Chechnya: the case for independence
Russia's bloody wars
Small state seeks new history
From The Economist print edition
CHECHNYA is a rebellious part of Russia that was run by gangsters and Islamic fundamentalists, closely linked to al-Qaeda. After a bloody but necessary war, it has become largely peaceful though occasional terrorist attacks continue.
Washing away history
That, roughly, is what the Kremlin would like the world to believe. Tony Wood's new book takes issue with every part of that argument and puts the case, in a simplistic if passionate manner, for the other side. The truth, he maintains, is that the outside world's “credulousness and cowardice” has enabled a “chilling conjuring trick”, in which the Chechens' aspirations to self-determination have disappeared behind a “cloud of euphemisms and falsifications”.
For a start, Chechnya is not legally part of Russia. It was part of the Soviet Union, true, but it gained the rights of a “republic”, including the right to determine its own future, from the Soviet parliament in 1990. That put it, Mr Wood argues, on broadly the same legal footing as other “Soviet republics” such as Estonia or Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya did not vote to join its successor state, the Russian Federation. The agreements that ended the first Chechen war in 1996 explicitly recognised the republic as a subject of international law.
Mr Wood, assistant editor of New Left Review, a British periodical, concedes that the period of semi-independence that followed was a grisly mess, where kidnapping and slave-trading became big business. But he blames Russia for that, for having ruined the Chechen economy and for the Kremlin's persistent attempts to undermine the Chechen authorities.
He argues strongly against the idea that Chechnya was or is an outpost of international Islamic terrorism. Saudi-financed extremism was alien to the Sufi and nationalist traditions of Chechen Islam, he says, and the ties that have arisen are opportunistic, not ideological. Reports of Chechens fighting abroad have been grossly exaggerated; so have the numbers of foreign fighters in Chechnya.
The wars in Chechnya have been atrocious on both sides. While condemning the “degeneration” of Chechen resistance tactics into terrorism, Mr Wood tries hard to depict them as reactions to the systematic and continuing use of illegal detention, torture, rape and murder by the Russian side. Far from pacifying the republic and restoring normal life, the Kremlin has installed a “vicious client regime” that rules by “larcenous brutality”.
Chechnya has often been a pawn in Russia's internal power-struggles and related swindles, and Mr Wood is right to highlight the Kremlin's cynicism, incompetence and casual brutality. But the book is too slim, simplistic and one-sided to do full justice to the issue. Russians come across as cardboard villains, with no hint of the agonised debates and dilemmas the war has prompted. Equally, he depicts the Chechens as cardboard martyrs, not real people with spectacular virtues and failings. The reader gets little flavour of Chechnya's steamy clan politics, or the rebel leadership's often bizarre and batty notions, nor of the murky deals in which all sides are engaged.