Thomas Goltz. Azerbaijan Diary. A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet-Republic. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. xxx + 528 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7656-0244-2.
Reviewed by Ingo Mannteufel (Journal OSTEUROPA. Zeitschrift fÃƒÂ¼r Gegenwartsfragen des Ostens, Aachen, Germany)
Published on H-Russia (November, 2000)
The Caucasus in the 1990s from the Perspective of War Correspondents
The Caucasus in the 1990s from the Perspective of War Correspondents
Since the last years of the Soviet Union the region around the Caucasus mountains has become an area of violent ethnic conflicts. The Armenian-Azerbaijan War for Nagorno-Karabakh, the hostilities in Georgia (South-Ossetia, Abkhazia), the clashes between Ossetians and Ingush within the Russian Federation, and last but not least the two large-scale Russian-Chechen Wars have drawn the attention of the international public to this up to then unknown region at the edge of Europe. But it was precisely this dangerous atmosphere that attracted journalists from all over the world to report directly from this new hot spot.
Thomas Goltz, an American journalist who worked in Turkey during the 1980s, was one of these journalists. In 1991, he was actually on his way to Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan, where he was to take up a position as an adjunct professor of history for the next two years, when he made a detour and landed in Baku, capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Personal contacts gave Goltz a unique inside view into Azerbaijani society in the last months of Soviet rule. He was so fascinated by the atmosphere that he decided to stay for sometime before leaving for Tashkent. After the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 he returned from a sleepy Tashkent to a boiling Baku to cover the developments in the Caucasus for the next two and a half years.
Based on his experience, Goltz wrote a draft manuscript that was published in Istanbul in 1994 with the title Requiem for a Would-be Republic and covers the period from the Azerbaijani declaration of independence in 1991 to the Azerbaijani decision to join the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1993. In addition to the slightly revised text of Requiem, the present book, Azerbaijan Diary, includes an epilogue about the time from 1994 to November 1997, which he wrote after a short visit to Baku in the autumn of 1997.
Reading the book it becomes obvious that Goltz saw and experienced quite a lot during his stay in the Caucasus. The reader is overwhelmed by "new facts", unique first-hand observations, portraits of individuals from all spheres of Azerbaijani society, travel accounts, reports from the battlefront in Nagorno-Karabakh (e.g. the Xodjali catastrophe of February 26-27, 1992) and the negotiating table. Goltz also reproduces several interviews, for example with Abulfez Elchibey, the first democratically elected president of Azerbaijan, and Heydar Aliyev, the "Grand Old Man" of Azerbaijani politics, who returned to power in Baku in 1992-93 and rules as Azerbaijani president since that time.
The density and richness of his impressions are both an advantage and disadvantage for the book; sometimes the gripping story outweighs analytical clarity and structure. Goltz's aim is not to prove a thesis or a certain argument, but to disseminate as much information as possible about Azerbaijan and thereby to correct misperceptions and misinformation in the Western press. He states: "I have the arrogance to suggest to the reporters, editorial writers, and, ultimately, scholars of the period and place that they take the time to wade through this opus before furthering the promotion of "facts' based on repetitive errors" (p. xii). Thus, the book with its twenty-five chapters, a prologue and an epilogue is a "quarry" for all who are interested in the recent history of Azerbaijan.
Three maps of the Caucasus and the Azerbaijan Republic and several photographs help the reader to keep track with the fast-paced account and its changing personal and locations. Some (scholarly) readers will not like the first-person style of writing which reminds us of the annotated diary that was the source for the book, but other readers will enjoy "accompanying" Goltz through his fictitious-like "adventures in an oil-rich, war-torn, post-Soviet republic".
Two other journalists who were attracted by the violent events in the Caucasus in the 1990s were Carlotta Gall, a reporter with the "Moscow Times," and Thomas de Waal, who reported from Moscow from 1993 to 1997 for the "Moscow Times," "The Times of London," and "The Economist." Based on their investigations, interviews and on-the-scenes reports they produced a well-written and well-structured book on the (First) Russian-Chechen War of 1994-96 and its historical background.
The book begins with the brutal events on New Year's Eve 1994, when the invasion of the Russian army into the Chechen capital Grozny had come to a deadlock, and the Russian leadership had reacted with a massive bombardment of the city without regard for casualties among Russian and Chechen civilians, Russian troops and Chechen fighters.
In the next seven chapters Gall and de Waal present the historical context of the conflict. In "The French of the Caucasus" (Chapter Two) they discuss briefly the history and culture of the Chechen people, the importance of their rebellious spirit and their clans (teips), and the complex role of Islam among the Chechens. In Chapter Three, "Conquest and Resistance," and Four, "The Deportations," the authors review the long history of the Russian-Chechen relationship, dating back to the eighteenth century when the region of the Chechen mountain tribes first fell victim to the expansion of the Russian Empire. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Chechens and Dagestanis led by the famous Imam Shamil resisted Russian power for almost thirty years.
This brutal "Caucasian War" is one of the two important cornerstones of Chechen historical consciousness with regard to the Russians. The second one, the deportation of the entire Chechen people to Central Asia in 1944 on order by Stalin, is told in the fourth chapter. Over half a million Chechen, Ingush and other Caucasian ethnic groups were deported from the region. Thousands died on the journey to Kazakhstan or perished of hunger and cold in the following winter. The Chechen-Ingush republic ceased to exist and in 1948, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR decreed that the deportees had no right to return. Only in 1957 was the Chechen-Ingushetian republic officially reinstated and the Chechens and Ingush allowed to return home. Gall and de Waal argue that the collective experience of large-scale deportation and thirteen years of exile gave "the Chechens a sense of common national identity as Chechens -- as distinct from belonging to a certain teip or village -- for the first time" (p. 74).
In Chapter Five the authors show that "Dudayev's Revolution" and his rise to power in Chechnya in 1990/91 was preceded by a revolt within the Chechen Communist party against Moscow's candidate for First Secretary of the local Chechen committee. Instead in spring 1989 Doku Zavgayev, Second Secretary of the CP in the republic for fifteen years, was put in charge of the Chechen-Ingush republic. Although Dudayev became Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Chechen National Congress in 1990 the authors state that he was "a little-known figure" at that time and just elected to cover up the split between different political groups in the Congress (p. 83).
Here, Gall and de Waal present a very interesting biographical sketch of Jokhar Dudayev showing that he "was much more a product of the Soviet system than a budding Chechen nationalist": He was born in Kazakhstan, had lived in Chechnya only briefly, spoke Chechen haltingly and was married to a Russian. Dudayev made a career as officer in the Soviet armed forces serving not in Chechnya, but in Russia, Ukraine, and Estonia. During the August coup of 1991 Dudayev backed Boris Yeltsin, who in return backed Dudayev in his struggle against Doku Zavgayev, then head of the regional Supreme Soviet. After ousting Zavgayev with the help of Yeltsin's aides Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Dudayev ignored the power-sharing deal with Khasbulatov and announced that he had taken over power as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Congress of Chechen people.
These political maneuvers finally led to the election of Dudayev as President of the Chechen republic on 27 October 1991, and the declaration of Chechnya as a indepedent state on 1 November 1991. By way of response Yeltsin's vice-president Alexander Rutskoi planned to overthrow Dudayev by force but Mikhail Gorbachev, still Soviet President and commander of the Soviet forces at that time, refused to help. Thus, by November 1991 Moscow had lost control over Chechnya.
As shown in Chapter Six ("Independent Chechnya") and Seven ("A Free Economic Zone") in the following years Chechnya became "a twilight zone, neither inside Russia nor outside it" (p.106) and the former Soviet Union's biggest black market emporium, especially for refined oil and arms. The authors call Dudayev's Chechnya "a mafioso's dream" (p.129), where a few people made a fortune through corruption, smuggling and other semi-legal or illegal deals, while most Chechens suffered economically and socially from this development. Though Dudayev talked about making the republic a "second Kuwait" the economic situation in Chechnya deteriorated further and his popularity among the people faded.
In "A Small Victorious War" (Chapter Eight) Gall and de Waal shed some light on developments within the Kremlin structure in the second half of 1994, when the hawks within Yeltsin's team, Alexander Korzhakov Mikhail Barsukov and Oleg Soskovets, took over the Kremlin and decided to support the scattered and disorganized opposition to Dudayev to regain control over the Chechen republic. They singled out Umar Avturkhanov, Ruslan Labzanov and Beslan Gantemirov , all leaders of groups of armed men, as Moscow's tools against Dudayev and supplied them with weapons and money for their operations. While Avturkhanov, Labzanov and Gantemirov proved more and more incapable against Dudayevs's forces, the Russian involvement became more explicit with each new operation. In November 1994 the decision was made to help the opposition to Dudayev with Russian manpower and tanks. The badly prepared and executed November 26 attack on Grozny resulted in a complete defeat and the capture of twenty-two Russian servicemen by Dudayev's troops.
Based on interviews and press articles the authors describe interestingly the decision-making process within the Kremlin to invade Chechnya. As for the question "who is to blame for the decision to invade Chechnya" Gall and de Waal argue that the "hawks" mentioned above, as well as Sergei Stepashin (head of the counter-intelligence service FSK) and Defence Minister Pavel Grachev are key figures in the decision to attack. But the central person for them is Yeltsin: "On 29 November he firmly backed the use of force and demanded a unanimous vote in favour at the Security Council. The following day he signed a secret decree authorizing an invasion. It was a clear, calculated and ruthless decision made by a politician who, in the final analysis, always made up his own mind." (p.166). Later, in the early summer of 1996 Yeltsin did everything to get re-elected. He signed a peace deal with the Chechens and even fired between the first and second round of the presidential elections Grachev, Korzhakov, Barsukov and Soskovets. But less than a week after Yeltsin was re-elected, on 9 July, Russian planes bombed the village of Makhety, where virtually the entire Chechen rebel leadership had gathered for a meeting. Gall and de Waal call this "a calculated blow without provocation" (p. 329).
In the ninth and tenth chapters ("Russia Invades" and "The Battle for Grozny") the authors take up the thread from the first chapter when the Russian army was stuck in the streets of Grozny and heavily attacked by Chechen fighters. These chapters deal with the first month of war, with the opposition to the attack within the Russian army and the political elite as well as with the weak Western reaction to the events in Chechnya. The performance of the Russian troops revealed the problems of the Russian army: poorly trained and equipped units, lack of organization, poor communications and logistics and a very bad command system. Gall and de Waal cite a staggering statistic according to which "for every Russian soldier killed by the Chechens, five died in Chechnya due to carelessness or other reasons" (p.208).
The following five chapters tell the story of the war with its turning points: the Chechen terrorist attacks in Budyonnovsk and Kizlyar, the killing of Dudayev, the final recapture of Grozny by Chechen forces in August 1996 and the peace deal between Maskhadov and Lebed, signed in Khasavyurt.
In a very interesting chapter (Chapter Eleven) Gall and de Waal describe the "War Against the People", i.e. how the Russian troops behaved in the "liberated" Russian city of Grozny. They ravaged and looted the Chechen and the Russian population of Grozny, set up "filtration camps" where an unknown number of prisoners were tortured and finally executed. The senseless brutality of the Russian army in Chechnya is symbolized by the Samashki incident, where in April 1995 Russian troops stormed through the village of Samashki, torching houses with grenades, burning residents alive or executing them. The authors assume that over one hundred people were killed, all but four civilians, and that "this was an operation ordered from high up, probably to terrorize and so subdue the civilian population of the whole region" (p.242). All in all, Gall and de Waal cite a total of 50,000 dead civilians, at least 6,000 dead Russian soldiers and two to three thousand killed Chechen fighters (p. 360).
The authors devote the epilogue to the first months of the de facto independent Chechen republic (January to April 1997). Although they saw some elements for a positive development in Chechnya at that time, they readily identified the features that increased the catastrophe of Chechen society: poverty, collapse of law and order, uncontrolled kidnapping for ransom and a thriving black market economy.
The book contains several illustrations, a cast of the most important characters in Russian and Chechen politics in 1990-1997 and maps of the Eastern Caucasus, Chechnya and Grozny.
In short, "Chechnya. Calamity in the Caucasus" is a well-researched and well-written book on the First Russian-Chechen War -- a horrible conflict that symbolizes Russia's "failed attempt to make the transition to a democratic society" (p. xiii). Even now, after the Second Russian-Chechen War, this book still deserves a large readership.
. In a referendum on 30 November 1991 the Ingush voted to form their own republic within Russia, and in June 1992 a republic of Ingushetia was formed.
. Again since summer 1999, when the hostilities between Russian and Chechen forces resumed, Beslan Gantemirov has been playing an important role in the Russian policy towards Chechnya as a leader of a pro-Russian group of Chechen fighters.
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