Beslan Massacre and the Putin Regime

Independence for Chechnya! Russian Troops Out Now!

Correction Appended

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 840, 21 January 2005.

With the massacre of hundreds of hostages, half of them children, in Beslan, North Ossetia on 3 September 2004, Russia's savage war against Chechnya returned to world headlines. This three-day standoff, in which over 1,200 people were taken hostage, capped a chain of terrorist attacks. They began the night of August 24-25, when two airliners from the same Moscow airport were almost simultaneously blown out of the sky by suicide bombers, killing all 89 on board. Then, on August 30, a Moscow subway station was targeted by a suicide bomber, killing ten.

These attacks were a real gift to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has regained a level of popular support for what was becoming a very unpopular war. Islamic fundamentalist Shamil Basayev, a longtime leader of the Chechen resistance, who first came to national prominence in 1995 with the seizure of some 2,000 hostages (according to UPI) in a hospital in southern Russia, claimed responsibility for the Beslan hostage taking in a written statement. Basayev also took responsibility for the 2002 hostage-taking in a Moscow theater. That attack was suppressed by Russian police using poison gas, resulting in the murder of at least 129 hostages.

These attacks are criminal from the viewpoint of the working class. Not only are they counterposed to the cause of Chechen national rights, they embrace the same mentality as that of the racist rulers of the Russian capitalist government—identifying the multinational working masses with their capitalist exploiters and oppressors. In the case of Beslan, located in North Ossetia to the west of Chechnya, this can only lead to further interethnic bloodletting, with the historically Christian Ossetians pitted against the primarily Muslim Ingush and Chechen peoples. Formerly integrated schools in North Ossetia are reportedly being segregated by nationality since the massacre. Yet the hostage-takers' demand for Russian withdrawal from Chechnya is a just demand that has widespread support, even throughout Russia.

As proletarian internationalists, we are fundamentally opposed to all forms of bourgeois nationalism. We forthrightly oppose the Great Russian oppressor embodied in Putin & Co., as we militarily defend Chechnya against the Russian imperialist occupation. We are for proletarian action against Russia's war on the Chechen people. The fight for Chechen independence is essential to the interests of the multinational working people of Russia, who face continued attacks on their own lives by the very state power that is carrying out the war in Chechnya.

At the same time, we extend not an iota of political support to the nationalism of Chechen resistance leaders like Shamil Basayev, who promotes reactionary Islamic fundamentalism, or to President-in-exile Aslan Maskhadov. After participating in the successful 1994-96 resistance against Moscow and being elected president in January 1997 (after the Russians assassinated Chechen president Dudayev in April 1996), Maskhadov was driven from power when Russian troops rolled back into Chechnya in 1999. Today he seeks imperialist intervention and the enrichment of his own capitalist backers.

The war against Chechnya is a direct result of the capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. We of the International Communist League were unique among the left in our forthright defense of the gains of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and against the capitalist restoration led by Boris Yeltsin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, Chechen independence was proclaimed. Russia invaded Chechnya in 1994 and by 1996 Chechnya had won de facto independence at the cost of 60,000 to 100,000 lives (based on data from human rights organizations), the vast majority civilians, as 6,000 Russian soldiers were sent home in body bags according to official figures, while estimates are as high as 14,000.

Estimates of the number of Chechen civilians killed in the first Chechen war of 1994-96 and the second war launched in 1999 range from about 100,000 to 200,000—out of a total population estimated at 300,000 to 450,000! Chechnya's cities and towns have been leveled. Industrial sites like Grozny's Krasny Molot factory, which before the Chechen wars was Europe's biggest producer of oil drilling equipment, are now piles of brick and refuse. Documented examples of Russian Army methods of terror and collective punishment are as extreme as they are barbaric. Chechen men have been chained to armored trucks and forced to watch while both female and male companions are raped and sodomized by Russian soldiers, as reported by Newsweek. In some villages, everyone over the age of twelve was chained together and blasted to pieces with artillery, leaving their remains to be dragged off by packs of wild dogs. Russian troops out of Chechnya!

The Putin Regime: Repression and Bonapartism

During Putin's first term in office, he rammed through a new labor code that greatly restricted the rights of trade unions, in effect banning strikes. Putin predictably sought to use the Beslan massacre to increase his already considerable powers. Within days, he issued a proposal, which was duly passed, to end direct elections of Russian governors and other regional leaders. Putin can now appoint leaders, subject to ratification by regional parliaments. If the regional parliaments reject his appointees twice, he has the authority to disband them. More recently, Putin won overwhelming parliamentary support for a counterterrorism law that hands the Kremlin broad powers to declare states of emergency, restrict free speech and clamp down on the news media. The Beslan massacre also increased calls to end the moratorium on the death penalty that was enacted in 1996 as a condition for Russia joining the Council of Europe.

In the wake of Beslan, pogromist hysteria was whipped up against non-Slavic peoples from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Putin's nonstop media barrage against the "two-legged beasts" provided the backdrop for nationwide xenophobic attacks. In Moscow alone, 11,000 people were rounded up by state authorities, and 890 were deported in a one-day sweep. Vigilante auxiliaries to the police were organized nationally. In Ekaterinburg, five cafes frequented by refugees from the Caucasus were attacked by skinheads, killing one person and sending two to the hospital.

After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Putin repackaged the repression in Chechnya as part of the "war against terrorism." Washington granted Putin a free hand in Chechnya in return for Russia withholding its veto of the UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. But this has its limits, as was seen recently in Ukraine, where Washington thumbed its nose at Putin by bankrolling the presidential candidate seeking closer ties with the West (see "‘Democracy' Movement Made in U.S.A.—Ukraine: Robber Barons and Nationalist Demagogues Fall Out," WV No. 838, 10 December 2004). While turning a blind eye to Russia's war in Chechnya, both the U.S. and its close ally, Britain, have extended political asylum to exiled former cabinet ministers of Maskhadov's government. Washington is intent on checking Russian hegemony along the periphery of the former Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, a bevy of right-wingers in Washington have formed an American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), whose message, in the words of the New Left Review (November-December 2004), is "that authoritarianism is in Russians' DNA and that Putin would do well to learn the lessons de Gaulle drew from Algeria." The ACPC includes former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former secretary of state Alexander Haig as well as neoconservatives like Pentagon advisor Richard Perle and former CIA head James Woolsey. The ACPC calls for a "direct international presence" (i.e., Western imperialist troops) in Chechnya.

Calls for foreign intervention in Chechnya feed into moves by U.S. imperialism to increase its military presence in the region. The Pentagon already has a network of military bases in Central Asia and the Caucasus. This includes U.S. Marines in Georgia, which is also occupied by a garrison of Russian troops. U.S. out of Central Asia and the Caucasus! Russia out of Chechnya and Georgia!

Down With Great Russian Chauvinism!

The most disgusting response to the Beslan massacre among leftist groups comes from the dubious Socialist Equality Party (SEP) of David North, which declared that the demand for an independent Chechnya is "a reactionary project, whose realization would benefit only aspiring bourgeois elements and their communalist and Islamic fundamentalist allies" (World Socialist Web Site, statement by the Editorial Board, 4 September 2004).

National rights for the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia were won as part of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which destroyed what Lenin called the tsarist "prison house of peoples." Under the Soviet Union, autonomous regions were established for formerly oppressed peoples such as the Chechens, Ossetians, Tartars and Bashkirs in the Urals. Under Stalin's rule, national rights of non-Russian peoples were savagely trampled on in the Caucasus and elsewhere. During World War II, Stalin dissolved the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, falsely claiming it had supported the invasion by Nazi Germany. The entire population was deported to Central Asia, and a large percentage died en route. Stalin also forcibly resettled the Volga Germans and a number of other peoples from the Crimea and Caucasus.

In the late 1950s, the liberal Stalinist regime of Nikita Khrushchev restored the Chechen-Ingush Republic and large numbers returned to their homeland. They enjoyed a substantial degree of national autonomy, preserving and developing their language and cultural identity, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was a deformed workers state dominated by Russian nationalism.

As Georgi M. Derluguian notes in his insightful essay "Che Guevaras in Turbans" (New Left Review, September-October 1999), "In the 1960s Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus were commonly described as a showcase of modernization, and this was not mere propaganda." By all indicators, Soviet citizens from this region were centuries ahead in development compared to neighboring Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, especially when one considers the condition of women.

Today, these regions have been thrown back centuries in time. The deepening hold of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism on the consciousness of the peoples of the former Soviet Union is a reflection of capitalist counterrevolution. What is needed to galvanize proletarian opposition to the capitalist rulers of Russia and the other former Soviet Republics is the forging of a revolutionary workers party steeled in Leninist internationalism. As we wrote at the beginning of the first Chechen war a decade ago (WV No. 614, 13 January 1995):

"An internationalist, revolutionary workers movement fighting for a democratically planned, egalitarian economy and true equality between the peoples of this region could rally the working masses of all the Caucasian peoples to overcome the raging fratricidal national conflicts. An authentically communist, Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party must be forged in sharp struggle against all variants of nationalism, and in particular against the chauvinism of the Great Russian oppressor."


Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 847, 29 April 2005

In "Independence for Chechnya! Russian Troops Out Now!" (WV No. 840, 21 January), we wrote: "Estimates of the number of Chechen civilians killed in the first Chechen war of 1994-96 and the second war launched in 1999 range from about 100,000 to 200,000—out of a total population estimated at 300,000 to 450,000" The estimate of Chechens killed by Russian forces over the past decade was correct. However, the population estimate was misleading, implying that up to 45 percent of the population might have been killed.

Due to the war, population estimates—as well as estimates of casualties and refugees—vary drastically from the 1990s to the present. According to a 1989 Soviet census, the total population of Chechnya was 1.3 million, of whom some 735,000 were Chechens (most of the rest were Russians). The figure we cited of 300,000 to 450,000 comes from an official estimate by the Danish Refugee Council in early 2000—after years of war had driven the population to a low point. Later in 2000 after further research, the Danish Refugee Council arrived at an estimated Chechen population of approximately 715,000, which is probably more accurate than the number we cited. Other estimates include that of the International Helsinki Federation, which in 2002 estimated Chechnya's population to be less than half a million; and the Russian government, which that same year ludicrously claimed Chechnya's population had undergone a "miraculous expansion" to nearly 1.1 million. Although establishing Chechnya's current population is difficult, it is clear that Russia's assault has driven out an extremely high number of Chechens—approximately 150,000 according to the Danish Refugee Council—while slaughtering a high percentage of those remaining.

The same article also incorrectly referred to the Soviet Union as a "deformed workers state." Before its collapse, the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers state, as the Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917 underwent degeneration under a parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy that seized political power in 1924. The term "deformed workers state" is used by Trotskyists to characterize China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba (as well as East Europe before capitalist counterrevolution), where capitalism was overthrown but where the workers states were bureaucratically deformed from their inception.

ICL Home Page