Editor's note: As the US and the world watch events in Boston, many are also looking for information about Chechnya, a region of importance for Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers named as suspects behind this week's Boston Marathon attack. Here, Russia expert Craig Mellow describes the political and economic history of the area.
To the small minority of Americans who happen to have spent the 1990s living in Russia, the name of the holed-up Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, immediately rang a bell. He shares a first name with the late president of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Wedged into the forbidding Caucasus Mountains on Russia’s border with Georgia, Chechnya boasts a population of just 1.2 million, most of them Muslims. But it has played an outsized role in Russian history, recent and not so recent.
The Chechens were known as a fierce warrior nation well back into tsarist times. Imperial Russia fought for decades before finally subduing the mountain tribesmen in the mid-19th century. After World War II, Stalin decided that the entire Chechen nation had collaborated with the Nazis, and deported them en masse to Central Asia, killing uncounted thousands in the process.
This bitter history came home to roost after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Dudayev, who had been a general in the Soviet army, declared independence for Chechnya, prompting a ruthless but incompetent invasion from the Russian army. The onslaught, known as the “first Chechen war,” failed, and a 1996 peace agreement granted Chechnya provisional autonomy – though not before Dudayev himself was killed by a Russian rocket targeted using a cell phone signal.
Source: Mikhail Evstafiev, Wikimedia Commons
Vladimir Putin did a more effective job of subduing Chechnya after taking over as prime minister of Russia in 1999. A series of terrorist attacks, including Moscow apartment bombings that skeptics have long suspected of being staged by Russian security services, prompted Putin to reinvade. His success in this “second Chechen war” underpinned his election as president in 2000 and bolstered his popularity during his early days in the Kremlin.
Chechnya has been quiet in recent years under pro-Moscow president Ramzan Kadyrov. The Kremlin has poured in rebuilding funds, and a successful diaspora business community within Russia transfers money informally. But the entire Caucasus region remains economically depressed, not least thanks to periodic incidents of terrorism and civil disturbance in neighboring territories like Dagestan.
Renegade Chechen separatists have meanwhile been held responsible for a series of terrorist attacks on Russian soil. The bloodiest of these were the 2002 takeover of a Moscow theater, which led to 130 hostage deaths, and a 2004 siege of a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan, where the death toll was put at 380.
The US was (gently) critical of Russia’s actions during the two Chechen wars. So there is little logic to a Chechen attacking an American target based on nationalist grievances. As a result of its struggles with Russia and a large supply of battle-hardened guerrillas, however, Chechen elements have been known to intermingle with international “Islamist” forces fighting US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places.
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