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Geography of the Chechnya


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Chechnya is a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, situated on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Since the early 1990s it has been partially controlled by rebel groups who have attempted to proclaim a separate Chechen republic. The conflict between the Russian government and Chechen separatists has now lasted over a decade and has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives. Although the surface issue of the conflict is nationalist and religious identity, a more serious issue lies beneath and ensures that the conflict will continue: the presence of oil and the location of Chechnya in the middle of 1 of the region’s major pipelines.

The Chechen Republic occupies the middle portion of the Terek River Valley, which rises in the Caucasus Mountains and flows east into the Caspian Sea. The southern portion of the country rises sharply to the Front Range of the Caucasus, culminating at the area’s tallest peak, Tebulosmta (14,734 foot or 4,492 meter), while the northern part of the country descends to the dry lowlands of the Nogay Steppe. Chechnya’s capital and main city is Grozny, located on the Sunzha River, in a narrow valley between 2 ridges that run parallel to the Caucasus. Much of the city is in ruins. Many of Chechnya’s oil fields are located right in Grozny, or close by. The city also has a number of mineral springs. The other major river in Chechnya is the Argun, which flows down from the Caucasus heights and joins the Terek near the city of Gudermes, another major oilfield. Major pipelines run across the northern part of the country, following the Terek Valley.

The Chechens were formerly linked with their neighbors to the west in the Chechen-Ingush A.S.S.R. Today, a separate Ingush republic borders Chechnya to the west, along with the autonomous republic of North Ossetia, the Russian kray (district) of Stavropol to the north, and the autonomous republic of Dagestan to the east. To the south, Chechnya shares a remote border with Georgia, high in the Caucasus Mountains. The republic covers about 6,747 square mile (17,300 square kilometer) and contains roughly 1 million people, the largest ethnic group in the North Caucasus. They call themselves Nokhchi and share linguistic traits with other Caucasian peoples.

Most Chechens are Muslims, and much of their history is affected by their relationship with other Islamic peoples in the region. Traditional Chechen society was clan-based, similar to highland peoples in other parts of the world, but a common identity was forged through some of the longest colonial struggles in world history, defying incorporation into the Russian Empire for nearly a century. Fierce resistance continued after formal annexation in 1859, inspiring romantic visions of heroic mountain rebels in Russian literature and art.

The Soviets, too, had their struggles with the Chechens, culminating in the forced deportation of nearly the entire nation to Central Asia and Siberia after World War II. The Chechens were allowed to return home under the Khrushchev administration, which also attempted to bring technological and industrial advances to the region for the first time. The Chechen capital of Grozny soon became 1 of the centers of the Soviet oil industry. By the 1990s, it is estimated that Chechnya produced 4.2 million barrels of oil a year, and refined another 18 million, contributing up to 6 percent of the gross domestic product for the entire Soviet Union.

A major pipeline was built to transport oil from Baku and the Caspian Sea to Novorossiysk and other ports on the Black Sea for export. Since 1994, this business has almost entirely collapsed.

Chechnya is linked politically, economically, and culturally to Russia. And although much of the country is under the control of either the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (recognized by no other nation), or independent regional warlords, it is estimated by both pro- and anti-Russian news sources that most Chechens support autonomy but not independence from the Russian Federation.

Since 1999, fighting has broken out again, this time in connection with pan-Islamicist movements in Dagestan, and possibly with global terrorist organizations, though the extent of this connection is speculative. Much of the shattered economy is run by organized criminal gangs, and a large part of educated Chechen society has left for Russian cities.

A referendum sponsored by Moscow in March 2003 approved a new constitution granting autonomy but it stipulated firmly that Chechnya remain a part of Russia. Tensions were not calmed by this move, and they escalated further with the assassination in May 2004 of the Moscow-backed Chechen president, Akhmat Kadyrov. The former president, Aslan Maskhadov, barred from the elections of 2003, now heads the separatist movement and has stated that he has enough men, arms, and resources to continue the fight against Russia for many years to come.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, www.Chechnya-mfa.info (August 2004); "Chechens, One of the World’s Most Ancient People,” www.chechnyafree.ru (August 2004); "Regions and Territories: Chechnya,” BBC News (August 2004).

JONATHAN SPANGLER

SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

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