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CIAO DATE: 11/03

International Law and the Just and Justifiable in Secessionist Conflicts: The Cases of Tatarstan and Chechnya (1990-94)

Olya Gayazova

March 2003

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute


The statistics on self-determination conflicts are worrisome. Some 67 armed self-determination conflicts have occurred in the world since armed self-determination conflicts have occurred in the world since colonies. Of them, 35% are 'ongoing' and have been in that phase for the median duration of 17 years. Another 30% of these conflicts are of a 'contained' status. Yet another 15% have ended with agreements, which are 'contested' by parties within the minority group or the government, or both.2 All in all, 80% of armed self-determination conflicts - instead of being settled - persist and are apt to inspire new generations of freedom fighters (for some) and terrorists (for others).

Why do so many of the self-determination conflicts persist? Why do they tend to become and remain violent? These questions are difficult and require a more systematic investigation than the one undertaken here. As a first step in search for answers I explore the way international law delineates the domains of just and justifiable in secessionist conflicts and how this delineation can affect expectations and policy choices of the leaderships of conflicting sides. I do so against the empirical background of two self-determination cases, which occurred in the territory of the Russian Federation and present the alternative roads to nation-building: the case of Tatarstan with its road of negotiation and the case of Chechnya with its road of violence.

It is not well remembered today but is of importance that Tatarstan was the first autonomous republic of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to issue a Declaration of Sovereignty. In early 90s it was the republic of Tatarstan that attracted the attention of international academic and media communities. The New York Times, for instance, predicted in 1992 that Tatarstan would become the first battlefield in the dismemberment of the Russian Federation. And not utterly unreasonably, as Tatarstan is home to the largest ethnic minority in the federation and its location and assets offered significant resources for political leverage. Contrary to the predictions, however, the past decade in Tatarstan has been of peace and economic stabilisation, permitting to speak internationally of a 'Tatarstan model' to nation-building.

In many ways, the Republic of Ichkeria (Chechnya) appears to be the opposite. The Checheno-Ingush autonomous republic was one of the backward regions of the RSFSR and was not really in the vanguard of the "Parade of Sovereignties." The Chechens, who shared the republican autonomy with the Ingushes, constituted a relatively small minority group in the confines of the Russian Federation (~700,000 in 1991). Also, contrary to the Tatars, the Chechens have a border location and claim a more recent history of conquest and repression. The past decade in the territory of Chechnya has been of destruction and bloodshed.

With all the differences between the two republics, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge a number of similarities: Tatarstan and Chechnya are both predominantly Muslim, with a deep sense of cultural distinctiveness from their once 'conqueror' Orthodox Russia. In Soviet times both Tatarstan and Chechnya enjoyed a de-jure autonomy within the RSFSR. In the post-perestroika environment both sought an upgrade to the status of a Union republic. With the collapse of the USSR both tried to voice their demands for independence internationally. In 1992 Tatarstan and Chechnya were the only two of the Russian Federation's subjects to reject the Federal Treaty that would otherwise equalise the RF's ethnic autonomous republics with territorial-administrative constituencies.

The paper is threefold: In part I, I discuss the narratives of the two conflicts with the focus on the leaders' backgrounds, expectations and strategies. I suggest that besides scrutinising 'preconditions', it is critical to understand idiosyncratic political processes operative in each case and see how the oft conflictual interaction of international law guidelines translates through self-interested interpretations into conflicts on the ground. I attend to the period of 1990-1994 when, arguably, the more important decisions were made by Tatarstany, Chechen and Moscow leaderships that have provided for the situation in the two Russian Federation's constituencies today.

Against the historical development of Moscow-Kazan and Moscow- Grozny interaction, I then examine as many as three discernible interpretations of the self-determination principle. I test these interpretations for consistency with the key readings of contemporary international law.

In the third part, I attempt to look at the cases from yet another angle, inquiring into what lies beyond the conventional fragmentation of the self-determination principle into competing interpretations. I suggest that such fragmentation - though initially appealing - obscures the very problematique of self-determination, without the understanding of which no self-determination conflict could be properly analysed and managed.

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