Last week, Chechen rebels took 1,181 people hostage at a school in North Ossetia, which borders the Russian province of Chechnya. When the attack ended, more than 300 people had died. Most of those who were killed and wounded were innocent children, parents and teachers who had started out last Wednesday with all the normal excitement and jitters of the first day of school.
The hostage-taking was just the most recent act of violence in a decade of warfare involving Chechnya. The province has been trying to break away from Russia since the early 1990s. Russia has refused to let it go, fearing that other provinces might also try to secede. If that happened, Russian leaders fear their country might fall apart. Some other provinces have been given special deals, such as their own flags and permission to use their own languages, but they have not gone to war to be separate.
In the last 10 years, Chechen guerrillas have attacked Russian troops in the province, and the Russians have fired back. Sometimes, the Chechen guerrillas have picked civilian targets outside their province. Last month, two Russian planes crashed within minutes of each other, killing about 90 people. Russian officials believe that Chechens were responsible for those crashes.
David Hoffman, The Post's foreign editor who was also a reporter in Russia for six years, answers questions about Chechnya.
Why does Chechnya want to be a separate country from Russia?
In the 1800s Chechnya was brutally conquered by Russia. In the 1900s, after the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the creation of the Soviet Union, the land of Chechnya was added to the Soviet Union as a province. Provinces are sort of like big states. During World War II, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forced all the Chechen people to move out of Chechnya because he feared they would work with the Germans against the Soviet Union. They were allowed to return in the 1950s, but many Chechens have not forgotten being sent from their homeland.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and many of the internal republics that had been part of the Soviet Union were given their independence. These included the Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Some Chechens then demanded their own country, too. But Russia refused.
So what did Russia do?
For a few years, not much. But demands for Chechen independence were growing. In 1994, Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, sent in a big military force to try to put an end to the Chechen rebellion. He hoped it would be a quick and easy battle. But the Chechen fighters surprised the Russians, killing many soldiers and taking others prisoner in the streets of Grozny, the province's capital. The Russians responded with devastating attacks, including bombings that killed civilians.
The war that started in 1994 ended in a cease-fire in 1996. But Chechnya was still chaotic, with different warlords carrying out attacks over the borders. Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, sent more troops into Chechnya in 1999.
Why are the Chechens kidnapping and killing innocent people?
In the 10 years of fighting, tens of thousands of people have died, both soldiers and civilians. The Russian army has at times been brutal to the Chechen people, destroying their villages. Many young men just disappeared. In turn, the Chechen rebels have attacked Russians. In 1995 and 1996 they raided hospitals and took hostages, some of whom were killed; in 2002 they took hostages in a Moscow theatre. The guerrillas apparently hope that if enough people are killed, the government will be forced to move its troops out of their province.
Is there any hope of a solution?
At the moment, there is not much hope. Putin has kept troops in Chechnya and claimed that things were returning to normal. An election was held recently in Chechnya, but many observers said it was not free and fair.
What can President Putin do now?
He has a big problem. Many Russians are furious that the Chechens were able to cross the border and attack a school. They are beginning to ask Putin: How did this happen? This is an especially difficult problem for Putin because he has often been a symbol of the Russian security services. Also, he was elected on a promise of taking a tough line against the Chechens. That approach doesn't seem to have stopped the violence.