War and Conflict


What is the conflict over Chechnya?

Since the 1990s separatist factions have been fighting for the independence of the tiny Russian republic (at just more than 6,000 square miles in area, it is about the size of Hawaii).

Chechnya’s population falls into three main ethnic groups: Chechens (the majority), Ingush, and Russian. The religion of the Chechen and the Ingush peoples is Islam, while the Russian population is mostly Orthodox Christian. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the region remained with the new Russian Federation as the Chechen-Ingush republic. But dissent grew, and in 1991 a rebel faction led by Dzhokhar Dudayev (1944–1996) took control of the government. Chechnya separated from Ingushetia to form two separate republics in 1992.

In 1994 Russian troops invaded to reclaim the Chechen capital of Grozny, an oil and manufacturing center. By this time two factions existed among the rebels: one was a nationalist movement and the other a fundamentalist Islamic movement. In 1995 the conflict spilled over into neighboring regions, as Chechen militants began a series of terror attacks. In June of that year gunmen seized a hospital in Budyonnovsk, about 90 miles north of the Chechen border, in the Stavropol territory, and held 1,800 people hostage for six days. More than 100 people were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1996 Chechen terrorists seized another hospital, holding 2,000 hostages, this time in neighboring Dagestan; at least 23 people were killed. Russia’s military strikes in Chechnya continued until a cease-fire was negotiated in 1996, by which time dissident leader Dudayev had been killed.

Even after a peace treaty was signed in 1997, ending the First Chechen War, the status of Russia’s “breakaway republic” remained unclear. In 1999 the battle over Chechnya’s status was taken straight to the Russian capital of Moscow, where five bombings in four weeks claimed 300 lives; Islamic militants in Chechnya were blamed. The Kremlin responded with force, leveling Grozny by early 2000 and displacing a quarter of a million people from their homes. A pro-Moscow administration was put into place.

Violence related to the Chechen conflict continued throughout Russia. Suicide bombings alone claimed more than 260 lives between 2002 and 2004. There were large-scale assaults as well: In October 2002 Chechen militants took more than 700 people hostage at a Moscow theater; after a two-day standoff, Russian Special Forces stormed the building, killing 41 Chechen fighters and 129 hostages. In August 2004 two airliners crashed within minutes of each other after taking off from the same airport; 90 people died in the crashes, which Russian president Vladimir Putin (1952-) labeled terrorism. And on September 1, 2004, 32 armed militants seized an elementary school in Beslan, North Ossetia, a region bordering Chechnya. The terrorists held some 1,200 hostages for 48 hours, at which time Russian forces stormed the building; 335 people died, most of them children. Leaders of the Chechen nationalist movement distanced themselves from the terrorist acts, the responsibility for which were claimed by a militant Chechen Muslim group.

Chechnya continued to be unstable, with Putin resolved to a hard-line approach to the breakaway republic. In elections held in March 2003, voters reportedly approved a new constitution that declared Chechnya to be part of Russia. But critics found the election results irregular, with almost 96 percent of voters expressing support for the referendum. Months later, pro-Moscow leadership was elected in the person of Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov; critics called it a puppet regime.

In March 2005 Chechen nationalist leader Aslan Maskhadov (1951–2005) was killed in a Russian assault. His death was seen as a victory for Moscow; Maskhadov, who had briefly been president (1997–1999) of an independent Chechnya, was generally viewed as a moderate who believed an honest dialogue between the two sides could bring an end to the decade-long conflict.


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