We're still learning about the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, and aside from knowing that that they traded fire with police, there's not much else we can be sure about. There are indications—unconfirmed—that the two brothers sought by law enforcement may have ties to Chechnya. With the troubled Russian region in the news, here's a primer on a violent region that has long struggled against Russian hegemony.
Where is Chechnya? Who are the Chechens?
Chechnya, or the Chechen Republic, is a small republic of Russia in the country’s southwestern region. Located in the northern part of the Caucasus mountain range, Chechnya’s 1.3 million population is 95.3 percent Chechen, an ethnic minority originating in the North Caucasus region, according to the 2010 Russian census. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, most of the country’s residents converted to Sunni Islam, siding with the Ottoman Empire against ongoing annexation by the Russian Empire. Grozny, a city of roughly 270,000 on the Sunzha River, is the republic’s capital.
What is Chechnya’s history with Russia? Why is it important?
For two centuries, Chechnya and Russia have been constantly intertwined, often erupting in violence and oppression. The Russian Empire expanded into the Caucasus region during the the 19th century, annexing Chechnya against its will. Today, Russia continues to maintain a vital interest in the region for economic reasons: Access routes from Russia to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea go through Chechnya, as do oil and gas pipelines connecting Russia with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
During two centuries of mostly Russian rule, Chechnya has intermittently achieved de facto autonomy during times of Russian upheaval. In 1917, at the start of the Russian Civil War, the country declared its independence, only to be suppressed and reclaimed in 1920. The Soviets then merged the Chechens with a neighboring territory in 1934 to reduce both group’s ethnic identity. In World War II, Chechens again revolted against Soviet rule, causing Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to accuse the population of cooperating with the Nazis. He had the entire population banished to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1944, killing tens of thousands of Chechens in the process. In 1957, five years after Stalin’s death, survivors were allowed to return home and Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, restored the province. The country remainder under Soviet rule until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Inspired by neighboring Georgia’s recent successful secession attempt, a Chechen separatist movement formed following the Soviet collapse. Russia refused to allow the region to secede, sparking two wars. The First Chechen War began in late 1994, when Russia invaded to oust the separatist All-National Congress. The movement found itself increasingly reliant on Islamic radicals flowing into Chechnya and the separatist war “quickly morphed into an Islamic insurgency,” according to the Associated Press. Russia withdrew and declared a cease-fire in 1996 after a long, bloody conflict. But a second war erupted in 1999, after Chechen bombs ripped through apartment buildings in Moscow. Tens of thousands were killed in the war, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Chechen capital of Grozny was recaptured by Russia.
Separatist activity declined, though militants killed hostages in two high-profile attacks in recent years. In a 2002 raid on a Moscow theater, Chechen militants killed 129 hostages, according to the AP. In 2004, militants killed 330 hostages after taking over a school in the Russian town of Beslan. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported a significant uptick in violent incidents in 2009. In recent years, Russia has poured money into revitalizing Grozny. The U.S. has, for some time, encouraged the Russian government and non-terrorist Chechen separatists to reach a settlement, according to the Associated Press.
What happened in Beslan?
In his continued effort to achieve Chechen independency, separatist warlord Shamil Basayev ordered the attack on a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004, resulting in one of the deadliest attacks of the Chechen conflict. After a three-day hostage crisis, where 32 Islamic separatist militants took over a school holding 1,100 people, more than 300 people died, many of whom were children. All but one of the militants was killed in the siege, which ended when Russian authorities entered the building with tanks and heavy weaponry. Images of the aftermath of the attack were gruesome, as described in this account from Esquire’s C.J. Chivers.
The attack by Chechen militants was widely criticized by the international community and turned the tide of support against the Chechens’ cause. Up until the siege and the second Chechen war, sympathy was on their side, said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This wasn’t the first time the Chechen militants used this tactic. In a similar attack in the late 1990s, Chechen militants took a maternity hospital to get Moscow to negotiate. Unlike the siege in Beslan, Moscow agreed to negotiate with the Chechens, preventing mass casualties.
What is the U.S. position toward Chechnya?
With many issues between Russia and the United States, the two countries have had some disagreements over Russia’s handling of the Chechen situation. During the 1990s, President Clinton put pressure on then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin to negotiate with the Chechen rebels. During the Bush administration, the U.S. and Russia had similar disagreements, as U.S. officials called on President Vladimir Putin to put an end to human rights violations in Chechnya. Moscow has dismissed these concerns, saying this was a Russian matter. In recent years, however, there hasn’t been much movement from the U.S. to pressure Russia on the Chechen issue.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several U.S. officials made ties between the Islamic separatists in Chechnya and militants tied to al-Qaida. At the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, Chechens even fought alongside the Taliban and al-Qaida. In the Dagestan region of Russia, where many ethnic Chechens live, radical Islam has spread and has become one of the frontier places for Jihad, said Eric Lohr, an associate professor of history at American University. Even today, there continue to be deadly clashes between Islamic militant groups and authorities. Authorities say the two men reportedly behind the Boston bombings were from this region.
All photos by the Associated Press