The Economist summarizes Chechnya’s troubled history aptly: “The separatist struggle in predominantly Muslim Chechnya results in large part from the exceptional cruelty that Stalin meted out to its people at the end of the second world war. Suspecting some Chechens of aiding the Nazis, he deported the republic’s entire population to the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan. In the 1990s, sons of that deported generation returned to start a bloody war of independence and, in 1996, forced Russian federal forces to retreat. After a wave of terrorist attacks across Russia, in 1999 Russia’s then prime minister, Vladimir Putin, launched a second war on the rebels. His popularity soared and he was elected president in 2000. Though the terrorist attacks have continued, Mr. Putin was re-elected by a landslide in March this year (helped by a media clampdown during the campaign).” (1)

HUMAN RIGHTS

As Amnesty International confirmed in a 2002 report, “Russian forces in Chechnya continue to commit grave breaches of international humanitarian law and to violate human rights, largely with impunity.” The conflict in Chechnya, said the report, has “settled into a war of attrition, whereby Chechen forces launch hit and run attacks on Russian military vehicles and checkpoints. The emergence of these farmer-by-day, fighter-by-night tactics by the Chechen side has undoubtedly contributed to acts of reprisal and human rights violations committed by Russian forces against the civilian population.”

The report continues by detailing the broad scale of human rights abuses: “Some of the worst human rights violations are conducted during raids by Russian forces – in Russian, zachistki, literally ”clean-up” – on villages and other populated areas: civilians are subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, including rape, and ill-treatment. Looting and arson of private property are also commonly reported during these raids. Other civilians are subjected to ”disappearance”; last seen in Russian military custody, some of these persons are extrajudicially executed, some of these victims’ bodies have been found in dumping sites or mass graves, bearing the signs of torture and violent death. The practice of extortion to secure a detainee’s release continues unabated; commonly, a detainee is freed by the authorities upon payment of a monetary bribe or the production of several machine-gun rifles by one of his or her relatives.” (2)

A WAR ON TERROR?

As Anne Applebaum writes, the “the Chechen war is among the bloodiest ethnic conflicts in Europe: Civilian deaths are approaching the level of Cambodian deaths under the Khmer Rouge.” (3) And, though he has claimed otherwise, Russian President Vladimir Putin has in the past done little in the way of looking for a truly political solution to the Chechen rebellion, instead moving to crush the rebels by giving Russian security forces free rein to abduct, torture and kill young Chechens suspected of rebel ties.

In the same article cited above, Applebaum writes that U.S. policy toward Chechnya is “theoretically” quite clear: “Although we consider Chechnya to be “an internal Russian matter,” we do say that we want the war to end by negotiation, and we do believe that there is someone for the Russians to negotiate with.”

What this indicates in practice is that there is less agreement between the U.S. and Putin than exists in theory: as Steven Pifer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs told the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2003, for example, was that “we do not share the Russian assessment that the Chechen conflict is simply and solely a counterterrorism effort. . . . While there are terrorist elements fighting in Chechnya, we do not agree that all separatists can be equated as terrorists.”

AFTER BESLAN: PUTIN VOWS TO CRACK DOWN, AGAIN

Previous to the hostage crisis in Beslan, Putin had insisted that the conflict Chechnya was a purely domestic issue, while Western leaders generally endorsed his claims and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Chechnya. Following the attack, he has begun to talk of an international nature of the threat: Beslan is now officially listed as part of the same Islamist attack on the “civilized” values that forged the attacks on Twin Towers in New York and Atocha station in Madrid. (4)

As Kampfner alleges, “Putin’s iron fist has got nowhere. This was a man who promised to restore order after what his supporters call the “chaos” of the Yeltsin years, including Chechnya. After two military invasions, thousands dead, rigged elections and countless bomb attacks in Moscow and the Caucasus, he appears further away than ever from victory in his own war on terror. There is no shortage of individual Chechens who are willing to blow themselves up, and as many Russians with them, to avenge what they see as more than a decade of brutalism directed by the Kremlin.”

As Time reports, Putin’s labeling of the attack as “international terrorism” sidesteps any acknowledgement that Russia may, in part, be reaping the whirlwind of what Putin has sown in Chechnya during his almost five years at the helm. (5)

President Putin’s response to the crisis has been to issue a security clampdown, sealing off Beslan as well as the surrounding province of Ossetia: “ We showed weakness and the weak are trampled upon,” he said, promising to crack down on rebels and their sympathizers. “One of the tasks pursued by the terrorists was to stoke ethnic hatred, to blow up the whole of our North Caucasus,” vowing that “anyone who feels sympathetic toward such provocations will be viewed as accomplices of terrorists and terrorism. (6)

THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY’S REACTION

Western leaders were quick to offer condolences. “Their suffering is our suffering,” said Jack Straw, the UK’s foreign minister. “The awesome responsibility of President Putin and his government is our responsibility, too.” President Bush said that American will “pray for victims,” calling the siege in Beslan “another grim reminder of lengths to which terrorists will go to fight the civilized world.”

Governments across the world must step up counter-terror cooperation to prevent a repetition of the Russian school hostage crisis, said Dutch Foreign Minister and current European Union spokesman Bernard Bot.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer added the conflict in Chechnya could only be solved through political means, and warned Western governments against being drawn into a clash of civilizations with Muslims, but cautioned that “We have to defend our values, even under difficult circumstances.” (7)

NOTES:

1. “Another siege ends in bloodshed” The Economist, September 4, 2004. http://www.economist.com/agenda/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3168912

2. “RUSSIAN FEDERATION: Failure to protect or punish: human rights violations and impunity in Chechnya” Memorandum by Amnesty International to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGEUR460042002 Accessed September 5, 2004

3. Applebaum, Anne. “Two-Faced Chechnya Policy” The Washington Post , June 30, 2004 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16175-2004Jun29.html Accessed September 5, 2004

4. Kampfner, John. “Putin’s iron fist has failed” The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/russia/article/0,2763,1296817,00.html Accessed September 5, 2004

5. Karon, Tony. “Hostage Bloodbath Highlights Putin’s Chechen Failure” Time Online Edition http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,691265,00.html Accessed September 5, 2004

6. Ayton, Richard and Bullough, Oliver “Russia’s Putin Orders Crackdown After School Siege” Reuters http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=6150594 Accessed September 5, 2004

7. “School tragedy triggers calls for Euro anti-terror effort” Expatica, September 3, 2004 http://www.expatica.com/source/site_article.asp?subchannel_id=52&story_id=11408 Accessed September 5, 2004

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