From Perestroika to attempted independence

Gorbachev’s perestroika led to the appearance of independent political organizations in Chechnya in 1988. Vladimir Foteyev, the Russian communist party boss in Chechnya, tried to suppress the new organizations, but his hand was weakened by the changes taking place in Moscow. The turning point came in June 1989, when Doku Zavgayev replaced Foteyev as Communist Party First Secretary, becoming the first Vainakh ever to hold the post.  (Doku Zavgayev was Deputy Foreign Minister and Director Generalof the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as of February2013.)

Upsurge of Chechen nationalism

Zavgayev fostered the formation of a Chechen political and intellectual elite, and tried to co-opt the idea of Chechen self-determination while keeping Checheno-Ingushetia within the USSR. A Congress of the Chechen People was convened in Grozny with Zavgayev’s consent in November 1990. The Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR (SSCIR), chaired by Zavgayev, adopted a Declaration of the State Sovereignty of the Chechen-Ingush Republic.

Zavgayev’s efforts came too late to stem the Chechen nationalist tide. Opposition demonstrations continued through the winter of 1990-91. At the end of 1990, nationalist groups united to form the All-National Congress of the Chechen People (NCCh P). They invited one of the most eminent Soviet Chechens, Air Force GeneralDzhokhar Dudayev, to take over leadership of the new bloc.

Chechen revolution

August 1991: The attempted hard-line coup against Gorbachev in Moscow gave the Chechen nationalists their chance. A non-stop mass meeting on Grozny’s Lenin Square demanded that Zavgayev resign and the SSCIR disband itself. The “national guard” seized the television station and put Dudayev on the air. The police were ordered to disperse the demonstrators by force, but refused. The “Chechen Revolution”had begun.

The NCCh P bought weapons on the black market or stole them from local Soviet military bases. Dudayev was also supported by Zvia Gamsakhurdia, who supplied weapons to the NCCh P. Eventually, a demoralized Soviet Army ordered to leave Chechnya would also become a party to ensuring Dudayev's men were well-armed.

September 6:  An armed crowd stormed the building where the SSCIR was in session. Many deputies were beaten and one was killed. Zavgayev was taken prisoner and forced to resign. Power was now in Dudayev’s hands.

October 8: The NCCh P declared itself the sole legitimate authority in the Chechen Republic, triggering a political confrontation between Moscow and Grozny.

October 27:  Dudayev was elected president in elections of dubious validity organized by the NCCh P.

November 1: Dudayev issued a decree declaring the Chechen Republic's independence. Moscow declared a state of emergency in Chechnya, but because the USSR was on the fast-track to dissolution the decree was set aside by Russia's Supreme Soviet and no troops were sent to Chechnya to quell the unrest. The Yeltsin-Gorbachev rivalry at that time had resulted in a temporary breakdown in Soviet leadership, which failed to react to the separatist movement. Moscow's inaction was interpreted by the Chechens as a de facto recognition of the republic's independence. 

Russian response

November 7: Moscow's leadership sent a reconnaissance group from the Soviet army to Grozny, but they were later issued a command to stand down, most likely by Gorbachev. At that time Gorbachev still retained power as leader of the Soviet Union, but the orders to send troops were issued by Yeltsin. Dudayev oversaw the evacuation of the reconnaissance group, and the state of emergency was revoked. The main effect of the botched operation was to give Dudayev the opportunity to pose as a national hero and unite the Chechen people behind him.

By June 1992, all Russian forces deployed in Chechnya were withdrawn, leaving behind their weapon and ammunition supply stores for Dudayev’s men. At this time, the Russian government had no clear policy on Chechnya. Dudayev’s regime was officially considered illegitimate, but accepted as a fact of life. Moscow cooperated with Grozny, for instance to keep the oil industry going, but refused to recognize Chechnya as an independent state. Dudayev rejected any settlement that did not recognize Chechen sovereignty, such as the draft treaty negotiated in 1992-93 by Russian and Chechen parliamentarians.

Provisional Council of the Chechen Republic (PCCR)

Dudayev has a mixed legacy among Chechens. Some considered him unstable and incompetent, and many of his associates were corrupt and linked to organized crime. Others consider him a national hero, who struggled to balance the various competing interest groups within Chechnya and Russia, and fought to establish a nation for the Chechen people. Yet most Chechens agree by early 1993 he rapidly lost popular support.  Dudayev and the Chechen parliament were in open confrontation. In April he proclaimed presidential rule, and in June he disbanded the parliament by force and eliminated all legal opposition.

Nevertheless, Dudayev was unable to consolidate control over Chechnya. Some areas, especially in the north, slipped from his grasp and became bases for a new armed opposition, which in December 1993 united to form the Provisional Council of the Chechen Republic (PCCR). Moscow gave its support to the PCCR in its civil war with the Dudayev regime, providing money, arms, training, air support, and mercenaries.  On November 26, 1994, PCCR fighters tried to capture Grozny, but were beaten back by Dudayev's men. The Russian mercenaries who had been driving the PCCR's tanks were taken prisoner and paraded before the television cameras. This episode apparently prompted Yeltsin to decide on direct military intervention. A last-ditch attempt at negotiation failed to avert hostilities. On December 11, Russian forces crossed into Chechnya from the north, east, and west; beginning the first war with Chechnya.