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The Failure of Conflict Prevention and Management: The Case of Chechnya Part l: Conflict Assessment and Pre-War Escalation[i]



[From: Tom Trier & Lars Funch Hansen (eds.), Conflict and Forced Displacement in the Caucasus. Perspectives, Challenges and Responses. Copenhagen: Danish Refugee Council, 1999, pp. 62-71. Copyright: Danish Refugee Council and the author] 

By Märta-Lisa Magnusson

The Russian-Chechen war is the hitherto largest violent conflict to occur not only in the Caucasus, but on the entire territory of the former Soviet Union. According to modest Russian estimates, between 25,000-30,000 civilians, 3,000 Chechen combatants and 4,300 federal troops were killed.[ii] Estimates of the number of refugees vary from 250,000-350,000.

The first part of our presentation assesses the nature of the Russian-Chechen conflict and discusses why a political solution was not obtained prior to the Russian intervention in December 1994. We will not concern ourselves with the dynamics behind the conflict's escalation to outright war; rather we will discuss why a political solution was not reached. We shall argue that the principal cause for this failure lay in the approaches to a negotiated, political settlement displayed by both parties to the conflict, in which the least constructive approach was displayed by the Russian side.

The second part of our presentation discusses efforts to mitigate and terminate the conflict following the outbreak of the war. In both sections we shall consider attempts made not only by the parties to the conflict but by the international community as well. We shall demonstrate that preventive diplomacy or other conflict ­prevention measures were not attempted by the international community prior to Russian military intervention in December 1994. This neglect contributed to the violent escalation of the conflict.

Behind the failure to resolve the conflict lay the structural problems inherent in the post-Soviet transformation process. In addition, both sides were plagued by personal animosities, zero-sum mind-sets and lack of professionalism and conflict management experiences. Nevertheless, the single decisive factor was the Russian leadership's assessment of the very nature of the conflict.

Likewise, we will explain the non-involvement by the international community in the pre-war period and its cautious involvement in the first month after the Russian invasion, as an effect of inadequate assessment of the conflict and political considerations.

The purpose of our presentation then, is to highlight problems related to the role and responsibility of the international community in intra-state conflicts, to provoke a discussion about whether mechanisms other than those presently available are required, and to raise the question of how the utilisation of existing mechanisms can be made more effective.

The nature of the conflict
The Russian-Chechen conflict does not involve communal contenders engaged in rivalries about the distribution of state power or access to this power. Neither is it a horizontal conflict between two ethnic groups striving to secure their cultural identity or compete for positions, assets or resources to local power. Rather, it is a vertical Conflict between the central authorities of a federal state and a sub-national unit, constitutionally defined as a member of the Federation, but striving for independent statehood, or alternatively, for con-federal relations. The controversial issues are power delimitation within a state versus demands for inter-state relations. It is a conflict between a territorially concentrated indigenous people, with a history of political sovereignty prior to the annexation of its territory by the state which now rules versus a newly independent state claiming the right to defend its territorial integrity against secessionist claims and partition.

The Chechens maintain that their struggle for independence is a continuation of their resistance against Russian colonisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Chechens never accepted their forced annexation by the Russian empire in 1859, after a bloody, 30-year war, and they never accepted their country's integration as an autonomous region in the Soviet Union in 1920. They perceive Russia as the successor not only to the Soviet Union but also to the Russian Empire. Chechens insist on viewing their conflict with Russia in the context of de-colonisation.[iii] Their argumentation is convincing, and the empirical realities support their case.

The Chechen side refer to the 1960 UN resolution granting independence to colonial countries and providing for peoples' rights to self-determination. This resolution declares that: "The subjugation of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation [...] All peoples have right to self-determination; by virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." The same UN resolution, however, also declares that "Any attempt aiming at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations."[iv]   This part of the resolution is referred to by the Russian side.

In February 1994, the former Russian Minister for Nationalities Questions, and from April 1994, Deputy Prime Minister- with responsibility for Russian-Chechen relations, Sergey Shakhray, stated that: ``in the Russian Federation there could and should be guaranteed right to self-determination with the exception of one form of self-determination, namely separation from the Russian Federation."[v] Yeltsin's first Minister for Nationalities Questions, and a leading expert on ethnic and nationalities issues, Professor Valery Tishkov, takes the following position:

         "Concerning the principle of self determination, its broad meaning and contemporary interpretations allow the Russian Federation to consider itself a fully legitimate territorial polity whose population has realised its right to self-determination - together and with the cognisance of other former Soviet constituent republics – through the break-up of the USSR. In line with international norms (and even going beyond the requirements of international legal documents) Russia, as a multi-ethnic state, has provided territorial autonomy for demographically compact groups whose language and culture is different from the core Russian culture. These groups have expressed and exercised the right for self-determination through democratic and negotiable procedures. Russia has a legitimate night to defend its existing status and to take a stand against external and internal challenges."[vi]

On the Russian side, the principal position is that Chechnya may realise its right to self-determination in the form of extended political autonomy. The Chechens argue that they are entitled to realise self-determination in the form of independent statehood.

These contradictory positions were mirrored in the ultimate conditions put forward by both parties to negotiations. While the Russian side insisted on negotiating an intra-state power-delimitation treaty, the Chechens insisted on negotiations about inter-state relations and placed recognition of Chechen independence as a pre-condition for negotiations. President Dudayev also insisted on president-to-president negotiations.[vii]

Few international documents are more disputed that the UN resolution on de-colonisation and people's right to self-determination. It has been interpreted both as a right assigned to independent states and as a right assigned to sub-national groups up to and including the establishment of new independent states. Some lawyers, scholars and politicians maintain that the principle of self-determination is valid only for peoples under colonial rule. Others maintain that the resolution on self-determination shall be interpreted as a right for all peoples, not only for those peoples in a de-colonisation context.[viii]

While admitting that the Soviet Union was by all measures an empire, Russian leaders (and others) reject the notion that the new, post-Soviet Russia is an empire. This is the prevailing opinion in Western governments and academic circles. However, there are exceptions, one of whom is Ronald G. Suny, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Suny writes:    

"Though the Russian Federation is even more artificial a state than was the old USSR - it had never existed in history in its current borders except as a creation of Soviet power - its claim to be the heir to historic Russia has been recognised by the whole world and given a legitimacy that permits statesmen to excuse the Chechen war as an `internal problem' [...] Whatever Russia    becomes internally, its relationship with Chechnya can hardly be seen as anything other than imperial."[ix]

The issue of Russia's legacy not only as a state, but also as an empire, i.e., its legacy as a compound polity that has incorporated lesser ones under a dominant metropolis, did not attract considerable attention by Western statesmen or the international community at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. An April 1990 Soviet Supreme Soviet law, equalising autonomous republics with union republics and a subsequent law granting autonomous republics the right to leave seceding Union republics and decide their political status by themselves, also passed unnoticed in Western governments.[x] Irrespective of these laws, however, these delimitations are capricious. Hence, as Professor Mark Bessinger notes:

"Other than Stalin's self-serving decisions about which peoples deserved union republics and which would have units subordinate to union republics, there is no justification for why peoples who had union republics deserve state independence and those without do not."[xi]               

If the principle of people's right to self-determination is to be understood as something more than empty rhetoric, Chechnya is a case where its application could at least be considered.

Russian assessment of the conflict

The Russian leadership did not even admit that Chechnya was experiencing a popular movement for independence. The conflict was portrayed as an issue of "internal law and order" rather than an ethno-political conflict focused on issues of self-determination.[xii] This portrayal was also uncritically accepted by the international community. Most governments considered it to be a domestic "law and order" issue (see Part II).

In the official Russian version, Chechen claims for independence were presented as an elite conspiracy without popular support. Dudayev and the leaders of the Chechen National Congress (the Popular Front) were depicted as "ethnic entrepreneurs", misleading and mobilising the Chechen population by playing the "ethnic card" for self-serving objectives.

According to former Minister for Nationalities Questions, V. Tishkov for example:

"My analysis shows that conflicts are instigated by a small faction of people promoting interests and slogans which to them seem important and just. The mobilisation of the `rank- and- filers' who actually execute the violence is brought about either through direct or implicit inducements, or through lack of information about the choices available. In post-Soviet states, citizens are easy followers of the leaders whose appeals seem to offer the only option. The power of prescription and belief in collectivist projects remain enormous among the poorly modernised and indoctrinated populations of former socialist societies."[xiii]

Russian leaders adhering to this instrumentalist approach refused to ask the question of why people follow such leaders. Ethnic myths and other devices of "ethnic entrepreneurship" can be constructed or even fabricated. But personal memories of ethnic cleansing and other sufferings under alien rule, the kind most Chechen adults have experienced in their lives, are not social constructions. They are lived experiences. Dudayev did not have to "invent" national myths and martyrs, or "construct" fears of    external threats. His nationalist programme corresponded to the socio-psychological   sentiments among the Chechen population.

The legitimacy of the Chechen presidential and parliamentary elections in November 1991 can certainly be debated. The Ingushetian population did not participate in these elections, opting for a republic of their own. Many of the Russians living in Chechnya also reportedly did not vote. One of the eleven regions in Chechnya proper, Nadteretnyj, boycotted the elections.

Dudayev's popular support can also be discussed, especially after his dissolution of the Chechen parliament in June 1993, and his subsequent strengthening of authoritarian rule. What cannot be doubted, however, was Dudayev's capacity to command loyalty in critical moments, or more specifically, in times of perceived external threats to the national security of the Chechen state. This was the case in November 1991 when Yeltsin decreed emergency rule in Chechnya. Hence, "the news about this alone strengthened by the skilful spreading of a rumour that a new deportation of the Chechens was under preparation, brought to their feet almost the entire Chechen society and considerably improved the political ratings of Dudayev", wrote Emil Pain, a member of Yeltsin's Analytical Centre in a 1995 article.[xiv]

Even Dudayev's fierce opponents reportedly rallied around him not because they approved of him, but because, confronted with the threat of a Russian invasion, Dudayev became a symbol of national security and was perceived of as a guarantor of Chechen independence. Even many Russians reportedly joined Chechen protests against Yeltsin's state of emergency rule in late 1991.

One year later, when Russian troops crossed the Chechen border from neighbouring Ingushetia, many Chechens, including the opposition, again rallied around Dudayev. They did so again in late 1994, when it was clear that a Russian military intervention was imminent.

While a growing part of the Chechen population did not support Dudayev, they certainly supported the idea of Chechen independence. Among the several opposition leaders, only one was prepared to give up Chechen independence. This was the mayor of the Nadteretnyj District, Umar Avturkhanov. In late 1993, Avturkhanov became leader of an oppositional Provisional Council, which soon declared itself the sole legitimate power in Chechnya. While this body had no significant support outside Nadteretnyj, it was chosen for Russia support from August 1994 - with disastrous results. Other oppositional leaders joined Avturkhanov's Provisional Council. Their aim was to overthrow Dudayev, but they were unequivocally against Russian intervention and supported Chechen independence.

Failed talks

Moscow's greatest mistake was that it opted to support the Provisional Council instead of trying to work out a negotiated solution with the real power in Chechnya - President Dudayev, the only leader capable of commanding nation-wide Chechen loyalty. Russian officials often claim that it was Dudayev who refused to negotiate, but this is not true. Dudayev stuck to an ultimate position - but so did the Russians.

The Chechen position left room for negotiations on the status question beyond complete independence. In summer 1992, the Chechen Parliament had proposed a draft treaty providing for confederate relations including economic co-operation in defence and security matters, etc.[xv]. This proposal was presented prior to the split between Dudayev and his opponents in the Chechen parliament and government. It would have been approved by Dudayev. Dudayev was also prepared to enter the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The Russians, however, refused to talk directly with Dudayev. They often refer to attempts in 1992 to negotiate with the Dudayev leadership. They forget to mention, however, that the Russian side did not recognise these talks as official, only informal.[xvi] Subsequent negotiations were conducted only with Chechens in opposition to Dudayev.

Following Dudayev's dissolution of the Chechen parliament and the ousting of oppositional forces in this body, the Russian side dropped further attempts to negotiate. From their point of view there was no one left in the Chechen leadership prepared to compromise on the independence issue. Unlike Dudayev, former chairman of the Chechen parliament, Akhmadov was willing to negotiate at any level and was prepared to delay the independence issue for the sake of negotiations on other issues.

In spring 1994, the Russian side presented new negotiation proposals, including direct talks with Dudayev. Yet these were conditional on the signing of an intra-state treaty and early elections to both Chechen and Russian organs of state power, conditions unacceptable for Dudayev.

With the emergence of the oppositional Provisional Council in early 1994, the Russian side saw a new and promising partner for negotiations. The leader of this body, U. Avtorkhanov, Mayor of the Nadteretnyj District, was prepared to accept reintegration into Russia. From now on, no further attempts were made to negotiate with Dudayev, and his proposals were categorically rejected. Russia began to support the opposition forces - both economically and with weapons.

"I think that negotiations of the Russian President with citizen Dudayev are impossible. It would be the day of national shame for Russia", stated Deputy Russian Premier in charge of negotiations with Chechnya, Sergej Shakhray, on 8 October 1994.[xvii]

Hawks in the Russian leadership escalated military support to the Provisional Council and were involved in a military attempt to remove Dudayev. It was a humiliating fiasco, and Yeltsin and the Russian Security Council decided to intervene.

Outside involvement

There were no efforts to listen to the Chechen side prior to the war. Numerous appeals from Dudayev and the Chechen government to the international community for monitoring and third party mediation were never considered by the international community. No efforts were made prior to the war to engage in the conflict and begin a process of conflict management.

There were no lacks of early warnings. When Yeltsin, in November 1991, declared a state of emergency in Chechnya and ordered interior troops to the secessionist republic, Dudayev ordered a general mobilisation. A military confrontation was possible. This was also the case in November 1992, when federal forces, dislocated to the conflict-ridden North Ossetia-Alaniya, entered Chechnya via Ingushetia. Dudayev again threatened to order general mobilisation.

Third party mediation could have helped reconcile the contradictory positions ol~ the parties to the conflict. Even non-governmental or "semi-governmental" internationalisation of the conflict could probably have moderated the Chechen claims. The Russians would not have felt their sovereignty threatened by this kind of mediation.

From at least August 1994, it became clear that relations between Russia and Chechnya had deteriorated to a degree that required preventive diplomacy. S. Shrakray, S. Stepashin (head of FSK, formerly the KGB) and other high ranking federal officials, declared that negotiation with Dudayev was out of question. Russian journalists and media institutions regularly reported on the transfer of military equipment to the oppositional Provisional Council. In late October the head of this body openly admitted that this was the case. The Chechen leadership repeatedly requested third party involvement in mediating the conflict.

In the beginning of August, President Yeltsin's chief of Staff, S. Filatov, and the President himself ruled out the possibility of using force in Chechnya. This was reiterated by other high-ranking officials in the following months.

While such statements may have been reassuring to Western governments and the international community, a declaration by Deputy Premier Sergej Shakhray, made at the beginning of October, should have caused concern. Speaking on the methods used by the federal authorities "to liquidate the criminal free economic zone'' in Chechnya, Shakhray emphasised that such methods "should prevent armed escalation with the use of Russian army units." However, he continued, "This does not mean we will not use power structures of the Russian Interior Ministry, since Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation. The use of force is possible."[xviii]

Several mechanisms, such as fact-finding missions and efforts to involve the conflicting parties in informal talks, might have been mobilised. The good offices of the UN Secretary-General staff or the OSCE might have been utilised "to create favourable conditions for direct negotiations".[xix] In fact, none of these mechanisms were utilised prior to the Russian intervention in December 1994.


[i] This paper is based on a research project on the Russian-Chechen conflict conducted in co-operation with Ib Faurby.

[ii] Valery Tishkov: Political Anthropology of the Chechen War, Security Dialogue , vol. 28 (4), 1997, p. 426.

[iii] See e.g., President Chechenskoy Respubliki Ichkerya D. Dudayev, Minister Justitsii Chechenskoy Respubliki Ichkerya, E. Sheripova: Juridiko-pravovaya osnova vzaimootnosheniy Rossiii i Chechni c 1990 g. Rossiya i Chechnya 1990-1997 gg. Dokumenty svidetelstvujut, Moscow 1997, pp. 228. S-Kh. Abumuslimov: Istoriko­-Pravovaya Otsenka Nasilstvennogo Vkljucheniya Severokavkazskikh narodov v sostav Rossiyskoy Imperii i ego posledstviy. Doklad na Chrezvychaynom sezde gorskikh narodov Kavkaza, Kavkazskiy Dom, no. 21 , October 1992.

[iv] UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), Christian Tomuschat (ed.): Modern Law of Self-Determination, London 1993, Annex.

[v] Conference on Federalism. Joint Programme of Activities between the Council of Europe and the Russian Federation, Moscow, l5 to 18 February 1994, p. 78.

[vi] Valery Tishkov, p. 432.

[vii] Märta-Lisa Magnusson: The Negotiation Process Between Russia and Chechnya.

Strategies, Achievements and Future Problems, Ole Høiris and Sefa Martin Yurukel (eds.) Contrasts and Solutions in the Caucasus (Aarhus University Press, forthcoming).

[viii] See e.g., Christian Tomuschat (ed.): Modern law of Self-Determination, London 1993.

[ix] Ronald Grigor Suny: Ambiguous Categories: States, Empires and Nations, in Post-­Soviet Affairs, vol. II (April-June) 1995, p. 195.

[x] Zakon SSSR "O razgranichenii polnomochiy mezhdu Sojuzom SSR i subektami federatsii", vedomosti Sezda narodnykh deputatov SSSR i Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, no. 19, 9 May 1990; Vedomosti Sezda narodnykh deputatov SSSR i Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, no. 15, 11 April 1990.

[xi] Mark R. Bessinger: The Persisting Ambiguity of Empire, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. II (April-June) 1995, p. 178.

[xii] Gail W. Lapidus: Contested Sovereignty, International Security, vol. 23 (1), Summer 1998, p. 31.

[xiii] Valery Tishkov, p. 425.

[xiv] E. Pain, A. Popov: Chechenskaya politika Rossii s 1991 po 1994gg, Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodnykh otnoshenii, no. 5, 1995, p. 23.

[xv] Dogovor ob osnovakh mezhgosudarstvennykh otnosheniy Rossiyskoy Federatsii i Chechenskoy Respubliki, Proekt, Ichkerya, 28 September 1992, p.3.

[xvi] See Märta-Lisa Magnusson: The Negotiation Process Between Russia and ­Chechnya. Strategies, Achievements and Future Problems.

[xvii] SWB, BBC, SU/2123, 11 October 1994.

[xviii] SWB BBC, SU/2123 B/2, 11 October 1994.

[xix] Gail W. Lapidus: Contested Sovereignity, p. 29.