Oil, imperialism and national conflict in the Caucasus

Dec 1, 2004

Relatives and neighbors grieve outside the house of an eight-year-old child hostage killed in the takeover of a school in Beslan, Russia. Photo: Viktor Korotayev

The September 3 massacre of at least 360 children and adults in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia, in the Caucasus region of Russia, shocked the world and brought the conflict in the area into the public eye again. The Caucasus is the area between the Black and Caspian Seas.

Days earlier, on August 24, two Russian civilian planes were simultaneously bombed in mid-flight, killing 89 people. Shamil Basayev, a separatist leader in the nearby Autonomous Republic of Chechnya, claimed credit for the attacks.

On October 31, car bombs exploded in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, targeting Russian security forces. In an interview the same day, Besayan promised that more civilian targets would be hit, until he wins Chechen independence from Russia.

What is behind the conflict in Chechnya? What is the role of U.S. imperialism in that region? And who stands to benefit from the turmoil in the area?

It is not possible to analyze the conflict in Chechnya, or other struggles in the Caucasus region, such as in Abkhazia, Dagestan, or North and South Ossetia, unless they are understood in the historical context of the former Soviet Union and its demise in 1991.

Before the October 1917 socialist revolution, Czarist Russia was a vast empire spanning the breadth of Asia. It was a police state, with the Czar and his ministers ruling with an iron hand.

The Russian Empire was known as the “Prison House of Nations.” In addition to the dominant Great Russians, who comprised about half the population, there were more than 120 other distinct nationalities, all of which suffered added oppression as subjugated peoples. Among them were Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Yakuts, Finns, Ingushis, Dagestanis, Jews and Chechens, to name just a few.

Each nationality had its own language and culture, but all except the dominant (oppressor) nationality were suppressed. The “great” Russian workers and peasants suffered from tremendous exploitation by the ruling class, but as part of the oppressor nationality, their culture, identity and language were not affected.

The uniting of the extremely diverse nationalities, through the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary struggle for socialism and the forging of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was an unprecedented achievement in modern history.

Soviet policy on nationalities

From its formation as a state in 1922, the USSR’s policy toward the nationalities was a unique and revolutionary formation, as comparison with the U.S. system shows.

Setting aside the fact that their social systems were diametrically different, let’s examine the two in terms of representation. In the U.S., there is a Congress composed of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House has 435 members, allocated by population of the various states. The Senate has 100 members, two from each state regardless of population. There are no seats reserved for women, people from oppressed nationalities, or workers in the U.S. bourgeois democracy-that is, democracy for the rich.

In the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was the legislative body. It also had two chambers: one, the Soviet of the Union, with each deputy representing a certain number of citizens.

Its second house was the Soviet of Nationalities. Each nationality was guaranteed deputies in this chamber. This was the representation guaranteed in the Soviet Constitution: 32 deputies from each Union Republic, 11 deputies from each Autonomous Republic, five deputies from each Autonomous Region, and one deputy from each Autonomous area.

No law could be passed without both chambers’ approval.

Autonomous Chechnya

The Chechen people, like the other oppressed nationalities, had no legal status or recognition or rights as a nation under Czarist Russia.

Chechnya was militarily invaded by Russian Czar Nicholas in the 1830s and formally incorporated into the Czarist Empire in 1859.

After the formation of the USSR, Chechnya became an Autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation, the status it still holds from the days when the USSR existed.

Chechnya is 7,350 square miles in area. Its population according to the last census was 1,277,000.

It was only after the formation of the USSR that it gained legal status as an Autonomous Republic, inside the full Union republic of Russia, together with the Ingush people. Their combined population was almost 1,300,000, roughly the same number as today.

The development of the USSR greatly diminished the often previously bloody conflicts between oppressed nationalities that lived in the same or adjoining areas.

It would be a disservice to the Marxist movement to ignore that mistakes did occur, particularly during the time of Stalin, who at critical moments was at odds with Lenin over the national question.

During World War II, in 1944, Stalin forced the wholesale removal of the Chechen and Ingush masses to Khazakhstan, because segments of the population collaborated with the Nazis. This wholesale punishment for the actions of some sectors of the population created great resentment among the Chechens. In 1957, four years after Stalin died, they were permitted to move back to their historic lands.

National conflicts rise

More than 25 nationalities share the territory of the Caucasus, the region between the Caspian and Black Seas.

More than 25 nationalities share the territory of the Caucasus, the region between the Caspian and Black Seas.

The 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of socialist property relations have engendered growing antagonisms among nationalities. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Caucasus region, where there are over 50 nationalities in a relatively small area. In most of the area, the populations of several nationalities are thoroughly intermingled.

Under the Soviet Union, productive wealth and resources were owned by the state rather than privately owned. This diminished antagonisms between nationalities and peoples. There was no longer the same competition between nationalities, which is so often really an outgrowth of competition between the capitalist classes or ruling elites of each nation.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came into office as president of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, he dismantled much of the Soviet Union’s historic policy of equality for all the nationalities, as part of his plan to introduce capitalist reforms, known as “perestroika” or restructuring.

The rise of new nationalist conflicts followed swiftly on the heels of perestroika, beginning four years before the break-up of the USSR. A long and destructive war broke out in the southern Caucasus in 1987 between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Gorbachev and an other counterrevolutionary Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin (who became president of the Russian Federation in 1991), advocated for the introduction of capitalism and alliance with U.S. imperialism. Their actions encouraged the old bourgeois and new petty bourgeois elements within each Soviet republic, from the Baltics to Georgia to south Central Asia, to declare independence.

The leadership of the movements trying to separate from Russia as well as the former republics comprise part of a nascent capitalist class, who see the potential for tremendous profit and wealth if they are able to control their own national territory and resources. The existence of huge oil and natural gas reserves in the Caucasus has envenomed new rivalries.

Chechnya and oil

The real scenario that has unfolded is one where the dominant ownership, control and exploitation of those resources has passed into the hands of foreign capitalists, in particular the United States and its European rivals.

It is estimated that there is about $4 trillion worth of oil in the Caspian Sea basin.

Oil, like all natural resources and productive wealth, had been the property of all the people of the Soviet Union, which enabled the country to prosper, to provide free education, healthcare and housing for all. As state property, it had allowed for the industrial development of poorer regions. That oil now became the prized possession of the emerging bourgeoisies of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Now, what had been social property is being stolen by a few capitalists-not even mostly by the capitalists native to those republics. From 1991 to 1997, a conglomeration of 11 U.S. and European oil monopolies gained control of more than 50 percent of the region’s oil. Those oil companies want it all.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security advisor, said in 1997: “For America the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia. … Most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil.”

Today, one of the groups fostering and encouraging the Chechen independence movement is the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Its membership reads like a Who’s Who of neoconservatives. It is chaired by Brzezinski. It includes former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., former U.S. Congressman Stephen J. Solarz, as well as Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams and Kenneth Adelman.

Washington and other western powers are playing an active part in supporting the Chechen separatists. The imperialists have stepped in to grant asylum to many of the leaders in the separatist and exile government, which has declared Chechnya, “The Republic of Ichkeria.” It is headed by Aslan Maskhadov, the provisional president. The U.S. gave asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of Maskhadov’s opposition grouping.

Not wanting to lose out on future spoils of conquest, Great Britain gave asylum to Akhmed Zakayev, “Culture Minister” of Maskhadov’s group. France stepped in to welcome “Health Minister” Umar Khanbiyev. “Social Defense Minister” Apti Bisultanov was given exile status by Germany.

If it were to succeed in separation from Russia, Chechnya would join the league of former Soviet lands that are now “hosts” to U.S. and NATO occupation, and whose wealth is exploited for foreign profiteers.

Few could have imagined in the 1980s that today U.S. and NATO would occupy former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizistan, and Georgia, which borders Chechnya and whose pro-U.S. government is playing a key role in the struggles taking place.

Despite all that they have gained, neither the U.S. nor their European competitors are satisfied. Much of the Russian Federation, in addition to the Caucasus, holds vast untapped resources. Breaking off pieces of Russia, just like breaking up Yugoslavia, is seen as conducive to imperialist domination. As those who resisted the dismemberment of Yugoslavia well understood, the tiny states created by this process must inevitably be the dependencies of one big power or another.

Tens of thousands march in Moscow on the 87th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolshevik Party's progressive policy was key to overcoming national conflicts.  Photo: Maxim Marmur

Tens of thousands march in Moscow on the 87th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolshevik Party’s progressive policy was key to overcoming national conflicts.
Photo: Maxim Marmur

Dagestan resists

There are forces in the Caucasus who are resisting the imperialist-aided secession movements. On August 7, 1999, 1,000 Chechen and Dagestani separatists invaded Dagestan, a neighboring autonomous region of Russia. Dagestan is home to more than 30 nationalities, and is considered the most ethnically diverse in all of Russia or the former Soviet Union.

Of the some 2 million people in Dagestan, there are Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Laks, Lezgins, Tabasarans, Rutuls, Aguls, Tsakhurs, Russians, Nogais, Tats, Azeris, and Chechen-Akkins.

Russian military units in Dagestan were backed by self-defense units formed by the Dagestani population, in turn armed by Russia. Within weeks, the Chechen separatists were expelled from Dagestan.

Nationality and class

Writing about the Caucasus region in his 1989 book, “Perestroika,” Sam Marcy wrote: “Marx’s monumental achievement was to see national oppression in the light of capitalist exploitation. Lenin’s contribution was to deepen the understanding of self-determination and put it into practice over a period of many years. It is impossible to separate the national question from the class question.

“Those who seek to separate out the national question, detach it from its class moorings, from the struggle for socialism, are harking back to a capitalist era. That is what has to be borne in mind in the struggles in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan and in the Baltic areas.”

It is not a coincidence that the pro-U.S. president of Georgia, Eduard Shervardnadze, was overthrown last December and replaced by an even more pro-U.S. ruler, Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili was educated at Columbia University. This U.S.-backed move is in anticipation of further interference by Washington in the region, especially as resistance among certain nationalities to the carving up of the Caucacus increases.

Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But not every people within Georgia agreed with the breakaway.

Immediately afterwards, two secessionist movements, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, demanded to split from Georgia because they wanted to maintain close ties with Russia. Some 10,000 people have died in Abkhazia, since its original 1992 attempt at independence from Georgia to maintain ties with Russia, on the heels of Georgia’s declaration of its independence.

Abkhazia, which had status as an autonomous republic in Soviet Georgia, has since demanded to join with Russia, and its citizens are now accepting Russian citizenship. It has closer national and cultural ties with peoples in the northern Caucasus region of Russia.

The opposition movements that were allied with U.S. imperialists during the time of the Soviet Union, such as the ones in the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, received extensive funding and training from the United States.

That strategy of tearing apart the multinational socialist countries was stepped up in Yugoslavia after the demise of the USSR. In Yugoslavia, when Ramsey Clark and this writer traveled there in July 2002 hoping to help stop the kidnapping of Milosevic, our socialist friends told us of the pro-imperialist, counterrevolutionary group Otpor, which laid the basis for the thuggish takeover of the presidential offices and overthrow of Milosevic.

Otpor openly brags of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Freedom House. Otpor moved on to train a Georgian reactionary group, Liberty Institute, in its “rose revolution” in December 2003.

Of its work in Georgia, Otpor’s leader Slobodan Sjinovic, said, “We are working with civil movements in several countries, and I don’t want to name them. But Georgia is the first success story.”

Chechnya is not a homogenous region, it also has other peoples who live there, just like any area in the former Soviet Union. It is a lie that the bourgeois forces are acting on behalf of their nation. They are in fact acting for their class against the Chechen masses and all other workers and peasants.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, heading the newly emerged capitalist state, is incapable of resolving the national conflicts. Only a struggle that once again unites the great multinational masses on a revolutionary basis, in all the regions of the former Soviet Union, can hope to overcome the centrifugal forces of imperialism.

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