Chechnya profile - Overview
- 9 December 2014
- From the section Europe
The southern Russian republic of Chechnya is surrounded on nearly all sides by Russian territory but also shares with neighbouring Georgia a remote border high in the Caucasus mountains.
Rich in oil, its economy and infrastructure were reduced to ruins by years of war between local separatists and Russian forces, combined with armed banditry and organised crime. Overview
Chechnya has been a thorn in Russia's mountainous southern border for nearly two centuries. The Russians finally overcame the resistance of Imam Shamil in 1859, claiming the Caucasus region for the empire after a long and bloody campaign that caught the imagination of many 19th Century Russian writers from Lermontov to Tolstoy.
The Chechens had to wait for more than 60 years before they briefly escaped Russian dominion again in the chaos following the October revolution.
However, that period of independence was short-lived and by 1922 the republic had been forced back into the Russian fold.
World War II and the Nazi invasion presented another glimpse of freedom from Moscow's rule. When the war ended, Stalin sought vengeance. He accused the Chechens of collaborating. Their punishment was mass deportation to Siberia and Central Asia. They were allowed to return only in 1957 when Khrushchev was in power in the Kremlin.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former senior officer in the Soviet air force, declared independence from Russia. Yeltsin responded by sending a few hundred Interior Ministry servicemen to the republic. They were met at the airport by Chechen fighters and sent back home on buses, the first in a series of humiliations for Moscow.
This was followed by three years during which armed groups gained an increasing hold on Chechnya and Dudayev became more outspoken in his defiance of Moscow where the leadership argued over how to handle the situation.
In 1994 Russia sent its forces in a very poorly planned bid to bring the rebellious region back to heel. Early promises of a quick victory were soon silent as the Chechens put up fierce resistance to the Russian assault and the death toll mounted.
Amid growing public outcry over rising losses in the Russian army, Moscow withdrew its forces under a 1996 peace agreement. The deal gave Chechnya substantial autonomy but not full independence. The Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, was elected president.
However, Russia failed to invest in reconstruction. Maskhadov could not control brutal warlords who grew rich by organised crime and kidnapping. Many victims were murdered by their captors.
Holy war crushed
In August 1999, Chechen fighters crossed into the neighbouring Russian Republic of Dagestan to support a declaration by an Islamic body based there of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya. This body also called on all Muslims to take up arms against Russia in a holy war. By now Vladimir Putin was Russian prime minister and Moscow was fast and firm in its reaction. Within a couple of weeks the rebellion was over.
The late summer of the same year saw several explosions in Russia in which hundreds died. The Russian authorities did not hesitate to blame the Chechens.
Mr Putin sent the army back to subdue the republic by force in a second brutal campaign which, despite Russian claims of victory, has yet to reach a conclusion.
Western criticism of Russian tactics and human rights violations in Chechnya was all but silenced following the 11 September attacks on the US. Russia has since portrayed Chechen rebel forces as part of the global terror network and uses this to vindicate its methods.
A controversial referendum in March 2003 approved a new constitution, giving Chechnya more autonomy but stipulating that it remained firmly part of Russia. Moscow ruled out participation by the armed opposition and there were widespread concerns that the republic was far too unstable to ensure a valid outcome.
Parliamentary elections in November 2005 saw the pro-Kremlin United Russia party win over half the seats. Separatist rebels dismissed the election as a charade but President Putin said that the legal process of restoring constitutional order had been completed.
Since then there has been increased investment in reconstruction projects and the shattered city of Groznyy is being rebuilt. While Russia is keen to highlight these signs of rebirth, sporadic violence continues.
In April 2009, Moscow announced that the situation in Chechnya had improved to such extent that it felt able to end its military operation against the rebels. Sporadic attacks by separatists continue, however, including a triple suicide bombing in Grozny that killed six people in August 2011, and a night-time raid on the city by gunmen that left 16 people dead in 2014.