Why Chechnya Is Different
Source: Washington Post
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin has made remarkable progress in his campaign to conflate his brutal military campaign in Chechnya with the new U.S.-led war against terrorism. Last week President Bush publicly agreed with Mr. Putin that terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden are fighting Russian forces in the predominantly Muslim republic, and said they should be "brought to justice." Since then the Bush administration quietly has begun taking concrete action in support of Moscow. Last weekend, it delivered a tough message to the exiled Chechen foreign minister demanding that the rebel leadership break off relations with two Chechen commanders who represent the movement's radical Islamic faction. And this week it is telling the visiting president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze -- who looks to the United States for help in resisting threats to his country's sovereignty from Russia -- that he must serve Moscow's cause by taking action against Chechen militants in Georgia.
Mr. Putin would like the world to believe that the U.S. steps are equivalent to his own support for a U.S. offensive against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But they are not; and before the Bush administration goes further in backing Mr. Putin's policies in Chechnya, it is worth reviewing why that conflict, and the terrorism associated with it, are different. Chechnya is not a terrorist syndicate or an Islamic movement but a nation that was conquered by Russia in the 19th century and that for more than a decade has been seeking to regain self-rule. Its leader, Aslan Maskhadov, is not an Islamic extremist or even a man of arms but a pro-Western politician who was democratically elected in 1997, two years before Mr. Putin chose to reverse a peace accord by sending 80,000 Russian troops to invade the republic.
Most important, the most brutal atrocities of the Chechen conflict -- a fight that could have been avoided had Russia been willing to grant self-rule to this subject nation -- have been perpetrated not by international terrorists or the Chechen rebels but by Mr. Putin's own Russian forces. Russian and Western human rights groups have extensively and meticulously documented hundreds of war crimes by Russian troops, including extrajudicial executions, torture, extortion and the reduction to rubble of Chechen towns with indiscriminate bombing and shelling. A typical Russian "military operation" in Chechnya consists of invading a village or town, rounding up all of its inhabitants and separating out men and older boys for detention in open pits. Most are released to their families in exchange for bribes, but many are tortured and some summarily executed, their bodies left at dumps or sold back to relatives.
It is thanks to such tactics and the chaos they have produced inside Chechnya that a handful of rebel formations have appeared in the past several years that include Arab fighters or commanders and that are supported by funding from Islamic militants, allegedly including Osama bin Laden. These groups have long been at odds with Mr. Maskhadov and the mainstream Chechen commanders, who seek a secular state with close ties to Russia and the West. For that reason the demand that the Chechen leadership dissociate itself from the Islamic militants is largely superfluous -- they are already enemies and rivals for power. The real problem in Chechnya has been that Russia's rejection of Chechen political rights and refusal to negotiate with Mr. Maskhadov, combined with its massive and systematic human rights violations, has led to endless war and anarchy that has provided an opening for the foreign terrorists.
In the past week, as part of what he describes as an initiative to build a new alliance with the West, Mr. Putin and his spokesmen have outlined what could be a major change in this barbarous policy. Just a month ago Mr. Putin angrily rejected the idea of negotiations with Mr. Maskhadov; now his spokesman says he is actively seeking talks with the Chechen president as "a representative of moderate forces." Some contacts by telephone between the two sides already have taken place. In its own way this turnabout by Mr. Putin is as dramatic as the Bush administration's shift on Chechnya, and it offers some justification for recent U.S. actions beyond a simple quid pro quo for Russian support in Central Asia.
But it's not yet clear if Mr. Putin is serious about seeking a political settlement -- and that is the crucial factor. Clearly, the United States must support the destruction of Osama bin Laden's network in Chechnya and everywhere else it exists. But the Bush administration must also remember -- and make clear to Moscow -- that until the Russian government settles with the Maskhadov government, and ends its military campaign against Chechnya's civilian population, there will, in fact, be no possibility of achieving that aim.