Russian tanks bombard Grozny

Chechen War -

Horror in Grozny

Socialists call for self-determination for Chechnya.

Report from Rob Jones, Moscow.

Christmas day saw a continuation of the massive bombardment of Grozny by Russian forces. Russia has been intervening in Chechnya to prevent the Chechen people claiming their right to independence. Russia has many reasons - military and economic control by Moscow are primary. In addition there is the recent elections and the fight to be the successor to the ailing President Yeltsin. The consequences have been horrific for the population of Chechnya. Thousands have been killed, often slain in their own homes as Russian troops bombard Grozny and other population centres.

The national question in this area is complex. Tension exists between ethnic groups, with the Islamic government of Chechnya even invading a neighbouring republic this year. Socialists must stand clearly for workers unity but also for the right to seceed from the Russian federation and for national self-determination.

Russia's political and military elite are systematically wiping Chenchnya off the map. And despite warnings from US president Clinton to stop the war and negotiate with the breakaway republic the war looks set to intensify. ROB JONES in Moscow reports:

The Russian military has given people remaining in Grozny until Saturday to leave. Then they warn all those remaining will be treated as "enemy targets" and the city systematically destroyed. Notwithstanding the growing number of refugees fleeing Chechnya (over 260,000 in neighbouring Ingushetia alone) there are still thousands left in Grozny. Even Russian television has shown hundreds of pensioners and children huddling in cellars scared out of their wits as the army continues its bombardment of those few buildings left standing in the city. This brutal massacre is part of Yeltsin's pre-election strategy. As long as the army appears to be on top in Chechnya, the opinion poll ratings of his Premier, Putin, continue to grow.

Although many political parties and a large proportion of the press opposed the first Chechen war, they almost unanimously 'support' this massacre. A large part of the population also support the attacks, not with any active patriotic flag waving but more with a sense of resignation that at last the government is taking some action that seems to be bringing results. Western governments' half-hearted protests at the developing "humanitarian catastrophe" have been ignored. The increasingly anti-Western approach of the ruling elite has found support.

The increase in world petroleum prices has given the Russian budget a windfall increase of $1 billion a month. As a result Yeltsin, Putin and the generals have been able to temporarily turn their back on the West, finance the war and even pay back some wages arrears in the run-up to the election on 19 December.

Army casualties

Nevertheless, the army is showing signs of getting bogged down in this war. Already, official figures show the casualty rate to be exceeding the rate sustained in the Afghan war and the press are beginning to say that the real figures are much higher. Deaths are only recorded if the soldier dies before he gets to hospital. Otherwise, he is reported as wounded and his later death unrecorded. The army has suffered from a counter-attack by the Chechens which has led to the loss of a couple of key towns. In one battle last Friday 250 Russian troops were killed.

The army bluster over Grozny reflects a fear amongst the army of a repeat of the catastrophes it suffered in the 1994-96 war. Twice it victoriously occupied Grozny only to be forced out with huge casualties by the Chechens. The second of these debacles led to the forced withdrawal from Chechnya itself. Reports of dissatisfaction and demoralisation are beginning to leak out of the army although they haven't yet reached the scale of those in 1994.

Yet, even if the army succeeds in taking Grozny, it will not have won the war. Resentment at the treatment of Muslim Chechnya will spread throughout the region. Meanwhile, those who are currently defending Grozny will regroup in the mountains, opening the prospect of a long drawn out war like in Afghanistan. The temporary support for the war from the population will fall as more soldiers come home dead and wounded and as the realisation that a quick victory is not possible sinks into the mass consciousness.

Socialist solution

The Committee for a Workers' International in Russia argues that Russian troops should be immediately withdrawn from Chechnya. The CWI says Chechnya should have the right to determine its own government and that the Yeltsin government should be brought down by organised workers' protests and a workers' government if elected. This would allow the establishment of a genuine and free federation of socialist states in Russia, Chechnya and the other republics in the Caucusus. We are therefore stepping up our activities in arguing for the creation of a workers' party which can campaign on these issues.