Chechnya In Perspective: A Tumultuous History

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The news that the Boston bombing suspects had links to the troubled North Caucasus region has a lot of resonance in Russia. Russia had to fight two wars to put down a separatist rebellion in Chechnya, and it's still fighting Islamist insurgents in the neighboring region of Dagestan.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And we return now to our lead story, the hunt for the surviving suspect in Monday's bomb attacks on the Boston Marathon.

BLOCK: Police and federal agents have been going door to door in the suburb of Watertown. They're searching for 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His older brother, Tamerlan, died after a shootout with police early this morning. All day, authorities have been urging residents of Boston and surrounding areas to stay in their homes with the doors locked.

SIEGEL: The identities of the two suspects emerged after the FBI had released photos and video of the men. Last night, it's believed they robbed a convenience store and killed an MIT police officer. They later took police on a wild car chase that ended in a shootout.

BLOCK: And today, the younger brother remains at large. Authorities believe he could be armed with explosives. An uncle of the suspects, Ruslan Tsarni, made an open plea to his nephew, saying if you're alive, turn yourself in and ask for forgiveness. Well, the news that the Boston bombing suspects have links to a troubled region in Russia has a lot of resonance in that country.

Russia fought two wars to put down a separatist rebellion in Chechnya and it's still fighting Islamist insurgents in the neighboring region of Dagestan. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Moscow. And Corey, what have you been hearing from Moscow today?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, so far, there hasn't been a lot of official reaction. President Putin said again today that there needs to be an investigation. He called it a heinous attack. But basically, everybody seems to be waiting for the outcome of the manhunt. The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, said that his region bears no responsibility for the bombing. He pointed out that the Tsarnaev brothers apparently never really lived for any length of time in Chechnya, and that they grew up in America.

And he said, basically, that the brothers were a product of their American upbringing. But I think Russia may be willing to offer some real cooperation on this. Interestingly, when President Putin sent condolences to President Obama earlier this week, he offered Russia's help in the investigation and this was before it was known that the suspects were ethnic Chechens.

BLOCK: Well, to say that this is a troubled region, Corey, is really to put it extremely mildly. Why don't you remind us of some of the history behind the very brutal wars in Chechnya?

FLINTOFF: Well, Chechnya declared its independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Russia had to actually fight two full-scale wars to hold onto it. You probably remember that in the process, the capital city, Grozny, was virtually leveled. Chechens and other groups from the region responded with just ferocious attacks of terrorism, including that hostage standoff in a Moscow theater in 2002. That ended up with almost 130 hostages dead.

There was the hostage siege at a school in Beslan in 2004. That killed more than 320 people, many of them schoolchildren. So these acts are just burned into people's memories on both sides.

BLOCK: And you mentioned, Corey, the leader of Chechnya who rules the area with an iron hand. He's also one of Vladimir Putin's strongest allies.

FLINTOFF: Yes. The leader of Chechnya, again, is Ramzan Kadyrov. He's a onetime rebel, actually, whose family defected to the government side. He's kept a lid on Chechnya for the past few years, but he's also been accused of gross human rights violations in the process, including killings and disappearances. He's also believed to be on a classified U.S. government list of Russians who are barred from entering the United States because of their human rights records.

It's the so-called Magnitsky list and it's been a very sore point between the United States and Russia. But when this rumor came out last week, Kadyrov was interviewed and he basically mocked the list and said, well, he's a proud Russian and he had no intention of going to the United States anyway.

BLOCK: Now briefly, Corey, the Tsarnaev family has Chechen roots, but the two brothers in question were apparently born in the republic of Kyrgyzstan. They haven't, as far as we know, lived in Chechnya itself.

FLINTOFF: Yes. And this goes back to a piece of history from Soviet times. Joseph Stalin ordered the expulsion of almost the entire population of the North Caucasus in 1944. It was punishment for another Chechen insurgency that broke out during World War II. So this family is among those displaced people.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking with us from Moscow. Corey, thank you so much.

FLINTOFF: Yes, thank you.

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