Putin's two wars:

on Chechnya and Russian workers

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #24, June 14, 2000)


. It's not in the headlines anymore, but the war continues. The Russian army has captured all the major cities in Chechnya, but the Chechen people continue to resist. In the last issue we said that the capture of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, wouldn't bring an end to the war. And it hasn't. The Russian army is seeking to bottle up the Chechen fighters in the villages and mountains of the southern highlands, and yet Chechen guerrilla attacks on Russian troops are occurring all through Chechnya. Repeated fighting is taking place in the Argun and Vedeno valleys, but other attacks have taken place well behind Russian lines. Meanwhile, some Chechen fighters have apparently returned to Grozny itself, as the Russian army has reported attacks at night on its outposts there.

. Chechnya is a small country of hardly a million people in the northern Caucasus, which is a mountainous isthmus located between the Caspian and Black Seas in the southeast of what used to be the Soviet Union. It was annexed by Tsarist Russia in the mid-19th century. When the Soviet Union broke up, Chechnya declared its independence from Russia, but the Yeltsin free-market government wouldn't accept this, and eventually invaded Chechnya. It devastated Chechnya in a three-year-long conflict, lasting from the end of 1994 to the end of 1996, but it lost this war and signed an agreement with the Chechnya, the Khasavyurt Accords. This agreement, however, left Chechnya's status indefinite. Today the free-market regime in Russia, this time under Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, President Putin, is once again invading Chechnya.

. This is a brutal war, which the Russians are seeking to win by force of numbers and overwhelming firepower. 100,000 Russian troops have entered a country of less than a million people. They use heavy bombardment of cities and villages from planes and artillery as their standard operating procedure. Grozny, which was devastated by the earlier war and never rebuilt, was systematically destroyed, with block after block of buildings in the city center leveled. Towns and villages have been ravaged and looted repeatedly; up to 200,000 refugees have been forced to flee from place to place; and all Chechen males over the age of 12 have been regarded as fair game for savage interrogation in "filtration camps". The Russian government, declaring that it is not fighting a foreign war, but just "criminals" and "terrorists", feels free to throw aside even the most elementary humanitarian considerations, and even harasses doctors who dare to treat Chechen wounded. This is a war against the people.

. Meanwhile Clinton and the Western powers, although they grumble every now and then about the brutalities of this war, are themselves accomplices in the ravaging of Chechnya. They insist that Chechnya is indeed a part of Russia, no matter what the Chechens themselves want, and they have stressed their sympathy with the suppression of supposed "terrorists" and "criminals". So long as they are in a partnership, if a somewhat uneasy one, with Russia, they will merely advise Russia to lighten up a bit in how it suppresses Chechnya. Should, however, a serious conflict break out between the Western powers and Russia on other issues (which isn't likely in the immediate future, but can never be absolutely ruled out), they may start shouting about Chechnya, but only as part of renewed squabbling with Russia over spheres of influence. The Western imperialist powers have no concern for the Chechen people themselves; and their attitude to Chechnya depends on the far more important objectives in their game of world power politics. The struggle against the Chechen war must base itself on building international solidarity among the working masses of all countries, and increasing their ability to oppose all imperialism, Western as well as Russian.

War abroad, reaction at home

. If the war is devastating Chechnya, it is also a disaster for Russian working people. Under the banner of a patriotic war to avenge the defeat of 1994-6 and restore the prestige of the Russian army, the free-market Russian bourgeoisie has used the war to drown out opposition to its exploitation of the Russian workers. The economic "shock therapy" carried out by then-President Yeltsin in the 90s slashed the living standards of the majority of Russians, while enriching a thin upper crust of Russians. The Russian health care and school systems are is in tatters; millions of workers still don't get paid for months at a time; retired workers have seen their pensions shrink to next to nothing; and the percentage of Russians under the poverty line exceeds that in the U.S. during the Great Depression of the 30s. The Russian population actually declines from year to year. But under the banner of the war, the present Putin government has achieved a mandate to step up the policies that have brought this disaster. The last few months have seen the following developments:

The mainstream Russian opposition

. The mainstream Russian opposition can roughly be divided into the liberals (or forces of the "right"), the Stalinists (such as Zyuganov's "Communist" Party of the Russian Federation, which is not actually communist, but state-capitalist), and the ultra-nationalists (such as Zhirinovsky's fascist "Liberal Democratic" Party). It may seem somewhat charitable to call any or all of these forces an "opposition", since these forces repeatedly have been allied with the government or in it, but the history of the 90s was that of constant quarrels between the Yeltsin government and parliament, which was dominated by one or the other opposition coalition. Yet whatever squabbles they forces had with Yeltsin, all these forces have, so far, fallen in line behind Putin's war on Chechnya.

. As a result, the liberals sold out Chechnya as they sold out every principle but faster and faster privatization. The process of liberal disillusionment can be traced in the worried writings of a prominent liberal, Sergei Kovalev, who has one of the best records with respect to Chechnya of any of the liberals in the Duma. A dissident in Soviet days, he was appointed presidential Human Rights Commissioner by Yeltsin, and in that position he bitterly attacked the atrocities committed during the first Chechen war. But, writing just after that war, he had to admit that the liberal forces had been "too broken" to mount any effective protest. Contrasting the passivity of most of the liberals during the first Chechen war to the mass protests of 1991 (supported by the liberals but not restricted to them) against using force to retain the Baltic Republics inside the Soviet Union, he wrote:

"We turned out to be too exhausted, too broken and disillusioned, to shake Moscow with a 500,000-strong demonstration in the first days of the Chechen adventures--as we did in January 1991 after events in Vilnius. The price of our civilian passivity was 100,000 corpses in the North Caucasus [where Chechnya is located--JG]."

He could take pride only in the activity of "several dozen honest journalists--just a few dozen" and in "a few dozen, nongovernment organizations all across the country" (nor were these forces all liberals). He consoled himself with the thought that, at least, "we turned out to be sufficiently sober not to let ourselves be deceived by the government." (2)

. Three years later, Kovalev has lost this last consolation. Now his assessment of the liberals, including the particular liberal party he himself belongs to, is even bleaker. He shows their prominent leaders clinging for dear life to President Putin, and to war chauvinism against Chechnya. He writes that:

"The so-called 'rightists' (i.e., the 'Union of Right Forces,'--which includes my own party, the 'Democratic Choice of Russia'), had in effect announced their support of Putin's candidacy in the presidential elections before Yeltsin resigned. Indeed, the fact that the Union of Right Forces passed the 5-percent barrier in the parliamentary elections, an accomplishment which was more than doubtful just a couple of months ago, is largely owing to the fact that a number of its prominent leaders, including such reformers as Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Kiriyenko, publicly supported Putin and the war. . . . a deal between Putin and the rightists seems highly likely. Putin's administration will accept the liberal program of economic reform that the rightists insist on. The rightists will refrain from excessive criticism of the authoritarian and police features of Putin's government. And perhaps they will even support more stringent police measures, as they have already supported the second Chechen war. There is nothing new under the sun. Something similar happened in Chile during Pinochet's dictatorship." (3)
"The KPRF . . . confined itself to criticising the conduct rather than the principle of the war, while discreetly voting funds to continue it and pleasing the army by extending the draft." (5)

Another writer notes that, while a KPRF member of the Duma, Leonid Pokrovsky, "went to Chechnya with human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalev and worked alongside him trying to expose the reality of the army's war on Chechen civilians", the party leader Zyuganov bitterly denounced such work. Zyuganov "accused Kovalev of 'one-sidedly' supporting Chechen separatists and intrigued to procure his dismissal." (6) As the Russian army suffered one fiasco after another, the Chechen war became very unpopular. In this situation, Zyuganov advocated the impeachment of Yeltsin for his "criminal" war in Chechnya, but also denounced the peace settlement as a betrayal of Russia! Indeed, he "was by far the most strident critic of Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin for surrendering [to the Chechens--JG]". (7)

. While the KPRF leadership would flay the incompetence of the Russian war effort, it did not support the Chechen right to self-determination. Indeed, there was no way the KPRF could champion the rights of the Chechens when this would have required them to admit that the old Stalinist regime had committed a monstrous crime against the Chechens in deporting them from their homeland in 1944 (they weren't allowed to return until several years after Stalin's death). Instead the KPRF engaged in nationalist rhetoric, which was its veiled way of bemoaning the hard times that Russian imperialism had fallen on. The KPRF is not a party of the class struggle, but instead paints a picture of a Russia in which the Russian nationality is allegedly persecuted, and a world in which Slavs are allegedly persecuted. It joined together in parliamentary alliances with the ultra-nationalists of Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democrats", and it even allowed anti-semitism in its own ranks. By 1998 a KPRF parliamentarian, General Albert Makashov, declared that the country's economic problems were the result of the "yids" being "the usurers of Russia" and "drink(ing) the blood" of the Russian people". (8)

. It's no wonder, then, that the KPRF has been backing Putin's new war on Chechnya. There is no immediate political advantage in opposing it, and the KPRF has no motivation to do so. It didn't even protest the campaign of racist harassment of Chechens that accompanied the opening of the war.

Anti-war voices in Russia

. If the main parliamentary leaders of all the mainstream political trends are currently supporting Putin's war on Chechnya, this is not a coincidence. They all represent different factions of the Russian bourgeoisie, and this ruling class is deeply committed to the chauvinist war on Chechnya.

. But there is another Russia, the Russia of the working masses. This is the Russia that is hurt both by the war and by the domestic reactionary actions of Putin. They have no large organizations to speak for them, and their political views aren't yet clear. Yet this is where the future of the struggle against the Russian bourgeoisie lies.

. And today it is among these masses, and among the small groupings that try to orient themselves to them, that one can find heartfelt cries against the war. As an example of this, we reprint elsewhere in this issue of Communist Voice a statement denouncing the Chechen war from the activist journal Chelovechnost (Humanity), which is produced by a coalition of different trends involved in anti-war demonstrations in Moscow. There has also been the formation of committees of soldiers' mothers, and an increase in already large number of Russian youth seeking to evade military service.

. The anti-war actions and organizing is, for the time being, quite small (except for the evasion of the military draft). Nor has there yet been a convergence between the anti-war movement and the larger protests against Putin's proposed new labor code. The political views of the activists are quite varied, and there is no sharp break with the mainstream and other opportunist trends. For example, the liberal parliamentarians may be bowing to Putin, but small groups of the "rightists",the free-market liberals, as well as number of the closely-associated "human rights" groups, are among those in demonstrations. Meanwhile, among the leftist activists, there is confusion about Trotskyism, anarchism, and the nature of the old Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it is here at the base, among the activists protesting the Chechen war, among the workers protesting the labor code, among the masses suffering poverty as a minority of Russians become rich, that the real basis for struggle will be laid. Every step towards the development of a movement of the workers, independent of the establishment trends, and every step towards political clarification of what's going on in Russia, is worth far more than the empty words and political maneuvering of the parliamentary heroes of the Russian bourgeoisie.

Western imperialism and sphere of influence politics

. If the war isn't mentioned that often in the Western news anymore, it's not just that, ever since the fall of Grozny, the battles are smaller. It's also that the Western bourgeoisie cares as little about the freedom of the Chechen people as it cares about the sufferings of the poverty-stricken masses elsewhere in the world. Clinton and the other Western leaders see the Putin government continuing on the general course set by Yeltsin of building a free-market Russia, and this is far more important for them than whether a small country is crushed. Putin has appointed free-market liberals to economic posts, is putting forward a labor code that will push the workers to the wall, and plays along with the West on various diplomatic issues. So the Western regimes regard free-market Russia as a fellow capitalist regime, even if one about which they are a bit uneasy. So Russia is granted the rights of a fellow imperialist power, and that includes the right to its sphere of influence. True, these spheres aren't permanent. The last century saw many wars to redraw the spheres of influence, as well as economic and political squabbles between the wars. Nevertheless, during periods of calm among the predatory powers, there is a certain recognition of each other's spheres.

. It's not of course that the West won't seek to extend its financial, political and diplomatic influence in every corner of the world, including the Russian sphere of influence, indeed even into Russia itself. But they will not get alarmed at the Russians throwing their weight around in the Caucasus, because it's their area. Here the West distinguishes between the north Caucasus (which includes Chechnya), which is accepted as part of Russia, from the southern or Transcaucasia, with its presently independent republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. What's acceptable (to the West) in the North Caucasus would not be acceptable in Transcaucasia: for example, the West would not accept an invasion of this or that Transcaucasian republic. But even here, nothing much was said during the 1990s when Russia threw around its military power a bit more circumspectly (for example, covertly arming secessionist movements and then offering peacekeeping troops to the countries concerned).

. Thus the Western powers have insisted that Chechnya is part of Russia. They object only to the savagery of the war waged against Chechnya, and only because this savagery threatens to destabilize the region. Even at the height of the battle in Grozny, these objections were quite muted. And at other times, they can barely be heard. Should the rivalry between Russia and the Western powers heat up, however, then the Western powers would sing a different tune. It is a hypocritical game for them.

. For workers and socialist activists in the west, opposing the Russian invasion of Chechnya is an important part of building militant ties both with the Chechen people and the Russian workers. This doesn't mean that we in the West should urge on the Western bourgeoisie to squabble harder with Russia: the Western bourgeoisie's aims are just as predatory as those of the Russian bourgeoisie. But neither should we refrain from denouncing Russian imperialism for fear of giving comfort to Western imperialism. Such a stand would harm the struggle against world imperialism, and end up undermining the struggle against western imperialism. Not only would such a stand ignore the fact that Western and Russian imperialism are presently in an alliance or partnership, even if a loose and shaky one, but it would mean abandoning the class stand in the struggle against world imperialism. It is only the development of the class struggle throughout the world that can defeat imperialism, and that requires building solidarity with Russian workers, not with the Russian bourgeoisie. And the denial of the existence of Russian imperialism amounts to nothing else than solidarity with the Russian bourgeoisie.

. Meanwhile, for the building of an independent workers movement in Russia, recognition of the existence of Russian imperialism would be especially important. It would expose both the presidency and the main parliamentary parties as bourgeois forces, for they serve imperialist policies. Indeed, even those elements among the liberals and Zyuganov's "communists" who recoil from the bloodshed of the Chechen wars don't admit the existence of Russian imperialism, and cover up for it. And it would encourage support for the right to self-determination of Chechnya, something which is necessary if the Russian workers are to build bridges to the Chechen people.

. It is also important for there to be clarity about the state-capitalist nature of the Stalinist system in the old Soviet Union. Once it is understood that the old Soviet Union wasn't socialist, it becomes clear that the source of the tyranny of the old days was the existence of a ruling bourgeoisie. This makes the origin of the current free-market Russian bourgeoisie clearer, as it combines the former Soviet bourgeoisie with new elements. It helps show that not only the present government, but all the mainstream political forces in the opposition are representatives of different sections of the bourgeoisie, as one can then identify the bourgeois nature of the Stalinist forces as well as of the liberal free-market forces. It also clarifies the source of Russian imperialism, both the free-market imperialism of today and the Stalinist imperialism of yesterday, in the predatory interests of a exploiting class. Only with such clarity, can a consistent class struggle be waged. Only with such clarify, can Marxism and real communism regain influence among the Russian working masses.


(1) The other almost two-thirds of the constituent parts are ordinary administrative divisions of Russia, consisting of 49 "regions" (oblasts), 6 "territories" (krais), and two "cities of federal significance" (Moscow and St. Petersburg). According to the Russian constitution, they have equal status with the autonomous areas (autonomous okrugs), the one autonomous region (autonomous oblast), and the republics. (When there is said to be 89 of these entities in Russia, this includes Chechnya, which shouldn't really be included, but is, of course, included by Putin and the present Russian constitution.) However, there have also been a series of treaties with some of the republics and various ad hoc practices that give special rights to the nationaly areas; it turns out that Russian constitutional life is governed by a series of treaties, constitutions, and agreements that are not mutually consistent. Indeed, widespread practices of the ordinary regions, territories and cities of federal significance also contradict the Russian constitution.

. The complicated Russian constitutional system could no doubt use reform; moreover many governors rule autocratically over the local population. But Putin's proposals don't provide more democracy for rank-and-file Russians; instead Putin's declared aim is simply to develop a system of centralized control from the presidency. After bombarding parliament with tanks and defeating the parliamentary opposition in October 1993, Yeltsin used a referendum to replace the then-existing Russian constitution with a new one that vastly increased the powers of the presidency and degraded those of parliament. Putin's plans to extend presidential rule into the Russian localities would be another step in the process of creating one-person rule. The first proposals Putin has submitted to the Russian parliament to carry out his planned reorganization roughly include, if expressed in terms of the American political system, such things as having the president able to fire governors, and allowing governors to fire mayors and local officials (thus enhancing the present autocratic tendencies among the governors, once they are turned into pawns of the presidency). He has already appointed officials to head seven new super-regions; this is roughly similar to if American states were grouped into seven regional confederations, presided over by super-governors appointed by the president, while the governors themselves could be fired by the president. Reports aren't yet clear as to what the powers of the new super-regional heads will be, but they are expected to yield great authority; it can, for example, be noted that most of Russia's localities are dependent on federal subsidy, which would presumably now be channeled through the super-regions. There is also concern that the boundaries of the super-regions match closely Russia's military districts, and moreover five of seven super-regional heads are either generals from the Chechen wars or ex-Soviet secret police (KGB) officials. It seems that as all the reins of power are being concentrated in the hands of the Russian presidency, this very process may be preparing conditions for the presidency to be toppled by the military. In any case, it is feared that it will subject the country to a military-style authoritarianism.

. Finally, although the 89 entities (or, to use the obscure constitutional term, "subjects") of the Russian Federation are divided into regions, territories, autonomous areas, republics, etc., in Western journalistic accounts they are usually all called "regions". While this may in part be due to the lack of any other convenient term, and it may be almost unavoidable since the use of some other term risks incomprehensibility, this general use of the term "region" obscures the distinction between the mere administrative subdivisions, such as the ordinary "regions" and "territories", and the nationality zones. On the other hand, the use of the term "region" for all the subdivisions may accurately reflect the fact that the rights and needs of the nationalities are not going to be respected. (Return to text)

(2) Kovalev, "Russia After Chechnya", The New York Review of Books, July 17, 1997. Actually, some prominent liberals ardently supported the first Chechen war, "provoking a split" among the liberals. Moreover, among the liberals actually in the Yeltsin administration, some were unhappy with the Chechen war, but they only squirmed, tried to avoid direct responsibility for the bloodshed, and sacrificed their convictions to staying within the Yeltsin administration. (Shevtsova, Lilia, Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, pp. 118, 121. She refers to the liberals as the "democrats".) (Text)

(3) Kovalev, "Putin's War", The New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000, with the parenthetical remark being Kovalev's. Kiriyenko, mentioned by Kovalev as one of the liberals who had publicly supported Putin and the Chechen bloodshed, was recently rewarded by being appointed the one of the seven super-regional chiefs.

. Meanwhile, it might, of course, be argued that Kovalev is almost ten years too late in recounting the capitulation of the liberals to the government. Are the present tactics of the free-market liberals with respect to President Putin really so different from those they followed with respect to President Yeltsin throughout the entire decade of the 90s, whether it was a matter of the power of the presidency or the waging of the first Chechen war? (Text)

(4) I have called these the Stalinist forces, but the fervent defenders of Stalin constitute only a part of these forces. What all these forces see as "communism" or "socialism" is, however, the old Soviet state-capitalist system, originally set up under Stalin. They appeal, among the masses who have been cast into poverty under Yeltsin, to nostalgia for the old system. What they aim for today, however, is not the resurrection of the old system, but a mixed system, with a greater role for the state in the economy than today's privatisers want, a more authoritarian political system, and more positions and influence for the section of the old Soviet bourgeoisie that the KPRF and its allies represent, namely, the diehard sections of the old Soviet and Party officialdom that fought its liberal sections. Thus, as far as their appeal among the elite goes, it is directed in large part at former officials in various fields that have suffered heavily in the 90s, such as industry (including military industry), agricultural enterprises, and the military itself. (The Agrarian Party represented particularly that section of the old Soviet bureaucracy and managers from the collective farms and agricultural enterprises.) (Text)

(5) Devlin, Judith, Slavophiles and Commissars: Enemies of Democracy in Modern Russia, p. 177. (Text)

(6) "Red-brown cesspit: Michael Malkin examines the Great Russian chauvinism and anti-semitism of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation", Weekly Worker #317 (the CP of Great Britain's journal), Dec. 16, 1999. (Text)

(7) Ibid. (Text)

(8) See "On recent remarks of Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation: State-capitalist politics descends into naked anti-Semitism" in Communist Voice, vol. 5, #1, March 28, 1999. (Text)

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