Nearly a decade after the dissolution of the USSR, the Russian Federation continues to be plagued by internal fighting. Troubles in Chechenya reveal the complex history behind these conflicts.
Chechenya was formerly part of Checheno-Ingushetia. The two split apart in 1992. Chechens and Ingushes are both Muslim peoples of the Caucasus mountains. They grew apart in the ninteenth century when, in response to expansionism by the Russians, the Ingushes tended to be more accommodating than the Chechens in the east. The Chechens have engaged in many struggles against Russian rule both before and after their surrender to tsarist Russia in the mid-1800s.
In 1944, during World War II, Stalin expelled all Chechens and Ingushes from their Caucasian homeland to northern Kazakstan, charging them with disloyalty during the German occupation. Of the 500,000 or more people who had lived in Checheno- Ingushetia in 1939, less than half returned after its restoration in 1957. This troubled past helps to explain why Chechenya is not eager to remain part of the Russian Federation.
There are other potential trouble spots within the Russian Federation. In 1990, violence was reported in the capital of the Tuva Republic, Kyzyl, where a citizen of Russian descent was murdered for failing to answer a question in Tuvinian. There are also less serious signs of separatist pressures in the Sakha Republic (formerly called Yakutia) in Siberia.
In the face of potential armed conflict, why is the Russian Federation reluctant to let these republics separate? Economic and geographic resources certainly play a part. There is also political pressure, especially the fear of failing to be reelected. The fear of setting a precedent for other republics who may want to secede is also a serious concern for Russia. Another reason stems from the Soviet policy of "Russification," which has been in effect for the past 70 years. The aim of this policy was to encourage (and often enforce) migration of ethnic Russians to the areas of the Soviet Union where other ethnicities were in the majority. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these Russians were sometimes left in newly independent countries where there was no great regard for the Russian government. Ethnic Russians were often identified with the Russian state and treated poorly. In fact, the Soviet military invasion of Lithuania in January 1991 was ostensibly to protect the lives of Russians living there.
Increasingly, the Russian government must cope with the legacy of Russification. If we look at the number of Russians living outside Russia, we see how difficult this problem may be. Lithuania's population was at one time 9% Russian, Latvia's 34% Russian, and Estonia's 30% Russian. Twenty-two percent of the Ukrainian and 13% of the Belarussian populations are Russian. If more and more of Russia's internal republics strive for independence, the problem of what to do with Russian residents will have to be solved.