Russia’s ill-fated decision to intervene in the Chechen civil war has precipitated a political crisis at least as heated, and far more bloody, than the 1993 presidential-parliamentary showdown. Consider the following; all the major “democratic” parties, including former prime minister and Yeltsin backer Yegor Gaidar’s “Russia’s Choice,” have denounced the intervention and called for a halt to military operations, leaving only Vladimir Zhirinovsky and a few other ultranationalists backing the action; Grigory Yavlinsky, a leading proradical reform parliament deputy, has called for President Boris Yeltsin’s resignation; Yeltsin’s own human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, who spent three weeks in the besieged Chechen capital of Grozny, has bitterly denounced the intervention, citing the “huge number of civilian casualties— helpless invalids, elderly people, women —most of them ethnic Russians who had no place to go,” thus undermining official claims of concern over civilian deaths as well as concern about the region’s Russian population; a number of Russian general staff officers have denounced the intervention, and Russian news media accounts indicate growing dissension in the ranks of the ragged and infrequently paid army (a group of enlisted men bitterly told a Russian reporter of having had their first decent meal in some time while being held prisoner by the Chechens); the State Duma’s communist faction is agitating for early presidential elections (previously scheduled for 1996), as deputies prepare for an extended emergency session; as of early January, 40,000 Russian troops have been committed to the assault on Grozny, and the high-spirited Chechen irregulars are fighting on, prompting comparisons with the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Russian government felt it had sufficient grounds for intervention, and reason to expect popular support. After all, Chechen strongman Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, had seized power in Grozny by coup in 1991, taking advantage of the chaos following the failure of the August anti- Gorbachev putsch. He then had himself elected President in a disputed election; his popular support has steadily declined ever since. lie was in dire straits last November, with insurgent anti-Dudayev forces already closing the ring around the capital. Dudayev is widely believed to be connected to (if not the godfather of) the notorious Chechen mafia, gangsters who are feared throughout the former Soviet Union, and has threatened Moscow on many occasions with a wave of terrorist attacks if the Russian authorities attempted to interfere. The Chechen coup set a dangerous example in the eyes of the Russians, with the specter of warlordism threatening the stability of the Russian federation. Chechnya is still, at least technically, Russian territory, and the civil war there threatens to spill over into volatile adjacent territories. The possibility of a wider war in the Russian Caucasus is real enough.
The story of what went wrong is twofold. First, the Russian public might have supported a quick application of massive force followed by an early withdrawal, but the ill-conceived and tentative intervention (which Russian officials initially denied) quickly bogged down as casualties, both military and civilian, mounted. The specter of another futile, drawn-out conflict, à la Afghanistan, has weighed heavily on the minds of the Russian public. Second, the presence of Russian troops in Chechnya, as well as the clumsy and brutal application of Russian air power, has rallied Chechens to the defense of their homeland.
The Chechens are one of the many mountain peoples of the Caucasus who were conquered by the czar’s armies in a series of bloody 19th-century campaigns. Muslims whose native language is Turkic in origin, they earned a reputation for tenacity, ferocity, and stubborn courage in their hard-fought war against Russian domination. The Chechens’ traditional way of life is clan-based, and the bold feud was long a feature of their hard-scrabble lives. The threat of the outlander was the cement that bound the Chechen clans into a nation, and Stalin’s deportation of that tiny nation of less than a million souls in the 1940’s (about a third of their number died) burned distrust of Moscow into the national consciousness. In spite of (or maybe because of) the old imperial policy of Russification (many Chechens speak Russian as their first language today) and Stalin’s deportation of the entire nation (the survivors were allowed to return following the tyrant’s death), as well as the Soviet policy of religious repression, the Chechen identity asserted itself with a vengeance once the fight with the foreign invaders began. Chechens who may have had no sympathy for Dudayev are now rushing to the defense of Grozny and national autonomy. People who may have never openly practiced their religion are now shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) in the rubble of the Chechen capital. Even the leaders of the anti-Dudayev coalition that had led the fight against him earlier (and had accepted Moscow’s aid, hoping, apparently, for autonomy within the Russian federation following Dudayev’s ouster), warned the Russians not to intervene directly in the conflict. Theirs was a fight between kinsmen and fellow Muslims, and the Chechen people, anti-Dudayev or not, so the Russians were told, would not welcome the direct interference of outsiders in their clan feuds. The warnings went unheeded.
What may come as a result of the Kremlin’s miscalculation is anybody’s guess. What does seem clear, though, is that the Chechen crisis should instruct our own denationalized American elites, who preach the gospel of the New World Order, open borders, and multiculturalism, on the power and resilience of particularist identities. We may call it nationalism, tribalism, clannishness, or what have you, but it is an essential and natural ingredient of human community. Moreover, if the Russians and Soviets were unable forcibly to assimilate the Chechens, who at their peak could barely populate an American city, while using the sternest possible measures over a period of roughly a century and a half, perhaps we should rethink the notion that a few Big Macs, a pair of Nike sneakers, and some Madonna CDs, together with enough English to make one’s way through K-Mart, are enough to concert untold millions of Mexicans, Chinese, and Nigerians, among others, into Americans. The Los Angeles riots and the behavior of certain Latino organizations during the Proposition 187 campaign should serve as a reminder to us of what any village idiot knows: when the crunch comes, blood calls to blood and people line up with their own kind against outsiders.