The Second Chechen War and its Implications for Democratic Peace Theory

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The Second Chechen War and its Implications for Democratic Peace Theory

Jacques Courbe

Columbia University

Saturday August 15th, 2015

  1. Introduction

This paper analyzes the Second Chechen War, examining whether it fits Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory that weakly institutionalized semi-democracies have specific characteristics that cause them to be more likely to initiate war. Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory was originally conceived to apply to inter-state conflicts. Despite the fact that Chechnya was de jure part of the Russian Federation during both the First and Second Chechen War, the de facto sovereignty of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria [Chechnya], established in the conclusion of the First Chechen War, allows for an analysis of the conflict using Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory.1 I provide some evidence for Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory and account of the conflict, using new evidence primarily from secondary sources written after Mansfeld and Snyder’s original study, in conjunction with a qualitative historical methodology and multi-level analytic framework to fill in the gaps of previous explanations of the conflict. My analysis departs from the previous literature on the conflict by marrying international, domestic, and individual-level explanations of the war’s causes.

The Second Chechen War deserves attention for a number of reasons. First, the conflict caused the deaths of thousands of individuals, was the site of hundreds of human rights violations, and the situation in Chechnya is still unstable.2 Second, Putin is widely seen to have used the war to take and consolidate his domestic power in Russia. Third, the war has parallels to the subsequent Russian conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine; the analysis in this paper could provide inspiration for other researchers to explain the Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts in similar terms. Fourth, following Mansfeld and Snyder, the propensity for conflict of weakly institutionalized, democratizing states calls into question the United States’ policy of democracy promotion abroad as a strategy for promoting world-wide democratic peace.3 As I find some evidence for Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory, the implications of their theory also apply to this study.4 Fifth, Hanna Smith of the Aleksanteri Institute has expanded on Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory, proposing the existence of “a vicious circle in which the process of democratization led to military adventures, which in turn reduced the level of democracy in Russia”5—such dynamics may grip other democratizing states that become involved in war.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the unique nature of the Russian Federation, which allows for relatively autonomous governance of each of the Republics within it, reduces the applicability of my findings outside the Russian context. However, if China finds itself on a road to democratization in the near future, it could fall victim to similar dynamics as democratizing Russia, possibly leading to costly wars within its numerous autonomous zones, which, like Chechnya, are populated primarily by ethnic minorities. In-depth analysis of the dynamics that produced the Second Chechen War could provide international actors with valuable insight that would be used to combat the risk of similar conflicts erupting in a democratizing China.

That being said, some limitations exist despite all attempts to maintain unbiased rigor. Most significantly, the author cannot read Russian, limiting his ability to review primary sources that haven’t been translated into English. This problem is compounded by the fact that many authors who write about the conflict in English have evident anti-Russian or anti-Putin biases, which may affect their narratives regarding the conflict. As well, many of the authors who write about the conflict cite one another, and cite the same primary sources. This is probably due to many of the authors’ lack of Russian language skills, but the issue remains: there is a sort of narrative echo in many of the sources. Additionally, Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory is geared towards domestic political explanations of the outbreak of war, which raises the possibility of skewing the research towards explanations at the domestic political level of analysis. I attempt to mitigate the risk of unduly prioritizing domestic political explanations by including international, ideological, and individual levels of analysis.

Theoretical Framework and Hypothesis

In order to explain the causes of the Second Chechen War, I employ a multi-level analytical approach to the conflict6, underscoring the importance of the international geopolitical situation at the start of the conflict, the domestic politics in Russia, the ideology present in Russian politics at the time, and the individual characteristics of Vladimir Putin, who would become the face of the war and ride its popularity to the Russian Presidency. The multi-level analytical framework is useful for the purpose of this paper because it allows a more complete analysis of the causes of the war and shows that it is difficult to claim that the war was caused solely by factors related to the political situation in Russia at the time.

Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory, expounded in Electing to Fight, provides a framework that will help guide my domestic-level analysis. Essentially, Mansfeld and Snyder propose a typological theory7 that holds “that countries undergoing incomplete democratization with weak institutions are more likely than other states to become involved in war.”8 Thus, for the purpose of this study’s adaptation of Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory to case study analysis, the incomplete democratization of Russian politics is the independent variable, and the outbreak of war is the dependent variable. More specifically, Mansfeld and Snyder propose that:

the politics of democratizing states that initiate war are likely to exhibit some or all of the following characteristics: exclusionary nationalism, pressure-group politics, logrolling among elite factions, weak brokerage of political bargains by the ruling elite, contradictory and unconvincing signaling in foreign affairs, the use of aggressive foreign policies by declining elite gambling for domestic political resurrection, the use of media dominance to promote nationalist ideology, and nationalist bidding wars between old elites and rising mass groups.”9

For them, these “politics” are, in essence, the pathways through which the independent variable (regime type) leads to the dependent variable (war). Analysis of the decision-making process that led to the Second Chechen War will reveal which of these mechanisms existed, and which, if any, were causal. For example, upon cursory analysis, it appears that incumbent political and economic elites, threatened by the possibility of losing power in the 1999 legislative and 2000 presidential elections, resorted to the causal mechanisms outlined in the paragraph above—especially ‘gambling for domestic political resurrection’ using war—to ensure electoral victory.

Additionally, Mansfeld and Snyder hypothesize that “incomplete democratization where institutions are weak is especially likely to lead to war when powerful elites feel threatened by the prospect of a democratic transition,” and that their theory “mainly applies to states already involved in enduring rivalries whose nationalist and militarist institutions and ideologies were forged in earlier phases of democratization.”10 As will be seen, during the decision-making process that led to the Second Chechen War, incumbent elites were deeply concerned by the prospect of electoral loss. Also, Chechnya and Russia have a difficult history can easily be classified as an ‘enduring rivalry.’ Specifically, the First Chechen War played an important role in rekindling the rivalry between the two countries, as well as in cementing the nationalist and militarist ideologies that would fuel the Second War.

Because Mansfeld and Snyder make mainly probabilistic claims regarding regime change and war, it is unlikely that any findings of this case study will completely impugn their theory. Rather, this study should be seen as skirting the line between a disciplined-configurative case study and a theory-testing case study. A disciplined configurative study “uses established theories to explain a case” and “may use a case to exemplify a theory for pedagogical purposes.”11 In line with such goals, I adapt Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory to case study analysis, demonstrating a more rigorous method (multi-level analysis) of appraising the theory’s explanatory power for specific cases. As a theory testing case study, this study assesses the validity of Mansfeld and Snyder’s claim that the Second Chechen war exemplifies the patterns that lead newly-democratizing states to go to war. This case is a most-likely test of the theory. Mansfeld and Snyder claim that the case fits the theory, and, in fact, Russia at the time of the Second Chechen War had all the characteristics that Mansfeld and Snyder hypothesize would make them likely to go to war for domestic political reasons.

The main theoretical weakness of Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory relates to the inclusion of “enduring rivalries” as a condition that makes weakly-institutionalized incompletely-democratized states more likely to engage in war. An “enduring rivalry” could point to longstanding geopolitical conflict between two states, which would suggest that Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory unwittingly or surreptitiously includes a geopolitical component. The author must emphasize that even though the Second Chechen War was initiated by Russia—a weakly institutionalized state undergoing an incomplete democratic transition—this fact is not sufficient to claim that the war was actually caused by the political dynamics in that state. In order to prove that it was in fact the independent variable that caused the dependent variable, one must demonstrate that the politics of democratizing Russia actually contained the characteristics outlined in the preceding paragraph, and that these characteristics caused the outbreak of war, to the exclusion of other factors. For example, it is difficult to ascertain whether the Second Chechen War was already going to break out because of geopolitical causes, and was subsequently used for the political purposes of embattled incumbent elites in the context of incomplete democratization, or whether the politics of incomplete democratization actually caused the war to break out. Using a multi-level analytical framework in order to ascertain if it was solely the weakly institutionalized and partially democratic politics of Russia that caused the war, I find that geopolitical calculations clearly could have influenced Russian decision-making in the lead up to the war.

The distinction between whether the war was caused by the domestic politics of Russia or caused by geopolitical factors and subsequently used for domestic political purposes is not merely academic; it has important implications for democracy promotion policy. For example, if after review of other cases cited by Mansfeld and Snyder using the multi-level analytical approach of this paper, researchers find that those cases also include geopolitical causes, it may be reasonable to believe that only newly democratizing states that have long-standing “rivalries” and/or geopolitical conflicts with other states should be targeted for “careful sequencing of the steps toward democracy.”12
2. Background

Establishing that Russias Political System Fits into Mansfeld and Snyders Theory

To begin with, it is necessary to firmly classify the Russian federation as a weakly institutionalized state undergoing an incomplete democratic transition during the period leading up to the Second Chechen War. Mansfeld and Snyder adapted the Polity III dataset developed by Jaggers and Gurr in order to classify states into three groups: autocracies, anocracies, and democracies. Following this classification system, states are further evaluated on the democratic-ness of three institutional measures: competitiveness of political participation, openness of executive recruitment, and extent of constraints on the chief executive.13 I classify data from the Polity IV dataset—which includes data for the years leading up to the Second Chechen War—using Mansfeld and Snyder’s classification system. In the period between the First and Second Chechen Wars, Mansfeld and Snyder would classify Russia as anocratic overall, as in a period of incomplete democratic transition, as anocratic on the measure of political participation, democratic on the measure of the openness of executive recruitment, and anocratic on the measure of the extent of constraints on the chief executive.14 Russia would be considered an anocracy in the interwar period, but this classification may be misleading. Basically, I employ anocracy to mean a state that has both democratic and autocratic features, without considering other factors.

A crucial part of Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory is that weakly institutionalized states undergoing an incomplete democratization process are more likely to go to war. The Polity IV dataset drops the measure of the strength of domestic institutions that Mansfeld and Snyder used, so it is necessary to approximate the measure using narrative, as opposed to quantitative measures. The measure Mansfeld and Snyder used “increases if a regime has more clearly established rules regulating political competition and if it enjoys a more centralized grip on the reins of domestic power. Under these conditions, the regime should be better able to manage the rivalry of elite factions and minimize the adverse consequence of interest-group logrolling.”15 According to the Polity IV Country Report 2010: Russia, the Russian presidency was significantly weakened under Yeltsin:

In order to overcome the objections of the Communist-led Duma to executive branch proposals for political and economic reform, President Yeltsin was forced to appeal to influential interest groups in Russian society: regional governors, economic oligarchs, and military and bureaucratic officials, for support and loyalty. In the process of establishing these informal political arrangements, Yeltsin effectively undermined the

rule of law and, subsequently, devalued and weakened the power of the executive branch.16

This report suggests a low value of concentration of domestic political institutions, where the president was personally responsible for negotiating with elite factions, instead of using domestic political institutions.

It appears that Russia’s economic oligarchs played a substantial, non-institutionalized role in Russian politics through their influence on Boris Yeltsin. Indeed, David E. Hoffman, a prominent journalist, wrote an entire book regarding the influence of economic oligarchs on Russian politics during the Post-Soviet democratization efforts.17 All serious analysts of the Second Chechen War note that many decisions were influenced by Boris Berezovsky, one of the most influential oligarchs, who was considered a “kingmaker.”18 Additionally, all make reference to “the Family,” a group of advisors and oligarchs who helped Yeltsin rule. In the prelude to the Second Chechen War, the oligarchs and the Family would have controlled substantial power, considering Yeltsin was reeling from a series of heart attacks and his alcoholism.19 Nonetheless, as president, Yeltsin retained the last word on decisions taken by the Russian government.

The political system established in the Russian Constitution of 1993 may explain why oligarchs gravitated toward the president for political support. The Russian constitution was primarily negotiated in an intense power-struggle between Yeltsin and the existing State Duma; Yeltsin won, “establish[ing] a super presidential model.”20 The popularly elected President21 is Commander and Chief of the armed forces, has ultimate control over the foreign policy of the Russian Federation,22 has broad legislative powers,23 can issue binding legislative decrees as long they do not contradict the constitution or existing federal laws,24 can declare martial law and declare state of emergencies, “in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation or the direct threat thereof,”25 and has broad appointment powers.26

In 1997, commentators were already worried that the legislative powers granted to the President could thwart democracy and that the President’s mix of non-legislative powers, especially those related to appointment, would breed “executive-legislative conflict,” noting the instability of similar institutional designs in Chile, Peru, and Weimar Germany.27 However, at the time it appeared that a relatively well-defined division of labor existed between the president and prime minister, “where the prime minister ‘is directly responsible for economic management, while the President oversees foreign and security policy, provides strategic direction, and enforces the loyalty of regional governments to central government.”28 The norms of democratic political contestation, party politics, and interest-group lobbying; however, had still not taken hold,29 and economic oligarchs held substantial, if not determinative, political sway in the Kremlin.

This section demonstrates that the Russian Federation can clearly be classified as a weakly institutionalized state undergoing an incomplete democratic transition during the period leading up to the Second Chechen War, and shows that the Second Chechen War can be considered a most-likely test case of Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory. The next section gives background for the war and demonstrates the existence of an ‘enduring rivalry’ between Chechnya and the Russian Federation

The First Chechen War: Problems with Federalism, Chechen Independence, and Islamist Militants

The conflict between centralized Russian authority and regional autonomy for the Chechen Republic originates during the Soviet period of Russian History. Gail W. Lapidus argues that, after Russia’s conquest of the Chechens in the 19th-century Caucasian War, “the emergence of a Chechen national movement was the structural legacy of Soviet nationality policy with its built-in contradiction between the principle of ethnoterritorial federalism and the actual repression of national aspirations.”30 Despite and perhaps even because of the brutal Soviet-era attempts to consolidate rule in Chechnya, the Chechens retained solidarity based on “strong clan structures and group identity,” markedly differentiating the Republic from the rest of the regions composing the Russian Federation31. In 1993, “a Western survey of Muslim republics of the Russian Federation […] reported that the highest levels of religious belief and practice are found among Chechens,” pointing towards a high degree of cultural and social specificity that differentiated the Republic from others in the Russian Federation.32 As Valery Tishkov puts it: “in Chechnya this defiance against the existing order took the form of organized resistance, for two reasons: the ethnic solidarity of the population, and its large-scale access to arms.”33

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russian Federation was surprised by the “sudden and traumatic loss of empire, provoking exaggerated—indeed obsessive—fears of the possible disintegration of Russia itself and contributing over time to a shift within the Russian political elite from liberal democratic orientations to increasingly statist and neo-imperial ones.”34 The collapse provoked the renegotiation of the power balance between the central government and the 88 constituent Republics of the Russian Federation, which was finalized in 1992 with the Russian Federation Treaty. Eighty-six of the Republics accepted the treaty, the recalcitrant Tatarstan signed a separate treaty in 1994 without military struggle. In 1994, Chechnya was the only republic that failed to enter into a specific agreement.

The failure to negotiate a treaty defining Russo-Chechen relations began in 1991. The Chechens, firmly anti-communist, could no longer support, “the hyper centralization and inefficiency of the political and economic system directed from Moscow, and the secrecy and hypocrisy of political life.”35 Sensing the weakness of the central authorities, Chechnya began a tumultuous process of contestation against Soviet authorities. Led by Dzhokhar Dudaev, Chechen forces had the goal of “self-dissolution of the current structure of the Supreme Soviet of the Checheno-Ingush Republic, carrying out new elections and the creation of a sovereign national state.”36 The struggle culminated in independent Chechen elections on October 27, which brought Dudaev to power. His first act was to declare Chechen sovereignty, which divided the pre-existing autonomous republic into the Chechen Republic and the Republic of Ingushetia. On November 2, the Russian parliament declared the Chechen elections illegal. The Russian side attempted a military intervention, but it failed due to political clashes between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. By the summer of 1992, the Russian military had abandoned Chechnya, along with the arms it had in the territory. These weapons “were dispersed throughout the population.”37

A protracted negotiation process between Moscow and Grozny resulted in the First Chechen War. Lapidus concludes:

an erratic and weakly institutionalized political process in both capitals resulted in a highly personalized and subjective style of decision making that gave exceptional weight to the views and actions of two authoritarian presidents and their immediate entourages. The successful effort by political figures around Yeltsin to turn him against Dudaev and to delegitimate Dudaev's rule effectively blocked the prospect for high-level negotiations between the two presidents to seek a political solution.38

In a trend also noted by other commentators, the Russian government’s more liberal elements were forced out of power in favor of hawkish, nationalist, and authoritarian advisors during the prelude to war.39 Furthermore, the entire Caucasus region was becoming more geopolitically important as Western plans to tap the substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the Caspian basin “were portrayed as a threat to Russian influence.”40 On December 11, 1994, Russian military forces intervened in Chechnya, waging a war “indiscriminately directed against the population and the infrastructure of the Chechen republic.”41

On August 31, 1996, the Khasavyurt cease-fire agreement was signed, one of the outcomes of a negotiation between Chechen and Russian authorities that also resulted in the removal of Russian forces from Chechnya, elections in Chechnya that chose Aslan Maskhadov as President in early 1997, and a May 1997 agreement, “On Peace and the Principles of Mutual Relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.”42 The status of Chechnya was still uncertain. The Chechens considered the peace agreement a recognition of Chechen independence and the government made significant efforts to demonstrate its status as an independent state, while the Russians still considered the Republic a part of the Russian Constitution.43 In 1998, there had still been no progress on the underlying conflict between Chechnya and the Russian Federation as well as no definitive international recognition of Chechnya. Furthermore, the war left Chechnya with a number of problems that would give a pretext for the Russian intervention in the Second Chechen War:

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