The Second Chechen War and the Lead-Up to It: Background information when reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
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  • First Published:
    May 2013, 400 pages
    Feb 2014, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Beyond the Book:
The Second Chechen War and the Lead-Up to It

Print Review

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set primarily during the Second Chechen War, which started August 1999.

The second war had its roots in the First Chechen War (aka the War in Chechnya). At the heart of this initial conflict – and indeed the one that followed - was the relationship of Chechnya to Russia.

Chechnya and its neighbors Chechnya was one of more than a dozen states to declare independence from Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991. But not all Chechens agreed with the decision with many wanting to remain a part of the Russian Federation. The end result was that Chechen President Dzokhar Dudayev's pro-independence government was unstable and this led to armed resistance by rebels opposed to his domestic policies. The situation was exacerbated by the Russian Government under President Boris Yeltsin, which sought to further destabilize Chechnya by supplying the rebels with money, weapons and mercenaries. Non-ethnic Chechens (predominantly ethnic Russians, Armenians & Ukrainians) began to flee the republic, leading to an economic crisis and further chaos. Russia used the turmoil as an excuse to invade Chechnya in December 1994 to "establish constitutional order in Chechnya and to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia."

The ensuing conflict left thousands – primarily civilians – dead and there were reports of massive numbers of human rights abuses on all sides of the hostilities. The war was also deeply unpopular with the Russian public, which helped bring it to an early end. A ceasefire was signed in August 1996 with a full peace treaty put in place in May of the following year, signed by Yeltsin and the new Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president in January 1997.

Maskhadov's government was left extremely weak, with very little ability to enforce order in Chechnya. This allowed large, lawless bands of armed men to terrorize the country. Kidnapping high-ranking Russians and other Western citizens became a major source of income for these groups. The lack of a military presence also allowed religious extremism, particularly Islamist Wahhabism, to flourish, and enabled fighters from other countries to infiltrate Chechnya's borders. The situation was so bad that in 1998 a state of emergency was declared by the Chechen government.

In August and September 1999, Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and Wahhabist militants invaded the Republic of Dagestan from Chechnya, sparking the Second Chechen War. Russia again attacked, first with a massive air campaign with the stated goal of wiping out the insurgents but with an end result of displacing thousands of Chechen citizens. On 1 October 1999 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared Maskhadov's government invalid and ordered troops into Chechnya. Adding fuel to the fire were multiple bombings in Russia that were attributed to the separatists (although this assessment has been contested).

As the Russians proceeded into Chechnya once again atrocities were committed against the civilians caught in the middle of the conflict. Chechen nationals were killed in very large numbers, and an estimated 200,000 to 350,000 forced to flee their homes amid Russian bombardment. The Russian army began a siege of Grozny in early February 2000, a city in almost total ruin from the constant shelling. Putin, now President of Russia, established direct rule of Chechnya in May 2000. Meanwhile, the separatists conducted guerrilla warfare against the larger and better-equipped Russians, particularly in the southern regions of Chechnya.

In June 2000 Putin appointed Akhmad Kadyrov the head of Chechnya, and Kadyrov helped form a new Chechen constitution in 2003 granting the republic some autonomy but still maintaining close ties with Russia. Although the new government was very unpopular (Kadyrov was seen as a puppet of the Russian government) Chechnya gradually stabilized as harsh measures were used to quell any civilian dissent and as separatists were killed or escaped to neighboring countries. The war officially ended by decree on 16 April 2009, but sporadic fighting instigated by militants in Dagestan and Ingushetia continues at the time of this writing (April 2013). Incidentally Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in May 2004 and his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, is now President.

PBS has a good timeline of Chechnya's recent history which is worth checking out.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in May 2013, and has been updated for the February 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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