National, Economic Fault Lines Show Amid New Separatism


November 17, 1991|By SCOTT SHANE | SCOTT SHANE,Scott Shane was Moscow correspondent of The Sun from April 1988 until July 1991.

In 1818, a Russian general named Yermolov built a fortress on the north side of the towering Caucasus Mountains, where Muslim hill people were mounting fierce resistance to imperial expansion.

To send a message to the rebellious Chechen tribesmen, he called the fort "Grozny," a Russian word for "dread" or "menacing," as in Ivan Grozny, known in English as Ivan the Terrible.

"I wish that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains of fortresses," Yermolov declared, "that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death."

One hundred and seventy three years later, as if the entirety of Soviet Communism had passed unnoticed, the Chechen are again rebelling against Russian rule, and the Russians again dispatching troops to quash the revolt. Ideologies come and go, but the twin human obsessions of territory and ethnicity go on forever.

Just when everybody who could secede from the Soviet Union has seceded, a new round of separatism is beginning. Russia, by political logic the superpower successor to the crumbling U.S.S.R., itself is showing ethnic and economic fault lines.

The autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingushetia declared its independence Nov. 2 from the Russian federation. In its capital, still called Grozny, emotional crowds waved green Islamic flags. Media-savvy Chechen warriors posed for the world press on horseback in front of the White House, Boris N. Yeltsin's besieged fortress during the August coup.

As in August, Mr. Yeltsin is squaring off against a Soviet general. But this time the general is Dzhokar Dudayev, a nationalist firebrand and the newly elected president of Chechen-Ingushetia. This time, it is Mr. Yeltsin who has dispatched troops for a crackdown, and Gen. Dudayev who is massing thousands of demonstrators to defy them.

It might be tempting to abandon this latest tangle of distant places with unpronounceable names and turn to the sports page. But the Chechen rebellion may prove important. It may suggest whether Russia can turn its energy to building a market economy or whether it will be consumed by fruitless and dangerous territorial squabbles.

Even shorn of the other 14 Soviet republics, the Russian federation remains a formidable and diverse country, dwarfing Western Europe in land mass and approaching it in population. Of its 150 million people, nearly 1 in 5 is non-Russian. There are the Veps, the Yukagirs, the Selkups, the Koryaks -- Soviet census-takers list 82 ethnic groups before giving up and lumping the rest into a category called "other nationalities."

Who has heard of the Khanty-Mansisky Autonomous Region? The Khants and the Mansi together number fewer than 30,000, but their name is on a Siberian territory the size of France that produces far more oil each year than Kuwait. Were they to seize control of their natural resources, Russia would grind to a halt.

Hence, while secession of Chechen-Ingushetia may not cost Russia anything irreplaceable, the precedent could leave Russia, few years down the road, looking like Swiss cheese and buying a lot of valuable resources from its former citizens.

There is a new assertiveness in most of the 16 "autonomous republics," 10 "autonomous areas" and 5 "autonomous regions" where many ethnic minorities are concentrated. Most are not particularly credible as free-standing countries; of the 31, only Chechen-Ingushetia and Chavasia have both a population of more than 1 million and a local ethnic group that constitutes a majority. (In many, the largest population group is ethnic Russians.) But a glance at the historical treatment of the closely related Chechen and Ingush peoples at the hands of the Russians suggests why there is so much talk of autonomy.

Yermolov's tough talk was followed by 40 years of warfare, and the mountain people were subdued by the Russians by the late 1850s. Thousands of villagers were then forcibly resettled in the plains or driven into Turkey. Nonetheless, there was more unrest among the Chechen in 1877, in 1886 and following the 1917 revolution, when Chechen bands terrorized the Russian population in an attempt to force the interlopers out.

The most severe blow to the Chechen and Ingush came in 1944, when Josef Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Germans and expelled them from their Caucasian homeland to distant Central Asia, Siberia and Kazakhstan. (Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Russian parliament, is the son of Chechens exiled to Kazakhstan.) Historians estimate that as TC much as a third of the entire Chechen population may have perished in the deportations.

After Stalin's death in 1953, so many Chechen and Ingush returned illegally that in 1956, the Soviet government restored the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic that Stalin had dissolved. But relations were tense with those who had taken the land the deportees left, and in 1958 there was a three-day Russian-Chechen race riot in Grozny.

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