Why the Chechen war?

Issue 

By Steve Myers

The Kremlin's purported reasons for its war against Chechnya are the apartment bombings earlier this year in Moscow and later in Volgodonsk, nearer Chechnya, and the so-called threat of "Islamic terrorism". However, many factors indicate it was not likely that Chechens, Islamists or other "black" (a derogatory word in Russia for anyone who is not very white) people were responsible. There is, however, strong circumstantial evidence that those who have benefited were directly involved.

In August, the Yeltsin camp was in a dire situation. The money-laundering scandal was already breaking, implicating the president himself, his family and his political friends. The new Yury Luzhkov-Yevgeny Primakov partnership in the Fatherland All-Russia (FAR) party looked unbeatable for the parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections months later.

The economy was continuing its trajectory from bad to worse to unbelievably desperate. Workers had just won some key battles and, in big industrial areas, serious plans were afoot for an autumn and winter of workers' struggles bigger than the 1998 "rail wars".

There were also deepening problems for the Kremlin over control of the Caspian basin. The United States-NATO victory over Yugoslavia is deeply imprinted on every Russian mind: "Is Caspian oil and gas the US's next target?".

The US is intervening politically and with investment into energy-rich Caucasian and central Asian countries, and now US friends Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are known to be heavily funding and arming Islamic guerillas across the region.

Enter Vladimir Putin, appointed prime minister by Yeltsin in late August. Putin, the leader of the Federal Security Service (successor to the KGB), has strong links with the military-industrial complex and many military leaders. His constituency is big bureaucrats who used to have enormous power and prestige in Soviet times and are now fighting to get it back, but under capitalism.

Bombings

Suddenly, in early September, out of nowhere, came the Kremlin's salvation. Two big Moscow bombings killed hundreds of working-class people. The destroyed apartment blocks were typical of the housing in which most of Moscow's 10 million, mainly poor, residents live. The message was unmistakable: anyone could be next.

The Kremlin machine, without an ounce of evidence (it still has not produced any), instantly launched a massive media campaign blaming Chechens and Caucasians. A wave of nationalist fervour and racist hysteria swept Moscow and the country. Any "black" (including Greeks and Italians) now faced police harassment, attacks and jail. Vigilante groups mushroomed, egged on by the media.

All the big political parties joined in: the FAR, all the liberal parties, obviously the ultra-nationalists and fascists, but also, unfortunately, the leaders of the Communist Party, who have now formed an unholy temporary bloc with Yeltsin and Putin against Luzhkov and Primakov.

But it was all just too neat and tidy. Rumours began to grow rapidly immediately after the second Moscow bomb on September 13.

One famous author pointed to the ancient Roman judicial precept cui prodest (who benefits most). A leading political analyst, Piontkovsky, asked if there was a parallel with the Nazi burning of the Reichstag in 1933, contrived to usher in a climate of national panic to pave the way for extraordinary and dictatorial measures.

These viewpoints are more than logical. There was and has been no tangible evidence produced yet, and there is no precedent of such a type of bombings by Chechens or Caucasians. Indeed, it has proved very harmful to them; the manner of the attack on ordinary people was designed to arouse the maximum possible public hostility towards the accused.

The police said that each bomb was placed in the cellar of the building, but the explosion did not occur outwards and cause uneven damage, as would have been expected if this was true. The two apartment blocks were levelled flat, as if demolition experts had done it.

Even the IRA never achieved this level of skill in destroying buildings. However, Russian secret service personnel do have the means and knowledge needed to blow up apartments in this way, and produce maximum terror and maximum loss of life.

The media-sown doubt grew quickly, and opinion polls showed that a rapidly increasing number of Russians believed the attack was Kremlin/state organised. Something had to be done, and quickly.

Lo and behold, a few days later a massive bomb in a truck exploded outside a working-class apartment block in Volgodonsk, near Chechnya, killing more Russians. How convenient: media blame moved away from Yeltsin and the Kremlin, back onto Chechens and Caucasians.

Immediately, massive Russian troop deployments towards Chechnya were made, and the media and population were placed on a war footing. Yeltsin's man, Putin, soared from 2% to decisive leadership in all popularity polls. It now seems likely he will be elected president, and the corruption charges hanging over Yeltsin's head will be smothered.

Of course, no-one can state with certainty that Putin and Yeltsin manipulated this whole situation from scratch, just to save their own careers and skin. But, if I was a betting person ...

More dictatorial

Amidst this dire crisis caused by the Yeltsin-IMF decade of failure, the Russian oligarchs and elite support a more dictatorial Russia, capable of ruthlessly putting down workers' struggles and reversing workers' victories (such as at ) to ensure the protection and growth of their new indigenous and weak capitalist class.

They must also stop Russia from breaking up into semi-colonies, protect their interests in the Caspian basin and stop US attempts to gain control there. Ultimately they would like to expand Russia into a Soviet Union mark-II, but this time as a purely capitalist, imperialist power.

The US, if it cannot have the Caspian oil now, is content to watch Russia fighting the Islamic world and thereby disrupt the formation of any large super-power bloc across Eurasia (in whatever form) which could rival the US.

But this war is not over. The Chechens have organised an orderly retreat and, even if Grozny is lost, the Russian army faces a winter of many losses in a war it cannot win. As usual, at the beginning of a war, workers' struggles have subsided. The Russian workers' mass-action plans have been postponed, for the moment.

[Steve Myers supports International Solidarity with Workers in Russia. E-mail , visit , or write to ISWoR, Box R, 46 Denmark Hill, London SE5 8RZ.]