old. In the 18th century, the czars moving south against the Ottoman Turks met their first real and humiliating resistance at the hands of the Muslim Chechens and Dagestanis. Moscow responded with total war against the entire population. The conflict lasted much of the 19th century with mass executions, Siberian exile, and expulsions to the Ottoman territory. The province was never pacified. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, Chechens and Dagestanis proclaimed a "Mountain Republic" intended to unite all Caucasian Muslims. The Red Army smashed it, and Chechens fought alone. History records five anti-Soviet uprisings until 1942.

After Stalin's death, the Chechens walked back from exile. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Chechens declared their independence in the face of Russian economic blockade and ruthless violence, and then of invasion and war.

Moscow's dogged brutality has deep roots in its determination not to lose the spoils of past greatness and geographical assets. Chechnya is a strategic rail and oil pipeline route. Losing it would block the reach of Moscow's influence to the whole Transcaucasia.

In addition, Chechens have talked of reviving the Mountain Republic - this time seeking to spread it eastward to the Muslim republics of Central Asia. Russian public opinion, depressed by squalor and frustration, rises to the Kremlin's demonization of the Chechens. By and large, the government has support for punishment of terrorists who, it says, blew up apartment houses in Russia last summer, killing hundreds. A small, victorious war - like the Falklands or Grenada - first begun when Yeltsin's polls were falling, would help his chosen successor, Mr. Putin, in next summer's election.

To be sure, Chechnya is not Disneyland. A tight network of clans with its culture of feuds and vendettas raises the level of violence; criminality is deeply ingrained. Kidnapping and assassination are commonplace. Chechen terrorists have punished and provoked Russians as far away as Moscow. Ironically, Yeltsin and Putin, even as they continue bombing and tighten the blockade, say there can be no military solution but assert they can find no one to negotiate with.

In 1818, the military governor of the Caucasus warned the czar that he would find no peace as long as a single Chechen remained alive. In the 1940s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn encountered Chechens in the gulag concentration camps and marveled at their refusal to submit. Never, he wrote, would a Chechen seek favors from those in charge. Always did they stand up to the system profoundly and even with open hostility; and the wonder of it was that they were feared.

The Kremlin may well break its teeth on the Chechens' granite resolve. Then what?

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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