NEWS

Examining the first Chechen war and its repercussions for the Greek diaspora

The first Chechen war (1994-1996) represented the worst crisis in the Russian Federation following the dissolution of the USSR. Chechen Jokhar Dudayev, a former air force general of the old Soviet Union, seized power, taking advantage of the chaos and the power vacuum created after the coup in Moscow in August 1991. Since 1990, Dudayev had been the leader of the «National Congress of the Chechen People» – a group that lobbied for the independence of Chechnya. On September 9, 1991, his garrison seized the government buildings in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and on November 11, 1991, he declared Chechnya’s independence from Russia. In the two years that followed, the situation in Chechnya worsened. The breakaway republic became a center for black-marketeers, kidnappers, drug and arms dealers, and other criminal groups that had expanded their activities up to Moscow. The failure of the Dudayev regime led to the formation of armed groups of other Chechen factions that attacked Grozny twice, with the aid and support of Moscow. Moscow’s response seemed imminent. The main factors that caused Russia to react were the following: the long-term consequences for the future of the Russian Federation of a possible «domino effect»; the significance of the area which constituted the so-called corridor of the oil pipelines from the Caspian to the Black Sea; Dudayev’s personality and his extremist political beliefs, which made it difficult to work with him on any agreement or reconciliation; Boris Yeltsin’s absolute powers versus a weakened Duma (Parliament); and the strong influence of those who had chosen war as a solution, though war at the time was not popular with the Russian people. The war that broke out in December 1994 was disastrous. It produced at least 20,000 civilian victims, an estimated 150,000 refugees and about 250,000 internally displaced persons and widespread destruction. Though the war ended on August 31, 1996, with a truce agreement and the withdrawal of the Russian army, Chechnya’s future status remained unresolved. The peace agreement that was signed on December 5, 1997, by President Yeltsin and the newly elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhandov did not foresee a definite arrangement. It was agreed that Chechnya’s final status would be decided upon at a later date (in 2001). Assistance to Greeks Prior to the establishment of the Dudayev regime, there were about 500 Greeks living in Chechnya (some put the figure at 1,500). The Greek community had very good relations with the local population due to their common problems and recent history, such as their mass exiles to Central Asia after 1944. However, many of the Greeks had left the territory before the outbreak of the 1994 conflict because of the prevailing tense situation and extremist beliefs and practices. Despite the fact that the war only directly affected around 250 Greeks, who finally found refuge in other areas of southern Russia, it also instilled within the diaspora a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. During this period, many reverted to seeking repatriation papers as a «pre-emptive» measure so that they would be ready to leave the country immediately if the need arose. Further, during the period 1991-1994, the remaining Greeks stayed away from diaspora organizations in order to avoid being targets of the extremists. Thus, the number of Greeks in Chechnya remained unclear shortly before the Russian intervention. Before the hostilities began, a committee was organized to assist the Greeks in Chechnya. It comprised representatives of the Greek Embassy in Moscow and associations of the Greek diaspora. The committee’s functions were: the collection of information regarding the situation in Chechnya; continuous contact with the competent Russian authorities (Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Nationalities, Red Cross, and Committee of Refugees) in order to furnish information and assistance in emergencies; the localization of Greeks in and around Chechnya; the organization of a communications network; and the reception of prospective refugees in northern Osetia, neighboring Chechnya, and their prospective relocation to other areas of southern Russia or their repatriation to Greece. Joint effort As soon as the war broke out, Prodromos Teknopoulos and Apostolos Peponas, both serving at the Greek Embassy in Moscow, were sent to southern Russia and the cities Mineralniye Vodhi, Piatyigorsk and Vladikavkaz. A few days later, the team was reinforced by the head of the Consular Office and by Anastasios Galanis. The team met with the Greeks of Chechnya, who had departed before the outbreak of hostilities and provided them with aid, while also obtaining information about Greeks trapped in Grozny. Furthermore, in order to be in constant contact with the Russian authorities, locate Greek refugees and give them aid or assistance, the team remained near the border of Chechnya, in the city of Mozdok in northern Osetia, as the team’s petition to enter Chechnya had not been approved due to the war. In January 1995, EIYAPOE’s (National Foundation for the Greeks Abroad) President Giorgos Iakovou visited the area as well. At the same time, associations of the Greek diaspora in Russia organized a meeting at Piatyigorsk to strengthen the network for the reception and assistance of refugees. Due to the coordinated efforts of the representatives of the Greek Embassy and their presence at the time of the arrival of the refugees in Mozdok, the assistance of the associations of Greek diaspora, and the help of the Russian authorities, all 151 remaining Greeks received economic aid and were taken to shelter in hotels in Mineralanyie Vodhi. Only two Greeks were injured. The majority of the Greek refugees from Chechnya preferred to be relocated to the neighboring areas of southern Russia rather than returning to Greece. So the Greek government financed the purchase of apartments for 20 refugee families. The decision to relocate these refuges to southern Russia reinforced the presence and role of Hellenism in the area. And the assistance and help of the Russian authorities (in helping refugees secure documents like residence and work permits) were most appreciated by the Greek side. On April 15, 1995 the Greek government, in cooperation with the organization Doctors Without Borders, sent a load of medical supplies to the Mozdok Hospital, where the head of the Orthopedic Clinic was a Greek, Hercules Hadziev, and to the hospital of the city of Gauliaefsky, at the Chechnyan border, where the director was also a Greek, G. Kosmov. (1) Dionysis Kalamvrezos served in the Greek Embassy in Moscow from 1992 to 1997. From 1994 to 1995 he worked in northern Osetia and other parts of southern Russia, assisting Greek refugees from Chechnya.