The Chechen Case of the Struggle for Self-determination

The conflict in Chechnya represents a continuing and growing problem for the inter­national community in an era marked by international terrorism and a wish to avoid state collapse. The case of Chechnya is interesting in that it is represents a serious challenge to the Russian elites for decades past. Chechnya is the only case where Russia has persistently deployed its military power to contain the processes leading to decolonization. It is a manifestation of the inability of the Russian leadership to find a plausible political solution to the problem and avoid vast casualties among the civilian population. For Russia’s leadership, the question of Chechen independence is intimately tied to the ever-growing concern for state survival, disintegration and the great power image on the global arena; whereas for the Chechens it is a question of preservation of their identity, the protection of their cultural rights and the religious belief. For Chechnya, and other republics of the North Caucasus it is the unwillingness to assimilate. One of Russia’s primary objections to the Chechen statehood is that it could potentially lead to additional independence movements and the subsequent disintegration of the state along Russia’s southern border.

Nowadays, there is a considerable debate around the applicability of criteria for self-determination in the non-colonial context. According to the legal criteria for statehood, as accepted by the international com­munity, the context of self-determination is specific to the background of decolonization. Application of self-determination in a non-colonial context remains hotly contested. The Chechens strive to avoid the philosophical debate surrounding the application of self-determination by claiming that they were colonized by Russia and now wish to undergo the process of decolonization. However, given their historic experiences, the classification of colony is difficult to refute.

The Chechens claim colonial status dating back more than two centu­ries. Russian imperial expansion into the Caucasus began in 1722, when Peter the Great annexed the littoral region of the Caspian Sea. The area, what is now the Russian Caucasus, was a frontier of competition between the Russian and the Ottoman Empires. The North Caucasus became a frontline with the Russians colonizing the areas left behind, establishing Cossack settlements and pushing the indigenous peoples into the mountains.

Therefore, ignoring the colonial claims made by the Chechens is in contravention with the confirmed historical facts and detrimental to building a sustainable peace in the region. Any strategy for establishing a lasting peace in Chechnya will re­quire sensitivity to the historic dimensions of this relationship and their implications for the future relations of the two peoples.

One of the largest obstacles to a solution to the Chechen question is the historic relationship between the Russians and the Chechens. On many occasions the Chechens have been brutalized by the Rus­sians, and the Chechen unwillingness to submit to the Russian authority has fueled the ongoing tensions between the two peoples. Chechen nationalism was mobilized around a profound resistance to Russian colonialism, with the Chechens being most resistant among the North Caucasus peoples. The bitter memory of struggle was made more intense as a result of the genocidal deportation by Stalin of some 400,000 Chechens and other Caucasian peoples to Central Asia in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. The deportation resulted in some 100,000 casualties.

Today, the Russian leadership, empowered by the newly declared war on terror, operates with a much greater degree of latitude in dealing with Chechnya. Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Americans were finally able to sympathize with the Russians about the proliferation of Islamic terrorism and the threat posed by al Qaeda, effectively suppressing US accusations of Russian ethnic cleansing and human rights violations in Chechnya. In partnering with the United States in the global war on terror, Russia’s leadership has emboldened the efforts to combat the rebel fighters and insurgents who are now labeled terrorists.

Generally speaking, the geographic location of Chechnya makes it possible to grant it independence without threatening the territorial integrity of Russia. However, such a scenario is unlikely to be acceptable to the Russian leadership because Chechnya as well as other republics of the North Caucasus remain strategically important to Russia. Its territory straddles Russia’s eastern gateway to the Caucasus and the main oil pipeline from Baku to Novorossiysk traverses the region. Independent Chechnya could pose a real threat to the Russian economic interests in the Caspian region, especially if ruled by an uncompromising leader.


The Chechen case of the struggle for self-determination is a vivid illustration that coercion is likely to be the unsuccessful method of containing the aspirations of identity groups to preserve their cultural and ethnic traits. Granting sufficient political liberty and autonomy can stabilize the situation nationwide and lay the foundation for a strong, multicultural, and democratic nation-state. The efforts of the Russian leadership to consolidate democracy rather than autocracy will create a new image of the global power that is moving towards building a free society where all citizens can freely exercise their inherent human rights. Such a policy course is likely to increase the probability of Russia being granted membership in the World Trade Organization and other influential international organizations as well as open the door to a more peaceful world.

Russian leadership claims to have a distinct type of democracy. However, societies cannot claim to be democratic in absence of sufficient checks on their leaders and the balance of the political powers that govern them. Conducting autocratic policy actions while still retaining the status of a democratic power is a contradiction that the world community cannot tolerate. Philpott rightly suggests that:

guarantees that citizens can vote, assemble, petition, speak out, and hold office allow them to participate and be represented in molding the social context that constrains and enables. That they so promote autonomy is the justification of democratic institutions; and making institutions more democratic also makes them more just.[4]

The principles that lay the foundation for a genuine democratic governance provide the basis for the right to self-determination or at least a greater autonomy status for a certain ethnic group that expresses a popular desire to exist as a separate political entity. Truly democratic systems provide an equal opportunity for political participation to all identity groups so as to exclude the probability of a social revolution and the disintegration of the state.

The rise in nationalist sentiments in Russia during the past decade adds fuel to secessionist aspirations across the nation. Struggling with its own economic problems and the reformulation of its national agenda, the Russian society experiences a transition into the yet unknown political space, which is, for the most part determined by how wise current policy actions will be and how great the efforts of the leadership will be to build a free, multicultural society and eradicate all forms of intolerance. Presently, Russia is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in violent hate crimes. Most importantly, the Russian government has made legal and political commitments within the framework of the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe to provide protection from such forms of violent discrimination. Yet the response to the increased violence has been inadequate. Although political leaders have begun to recognize ethnic violence as a formal matter, their calls for action against extremism have been misinterpreted by law enforcement officials who have focused their efforts on silencing government critics, rather than on investigating and prosecuting the cases of increasingly brutal ethnic violence. Many political leaders themselves resort to racist, xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric to advance their political goals. Organizations openly espousing racist and anti-immigrant views are increasingly organizing public protests in Moscow and other major cities. Nationalist sentiments among members of law enforcement agencies are common today, which results in impunity and the degrading treatment of migrant workers and foreigners.[5]

Repressive policy actions throughout the country and especially in the North Caucasus will continue to plague the efforts to build a lasting peace and may well lead to another cycle of warfare. The solution to the problem of Chechnya will require a greater political commitment and the readiness to grant a greater degree of political freedom to all peoples of the North Caucasus, including the Chechens. It is only through a nation-wide referendum that the willingness of the Chechens to secede or be part of Russia can be revealed.

Ultimately, it is critical for Russia’s leadership to initiate a new wave of nation-wide reforms aimed at promoting a more liberal governance system. More constructive policy approaches to separatist movements have to focus on claims to self-determination as a product of discriminatory and repressive policy actions, rather than as a threat to state integrity.


[1] Patrick Hayden, “War, Peace, and the Transformation of Security: Selected Topics,” Cosmopolitan Global Politics (Ashgate, 2005), pp. 70-117.

[2] Michael Waltzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Second Edition, (Basic Book, 2006), p. 88.

[3] Allen Buchanan, “Toward a Theory of Secession,” Ethics 101 (1991); pp. 322-42.

[4] Daniel Philpott, “In Defense of Self-Determination,” Ethics, Vol. 105, No. 2. (Jan., 1995), pp. 352-385.

[5] “How to Promote Human Rights in Russia: Blueprint for the Next Administration,” Human Rights First, (2008).