The West’s real interest in Chechnya isn’t gay rights


The start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia has seen Western media step up its anti-Russia fervor more than ever. Already we are hearing wild exaggerations of corruption behind its successful bid to host the event and witnessing a similarly overblown depiction of its cultural nationalism. It is specifically identity politics that has never been more effectively weaponized by the U.S. political establishment than in the new Cold War‘s ongoing demonization of the country and its President, Vladimir Putin. What better way to mobilize what has traditionally been America’s anti-war demographic in left-leaning liberals to support an arms race? For this reason, during the past decade the issue of LGBT rights in Russia has been seemingly inescapable. While homosexuality is not criminalized and transgender people are allowed to change their gender legally following sex reassignment in Russia, it is true that there are no laws in the country prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community and gay couples are ineligible for the same legal protections available to straight couples. There was also the passing of the infamous federal law known as the ‘gay propaganda law’ which bars distribution of materials by organizations and businesses promoting “homonormativity” to minors. It was officially enacted by the State Duma in 2013 “for the purpose of protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values”, manifesting in examples such as Moscow’s ongoing ban on gay pride parades. All of this is tied to an overall socially conservative culture as a result of the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Wait a minute — wasn’t the West the main accomplice to that transformation?

While the issue of LGBT rights in Russia is certainly a legitimate concern (as are their rights everywhere), the timing of the focus on the issue by Western governments and their media organs is highly suspect. It is far too coincidental that it has correlated with the international tensions between Washington and Moscow that have steadily grown during the last decade. The notorious case surrounding the sentencing of the feminist performance art and punk rock group Pussy Riot is another example. After being jailed by Russian authorities for staging guerilla protest stunts in Russian Orthodox cathedrals, the release of their first single was directly supported by the U.S. State Department. One must ask how much of their concern is genuine, or really part of a larger campaign to muster support for a hostile foreign policy towards an invented adversary? There are 74 countries worldwide where homosexuality is still illegal — Russia isn’t one of them. It is even punishable by death in some countries, a few of which happen to be close allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates. In fact, just last year the U.S. was one of 13 countries to vote against a UN resolution condemning countries with the death penalty for gays so as not to upset those allies. This hypocrisy and selective outrage towards Russia continued following reports alleging that the authorities of the Chechen Republic, a predominantly Muslim federal subject within Russia, were rounding up gay men and subjecting them to torture in concentration camps. Some are even said to have been killed, though nearly all of the details remain unclear.

The allegations of ‘anti-gay purges’ were initially made last April by Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper well known for being heavily critical of Putin. It published the reports citing the names of activists from, an LGBT rights organization based in Moscow. However, after the reports were published the activists themselves filed a lawsuit against Novaya Gazetadisputing the claims that Chechen authorities began the alleged anti-gay pogroms in response to GayRussia’s inciting of protests for the right to hold gay pride parades. This minor detail that the primary organization cited in the reports contradicted one of their central claims seems to have been overlooked by everyone who ran the story uncritically. They also ignored the Journalists Union of Chechnya authoring a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denouncing the claims entirely as part of a fictitious smear campaign. The cause was quickly picked up by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and “progressive” NGOs like Avaaz (which advocated dangerous no-fly zones in Syria and supported the terrorist opposition). Then came the online petitions trending on social media amassing millions of signatures demanding a stop to the alleged abductions and torture, despite the fact that most of its subscribers couldn’t locate Chechnya on an unmarked map without cheating.

Novaya Gazeta is frequently characterized as ‘independent‘, even though it is the recipient of funding from the Dutch government and international NGOs like the Open Society Foundation. It was the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who used money he received after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to help found Novaya Gazeta before later buying a 50% stake in the bi-weekly publication. Gorbachev, of course, was the last Soviet premiere who ushered in glasnost and perestroika, the political ‘reforms’ which robbed the Russian people of their economic rights, decent standard of living, free education and medical care, and destroyed the entirety of the Soviet welfare state. The same policies of “restructuring and openness” not only led to the breakup of the USSR but ultimately facilitated Chechnya‘s secession attempts resulting in two bloody conflicts where it has been under the rule of corrupt warlords ever since. The very figure whose policies caused Russia to be ruled by an oligarchic and socially conservative political elite who enriched themselves privatizing the former state property is also co-owner of a newspaper critical of the government to which he gave birth? Gorbachev may be beloved in the west, but he is loathed in his own country. It was also perestroika which destroyed the policy of equality among the country’s diverse range of nationalities when the Soviet of Nationalities was disbanded in 1991. Interesting that a newspaper with his ownership stake is now concerned about human rights abuses occurring in Chechnya — shouldn’t we take any reports they make with a huge grain of salt?

The orchestrated outrage about ‘gay gulags’ in Chechnya brought international pressure by U.S. and European leaders demanding an investigation by Russian authorities. The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, has denied the allegations. While aerial photographs of the supposed detention and torture sites were included as “evidence” in reports (a la Sednaya prison in Syria), only one news outlet (VICE) managed to visit the actual site of one of the alleged camps at a jail in the town of Argun. No evidence was found and the prison warden explicitly denied that any such detentions occurred there. Interviews with Kadyrov and the segment on Argun were also highly exploitative — the media knew full well beforehand how deeply religious Chechens like Kadyrov and the prison employees would respond by denying the existence of gays in Chechnya. The nature of their homophobic but misrepresented response was implied as evidence that the camps must therefore exist, confirming the bias the hit pieces already had. One may recall that the same number was done on former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since the reports were published, only one man has come forward publicly as a victim. Maxim Luponov, 30, an ethnic Russian living in Chechnya spoke at a news conference organized by the Soros-funded Human Rights Watch and Novaya Gazeta months later. Even if proven to be true, the media has framed the unproven purges in Chechnya as an extension of the Russian Orthodox-led social conservatism presided over by Putin, in complete disregard of the autonomy of Chechnya’s own Islamic culture. How do they reconcile this with the claim that the Kremlin is also behind the rise of the Islamophobic far right in the U.S. and U.K., when Russia has 20 million Muslims in its population? Putin is apparently so tolerant of Islam that he is not only willing to allow the Chechen Republic to introduce elements of Sharia law but freely carry out such human rights abuses. Meanwhile, right-wing Islamophobes like Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter who have professed affinity for Russia are likely as ignorant of these facts as Russophobic liberals like Rachel Maddow — they would probably not like life in Russia as much as they claim.

A hundred years ago, it was V.I. Lenin who famously referred to the Russian Empire as “the prison house of nations.” In addition to the Russian majority, its vast territory is encompassed of more than 120 other different nationalities, and the antagonisms between them have greatly increased since the breakup of the USSR. Between the Black and Caspian Seas lie the oil-rich Caucuses, which are so abundant in energy resources that at the beginning of the 20th century it was the hub of the global oil industry. All of that changed after the Russian Revolution when all of the oil refineries suddenly became state property. Since 1991, the Caspian Sea region has been reopened to become the center of a surge in investment and development by big oil companies. Dick Cheney once remarked in the late 90s, “I can’t think of a time when we’ve had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” For the average westerner, “caucasian” is synonymous with “white” and has been widely used in that regard since the German ethnologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach coined the term in the eighteenth century for people of European descent in his pseudo-scientific theory of the ‘five races.’ Blumenbach partly based his racial classification on his belief that the people of the Caucasus were the most beautiful in the world. Yet most ‘caucasians’ in the west and those who still use this term have little to no knowledge of the actual region. It is the Caucasus where the diversity among the range of nationalities in Eurasia is the strongest, and this is how differences between people there are defined, not by race or color.

Friction between nationalities quickly reemerged after the Soviet Union fell apart. In the South, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh has been ongoing. Meanwhile, in the Northern Caucus is Georgia, which has had its own conflict where separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia wish to remain a part of the Russian Federation. The Rose Revolution in 2003 ousted the Moscow-backed President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, and his pro-NATO replacement Mikhail Saakashvili further instigated a U.S. and Israeli backed war against the Ossetian separatists before an intervention by Moscow. Located Northeast of Georgia is Chechnya, which became part of Russian territory in the 1850s after being occupied during the previous centuries by the Persian and Ottoman Empires during which the Chechen people converted to Sunni Islam. Under the Tsar, they were an oppressed minority with no rights or legal recognition. It was only following the Russian Revolution that it became semi-independent when in 1917, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan formed a unified state. The Mountainous Republic of the North Caucus existed until it was overrun by the Soviets after they defeated the Whites in the Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks expelled the MRNC government and Chechnya became an autonomous republic within Russia in 1921 which they jointly shared with the Ingush people. However, the ‘national question’ remained an unresolved and immensely complicated issue within the Soviet Union which was forced to endure continuous civil war, sabotage, foreign invasion, and economic embargo.

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Leaders of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucus sent into exile by the Soviets.

Many within the deeply conservative Chechen people resented the Soviets and viewed them as occupiers like the Tsar. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, some sectors of the Chechen and Ingush population collaborated with them in a nationalist insurgency lasting from 1940–1944. The level of autonomy of the insurgency is still an issue of historical debate, but in comparison to other instances of Nazi collaboration (such as Ukraine and Yugoslavia), the fifth column in Chechnya was not as fascistic in its character. Although there was no Chechen division of the SS which participated in the holocaust, the saboteurs were German armed and trained and the revolt was directly initiated after the Soviet military losses in the Winter War against Finland. Following the end of the war, the mass deportations of the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia ordered by the Georgian-born Stalin were highly excessive (especially since many Chechens and Ingush had also heroically fought against the Nazis), but the argument it was an act of ‘genocide’ is equally an exaggeration. Considering the unprecedented loss of life for the Soviets during WWII in 27 million people, the decision for the deportations must be looked at in its context. Nevertheless, Operation Lentil further deepened the resentment amongst Chechens toward Russia and their desire for independence. Stalin’s policies were reversed by Nikita Khruschev during the 1950s and for better or worse, the expelled Chechen population was permitted to return.

Chechen insurgents and Nazi collaborators during WWII.

The transformation of the Russian economy back to the free market once again intensified hostilities between the intermingling nationalities of the Caucuses. Each Soviet republic was encouraged to demand independence which inevitably resulted in a resurgence of national conflicts. While sovereignty was granted to the Baltic, Central Asian and other Caucasian states, Russia opposed Chechen secession because it had not been an independent state in the USSR and thus was unconstitutional for it to secede. More importantly, its oil reserves and petroleum production were essential to the Russian economy. The need to maintain access to Caspian oil and ensure it did not fall under the authority of separatists vulnerable to Western domination led to the First Chechen War (1994–1996), which broke out when Russia attempted to regain control of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. It was a brutal and demoralizing conflict that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands which only ended in a ceasefire that humiliated Russia’s leadership as it was forced to withdraw from Grozny. The Russian bombing campaign’s impact on civilians in the First Chechen War along with the interwar period‘s widespread lawlessness and rampant organized crime only fueled the spread of Wahhabism. During this time Chechnya’s President, Dzokhar Dudayev, was assassinated by a Russian laser guided missile after his location was pinpointed while he made a satellite phone call.

Although its population had always been fundamentalist Sunnis and the conflict had already seen the use of brutal terrorist tactics, the secessionist movement gradually descended into a jihadist majority by the Second Chechen War (1999–2000). The cause had initially been mostly nationalist until foreign mujahideen volunteers began to be imported into the rebel forces by the thousands and its character was transformed to Salafism. The Second Chechen War catapulted Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and Russia responded in an uncompromising crackdown on the insurgency. After four separate bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow occurred in 1999, Moscow blamed the separatists for the attacks that killed hundreds. However, the very members of the American political establishment who suppressed the Saudi role and full investigation of 9/11 have since stoked the rumors of Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB, the KGB’s successor) involvement in the apartment bombings as a ‘false flag’ coup by Putin. The ironic parallels to the Bush administration are astounding and only the American elite could be capable of such hypocrisy in constructing such an inverted reality. On the one hand we are supposed to believe that Putin is Machiavellian enough to commit such a heinous act, but is also for some reason always unable to keep his evil deeds under wraps.

Those that claim the FSB was behind the apartment bombings discount that the separatists had committed brutal acts of terrorism both before and after the 1999 attacks that were staggering in their cruelty. There had previously been attacks such as the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in 1995, but it was the Moscow theater hostage crisis that showed what the separatists were capable of. In October 2002, more than 40 Islamist insurgents took 850 civilian hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre demanding the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. The standoff ended when Russian special forces released a chemical agent into the theater, killing all of the insurgents but also nearly 200 of the hostages with poisonous sleeping gas. The First Chechen War had humiliated Moscow and this brutal response sent a message Putin was not willing to negotiate, even in the face of international scrutiny towards Russia’s handling of the crisis. The separatists sunk to new lows in September 2004 with the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia, taking more than 1,000 hostages including nearly 800 children at gunpoint while depriving them of food and medical attention, shooting any who attempted to flee to safety. The crisis ended after three days when the Russian military stormed the school gymnasium with tanks using thermobaric vacuum bombs, with the ensuing gunfight taking the lives of more than 330 people. If the Chechen collaborators with Germany during WWII weren’t Nazis, if they bared any resemblance to the Islamist separatists in Chechnya they wouldn’t be far behind.

Spetsnaz member rescuing a child during the Beslan school siege.

One of the major sources of the rumors of FSB involvement in the apartment bombings, the late double agent Alexander Litvinenko, even ludicrously claimed that the theater hostage crisis was somehow coordinated by the FSB. This didn’t prevent the media from continuing to use Litvinenko as a ‘credible’ source of dirt on Putin. When he died mysteriously in 2016, the media had already convicted Putin without producing a shred of evidence linking the FSB to his polonium poisoning. They would be able to pull off something like the apartment bombings, but cannot make an assassination of a traitor look like a quiet death of natural causes? The Islamist separatists had invaded Dagestan just prior to the bombings but were heroically resisted by local volunteer brigades who drove them out, Russia needed no false pretext to wage a second war. Russia’s investigation found that the apartment bombings were coordinated by the Saudi-born warlord Ibn al-Khattab, who had led the same terrorist invasion of Dagestan and previously fought in the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union, another jihadist groomed by Uncle Sam like Osama bin Laden. The separatists proudly took credit for the hostage crisis but denied the apartment bombings, reading from the same script of FSB involvement. Yet if Russian intelligence was behind the bombings, what’s stopping the CIA from producing the evidence?

Following 9/11, on the surface the relationship between the Bush administration and Putin appeared to be amicable, but the neoconservatives began to rebrand Chechnya’s separatists. One might assume in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that as Putin stressed the Chechen separatists connections to al-Qaeda and international terrorism, the U.S. would support Russia against them. Instead, the Bush administration began to quietly promote the interests of the separatists as part of the U.S.’s ongoing effort to destabilize Russia and its economic survival on fossil fuels thwarting U.S. oil interests in the Caucasus. Just a few years earlier as the Project for the New American Century was penning “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” which ominously foreboded the War on Terror, several of the neocons in its ranks had also formed the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC). Under Yeltsin, the U.S. position on Chechnya appeared ambivalent, but later the ACPC began to whitewash the separatists and championed their cause against Russian “imperialism”, turning geopolitical reality on its head.

Shamil Basayev
Shamil BasayevShamil Basayev
Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev who ordered the Beslan siege.

The separatists were also supported indirectly by the U.S. through their ally Saudi Arabia, the source of the worldwide ultraconservative Salafi movement. It was the Chief Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov who had been critical of Wahabbism in the Chechen separatist movement and by the outbreak of the Second Chechen War had defected back to the Russian camp. After the insurgency was crushed, he was appointed and became President of Chechnya and with support from Moscow began wiping out remaining extremists in the mountainous region. Kadyrov was in power until his assassination in the 2004 Grozny stadium bombing when explosives placed under the VIP seating section of Dynamo soccer stadium detonated during a Soviet Victory Day Parade, killing him and dozens of others. His son, Ramzan, assumed power in the aftermath and has been Head of the Chechen Republic ever since. While Putin is unequipped to solve the Chechen ‘national question’, to his diplomatic credit he has brought relative stability to the region by giving Kadyrov authority to run the republic as a ‘Dubai of the Caucusus’, perhaps the only scenario possible under capitalism in avoidance of another senseless war. Considering the U.S. is still at war with the Taliban in Afghanistan after 17 years, it could probably learn a thing or two from Russia as to how to settle for peace and stability. Although the Chechen wars are officially over, its remaining Islamist extremism has impacted the west not only in the Boston Marathon bombings but most recently in last month’s knife attack in Paris by a Chechen-born culprit. The Kremlin’s support for the warlord Kadyrov and his militia must be principally understood as a compromise to prevent the more extreme Salafist secessionists from taking power, which apparently the West would be happier with running Chechnya. What a human rights paradise that would be for Chechnya’s gays.

Grozny Stadium bombing
Grozny Stadium bombing
The 2004 Grozny Stadium bombing took the life of then-President, Akhmad Kadyrov.

It may very well be true that the persecution of gays in Chechnya is as bad as it is alleged. True or false, it won’t change the fact that the media-led propaganda campaign of vilifying Putin disguises the real motivation to balkanize Russia and undermine its hold on the abundant resources of the Caspian. Putin is branded an ‘autocrat’ because his policies have been centered on restoring Russian national sovereignty and diplomacy with non-western countries which rival U.S. hegemony, not because of his exaggerated stifling of dissent. It is this reason he is one of the most popular politicians in Russia’s history (consistently polling above 70%) under which the average citizen’s view of their country as being greater respected on the world stage has more than doubled since the 1990s. Russia has seen a revitalization not unlike that after Catherine the Great overthrew her husband Peter III. The neoliberal policies of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics had plundered the Russian economy and reduced life expectancy by a decade under Boris Yeltsin’s counter-revolution. While terrible inequality may remain, it’s economic recovery overall under Putin has been unforgivable to the West which had counted on Russia remaining forever on life support in debt enslavement to the IMF. It has since constructed a hyperbolic caricature of a James Bond villain plotting to destroy western civilization and the accusations of anti-gay pogroms in Chechnya may be yet another work of their deception. The war in Chechnya had been a disaster for Boris Yeltsin but the conflict came to an end under Putin, perhaps another reason for his being a marked man. The West had hoped to partition off yet another piece of the former Soviet bloc and exploit the Chechen conflict but this time their scheme was derailed. In fact, their plans continue to be foiled seemingly everywhere. For now, let’s be grateful.

Max Parry is an independent journalist and geopolitical analyst. His work has appeared in publications such as The Greanville Post, OffGuardian, CounterPunch and more. Read him on Medium. Max may be reached at [email protected]

Originally published in The Medium


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