History Repeating Itself?

February 23, 2004 is the sixtieth anniversary of the deportation of Chechens and Ingush nationals to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Hundreds of thousands of people were loaded onto trains, thousands died. Gasan Gusejnov recalls the event.

February 23, 2004 is the sixtieth anniversary of the deportation of Chechens and Ingush nationals to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Hundreds of thousands of people were loaded onto trains; thousands died while being driven from the Caucasus. Gasan Gusejnov recalls the event.

photo: AP
Chechen refugees

​​Sixty years ago, nobody was talking about the threat of international terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism. In those days, the Chechen and Ingush people were accused to collaborating with the German occupiers. Using this argument, Stalin also succeeded in legitimizing the deportation of other ethnic groups within the Soviet Union.

The Volga Germans had been subjected to “preventive deportation” on similar grounds in the year 1941. Even as late as 1944, as the war was drawing to a close, Crimean Tatars, Kalmikians, Karachais and other small ethnic groups were deported under cruel and brutal conditions.

Unlike the Germans and Crimean Tatars, whom the Soviet Union did not allow to return, the Chechens and Ingush went back to the Caucasus. Three years after Stalin’s death, in 1956, most of the survivors made their way back to their homeland.

Allegations of collaboration were a pretense of Stalin

Archive materials that were made available to researchers for a short time in the early 1990s clearly showed that Stalin and his regime falsely accused these groups of collaborating with the enemy as a pretense for his ultimate takeover of the Caucasus.

The Russian Empire had gained control of Chechnya and other areas of the northern Caucasus region in the second half of the 19th century, i.e. decades before it conquered the southern Caucasus. The takeover was made possible by relocating most of the local population to far-off areas of neighboring Russia – the Osman Empire.

Today, the descendants of those deported (they are referred to as “Muhajir”) are scattered through the “Greater Middle East” – from Jordan to Egypt, from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

The formative experience of expatriation

After the break-up of the Russian Empire in 1917, the colonies in Central Asia and the Caucasus enjoyed a brief period of independence. But the restoration of the old empire in the 1920s under the new guise of the Soviet Union did not put an end to Chechen resistance. The armed struggle for independence continued until the onset of Hitler’s offensive against the Soviet Union.

Not until the end of the Second World War, as the USSR attained “superpower” status, was Stalin able to put an end to the separatist efforts of the various ethnic groups in the Caucasus region by deporting them and decimating their population.

This episode was omitted from history books until the end of the 1980s. The Chechen people were not rehabilitated until the early 1990s. From the point of view of most Chechen, the experience of deportation was the decisive event of the 20th century.

Separatism and Islamism

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, hopes flared for independence from Russia. People in Groznyy asked themselves why they should be denied what had been granted to Georgia and Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and the Ukraine.

photo: AP
Russian tank in Chechnya

​​Russia responded to this question by twice waging war in Chechnya. The first (1994-1996) ended with a peace treaty. The second Chechen war broke out in 1999. The Russian army’s military offensive was carried out with enormous brutality, and Chechen rebels responded with acts of guerilla terrorism that were no less cruel.

According to various intelligence sources, the Chechen independence movement was aided during the second phase of the war by international Islamist organizations. Russian official reports indicate that citizens of Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries fought side by side with the Chechen rebels. It can be assumed that these were descendants of the “Muhajir“ who had been driven out of the northern Caucasus region nearly 150 years earlier.

War against terror or willful support for it?

Russian and foreign human rights experts who visit the refugee camps in neighboring Chechnya or Ingushetia bring back reports of serious violations both on the part of the Russian army and the Chechen rebels.

President Putin of Russia has stepped up the pressure on Chechen rebels, portraying the conflict as part of the war against international terrorism. This has already not only cost the lives of thousands of Chechen civilians, it has also caused terrorist violence to spread to other areas of the Russian Federation.

Non-military solution to the conflict

The current leadership of Russia apparently believes it can defeat Chechen separatism by declaring it to be international terrorism and waging all-out war against it. In this way, it intends to dry up international support for the rebels.

While a considerable portion of the European public considers the situation in Chechnya to be an internal Russian affair, there are increasingly vocal appeals to seriously seek a political as opposed to military solution for the conflict.

For most Russian politicians, the current war in Chechnya is part of the larger war against terrorism. For most Chechens, however, this war is just history repeating itself – a reenactment version of Stalin’s February 23rd, 1944, attempt to do away with the Chechnya problem once and for all, by departing and decimating its population.

To this day, the international community has yet to make any serious attempt to mediate the problem.

© Gasan Gusejnov, Qantara 2004

Gasan Gusejnov works as a freelance journalist for DW-online

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