This essay focuses on the right of the Chechen people to self-determination. I examine the legitimacy of the Chechens’ claim to self-determination and assess the policies of the Russian government toward the minority populations of the Caucasus. I also assess various aspects related to the legitimacy of the movements that fight for self-determination in the context of the global war on terror as well as the problem of violations of minority group rights. In this essay, I argue that current policies of the Russian government in the Caucasus do not lay the foundation for the long-lasting peace and stability in the region and are, in large part, conducive to the continuation of separatist tendencies.

Human Rights and Nation Building Policies

The right to self-determination is intimately linked to the right to free association as well as a guaranteed protection of cultural rights under universal UN conventions, whereas the concept of state sovereignty is the foundational framework on which the global peace and security are built in the modern world. Today, the conflict of principles of state sovereignty and identity group rights continues to generate and fuel a number of local wars and conflicts in many parts of the world. Moreover, some localized conflicts have been extended to other countries owing to the ideological factors that fuel them.

Many nation-states are not homogeneous by the nature of their ethnic composition and even fewer boast truly liberal-democratic governance systems whereby minority ethnic groups could enjoy an unrestrained access to political power and exercise their identity rights freely. In addition, nation-building policies tend to aggravate stratification and lead to social tensions because of inherent discrimination on ethnic, racial or political grounds. Therefore, many cases of ethnic strife display not only a communal aspiration for self-determination, but also a form of protest against discriminatory and humiliating policies of titular identity groups. Practices of structural violence are especially important because they are manifest in the discriminatory policies towards certain social or ethnic groups and when:

social, cultural and legal institutions may be structured according to discriminatory beliefs and policies that deny basic rights and access to education, employment or healthcare to certain individuals. In cases where social practices deny education, housing, the opportunity to work or to participate in governance because of race, religion, sex and so forth, great psychological, social and economic harm is being done to human beings even if bombs and bullets are not being used.[1]

More importantly, the structural forms of violence to which minority ethnic groups continue to be subjected by majorities and titular identities force them to fight for sovereignty along identity lines. The system of nation-states is based on the assumption that state sovereignty entails a degree of external and internal stability, economic and political security as a result of internal cohesion, the subsequent international recognition of statehood and the establishment of legitimacy for participation in the global affairs. As a result, statehood has emerged as a potent cause for struggle for a myriad of ethnic and identity groups in an attempt to achieve security and prosperity which was otherwise unattainable within the existing multinational polities ruled by titular majorities.

In addition, the state system exacerbates ethnic tensions via elites’ struggles for power and status in an environment in which the de jure independence has become a prerequisite for welfare, prosperity and co-existence, because of the notions of security that membership in the international system entails. It is these notions of security that are perhaps more problematic than the direct challenges to majorities and sovereign actors which ethnic groups may mount. The institution of sovereignty is under question from those caught up in it, yet not recognized by it. Hence, the notion of ethnic sovereignty constitutes their attempt to find legitimacy, status, and security in the international system that will entail internal and external legitimacy. It is an extension of personal sovereignty, mirroring the sovereignty of entities that call themselves states and appeal to normative frameworks to provide ethnic sovereign actors with status and security.

Establishing Criteria for Claims to Self-determination

Waltzer asserts that “self-determination is the right of a people ‘to become free by their own efforts’ if they can, and nonintervention is the principle guaranteeing that their success will not be impeded or their failure prevented by the intrusions of an alien power.”[2] However, when the suppression of nonviolent resistance efforts is so intense as to inhibit the development of movements for self-determination, external intervention is vital in order to free the minority identity groups from severe forms of discrimination and violence. Therefore, if a definite ethnic group manifests a desire to exist as a separate political community, whether through a fierce secessionist movement or a non-violent expression of discontent, the international support for such a claim is critical, especially if it involves a combination of historical grievances of a certain nature, a territorial rights claim, discriminatory distribution and an attempt to preserve a distinct cultural identity. More importantly, when movements for self-determination are erroneously or intentionally linked to terrorist networks by titular groups to justify severe coercive and repressive policy actions, international responses to such allegations must be appropriate and just. Under some circumstances, the survival of minority identity groups is at stake and a question of external intervention arises.

Absent sufficient international support, many movements for self-determination resort to the guerilla warfare because of inability to counter the military and organizational potentials of states by conventional means. The legitimacy of movements for self-determination is undermined by the terrorist tactics that their leaders employ. When movements that fight for a just cause engage in a wrongful type of warfare by targeting civilians and foreign citizens; not only do they lose the legitimacy, but also the popular support of the people whose interests they seek to advance. Therefore, violence against civilian populations is futile and the attempts to achieve the political goals of a certain nature by terrorizing the innocent are doomed to failure. Notwithstanding the purpose, terrorist activities of any form are likely to aggravate tensions between the parties and result in the devastating social consequences. Moderate and nonviolent forms of opposition and resistance within the framework of existing international legal norms can yield greater impacts upon the promotion of the goals of movements for self-determination.

International involvement in matters of self-determination has to be of such nature as to provide secessionist movements with a degree of moral support and to direct their struggle toward the goal of sustaining the validity of their claims, which imposes substantial limits on the warfare tactics. Today, however, international support for secessionist movements leads to adverse consequences, in cases when foreign countries supply fighting groups with expertise and equipment to carry out terrorist attacks against civilians. Ultimately, this undermines the legitimacy of both the movements and the governments of countries that sponsor them. Establishing legitimacy for claims to self-determination requires a clear vision of the objectives sought and a proper basis for the claims – in line with international legal standards and expectations of the global community. When various, often unrelated, notions and perceptions are fused into the claim, the legitimacy of movements is further distorted. Therefore, only adequate forms of international support are critical for maintaining the right course of the struggles for self-determination and their ultimate victory.

Buchanan maintains that a reference to distributive justice or structural violence is often sufficient to establish a claim to self-determination without the historical grievance thesis.[3] However, practices of discriminatory distribution can span centuries, thereby accumulating into historical grievances. Henceforth, historical grievances often incorporate severe forms of longstanding discriminatory practices and treatment. Historical grievance and distributive justice concerns are interrelated and are often hardly distinguished. For instance, multiple decolonization movements across the planet have been driven by the perception of historical discrimination by majorities. However, sometimes, certain aspects of discriminatory treatment are effectively utilized by leaders of secessionist movements to serve certain narrow political interests that are hardly relevant to the struggle for self-determination. Often, secessionist movements become dependent upon terrorist network organizations for economic reasons, in which case their goals become intimately tied to alien political interests.

Territorial rights claims often involve practices of discriminatory distribution such as when majorities enjoy exclusive rights to resource-rich areas; whereas other groups of populace are denied access rights to their historically-claimed localities. These criteria for self-determination are often times intimately intertwined and no definite answer can be given as to what claim to self-determination prevails and is legitimate in each case.

A combination of multiple claims makes the strongest case for self-determination such as when a territorial rights claim is combined with practices of structural violence against a distinct identity group.  Without a doubt, practices of structural violence are indicative of violations of universal human rights and are the foremost reasons for consideration of the claim to self-determination by the international community. Claims to self-determination in the decolonization context are increasingly made by secessionist movements in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Part of the historical grievance and territorial rights claim, the demand for decolonization constitutes a threat to the territorial integrity of federalist states and is ferociously opposed by their ruling regimes.

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).