Free Pass on Chechnya
Date: April 29, 2002
Watching the rapidly escalating pressure on Israel from the safe distance of Moscow -- the hostile delegations of U.N. investigators, the demands for an international conference, the talk of European sanctions -- Vladimir Putin might afford himself a secret smile. Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pilloried for using a campaign against terrorism to assault Palestinian civilians and their self-government, Putin is quietly getting away with almost exactly the same crime.
Ever since Sept. 11, Putin and Sharon have tried to convince the world that the Muslim national movements seeking to end the military occupations by Russia of Chechnya, and by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza, are indistinguishable from the terrorists of Osama bin Laden and deserve the same treatment. Both have had some luck -- Sharon seems to have persuaded most of Congress and half of the Bush administration. But as a season of summits among Russia, the United States and Europe approaches, only Putin seems to have successfully merged the war on terrorism with his own scorched-earth assault on national sovereignty.
Sharon's armored invasion of West Bank cities this month increasingly looks like a military and political disaster. Israel's killing of a few score -- perhaps -- fighters and civilians in the refugee camp of Jenin has attracted the outraged attention of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, not to mention sensational saturation coverage from the world's media. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is far stronger both at home and abroad than he was before the operation, and Sharon's attempt to foreclose further negotiations with him seems doomed. Once-strong relations with the Bush administration have been strained, and Israel's own intelligence chiefs are predicting that Palestinian militias and suicide bombers will bounce back quickly.
Putin's parallel campaign against what was once a secular and democratic Chechen independence movement, meanwhile, keeps getting politically easier. Though brutal and bloody military cleansings of villages also have been underway in Chechnya since the beginning of the year, they have been almost ignored both inside and outside of Russia. More than 1,000 foreign journalists were in Israel last week, but at most one or two in Chechnya. While Annan publicly fumed over Israeli behavior in Jenin, the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva voted down a resolution calling for a low-level investigation of Chechnya. Amid the talk of an international conference on the Mideast, Putin recently scrapped his token offer of negotiations with the Chechen rebel leadership. There was no reaction.
Things are going so well that Putin felt able, for the second year in a row, to deliver a speech this month declaring the war in Chechnya over. "The military phase of the conflict may be considered closed," he declared. It was a lie, of course, just as it was last year -- that same day, 17 of the 70,000 Russian troops still in Chechnya were killed in an ambush inside Grozny, the capital. But Putin needn't worry about such contradictions -- after all, Kofi Annan has no intention of sending a delegation to Chechnya.
Why is Sharon singled out while Putin is spared? The reasons are pretty straightforward: Chechnya has no special holy places, no Jerusalem; Muslim governments mostly ignore Chechnya while diverting restive populations with fiery defenses of the Palestinians; European elites have an enduring strain of anti-Semitism, an interest in appeasing Arab opinion and an equal incentive to be soft on Putin.
What's more interesting is the less obvious question -- does the political free pass mean that Putin will succeed where Sharon is failing?
Russia, after all, is doing everything in Chechnya that Sharon would do in the West Bank and Gaza, if only the world would let him. The secular and civilian Chechen leadership was long ago killed, exiled or driven underground, its administration destroyed, and a new pro-Kremlin leadership installed in its place. The republic is saturated with security forces, both Russian and loyal Chechen. Most of the civilian population has been driven out of the cities. Israel has carried out one sweep in the Jenin camp during the past eight years; the Russians have conducted 33 such operations in the village of Tsotsan-Yurt since September 1999, and 20 in Starye Atagi, with far bloodier results. According to the Russian human rights group Memorial, some 2,000 Chechens have disappeared in Russian sweeps, at least 12,000 have been killed outright and thousands more have been tortured, robbed or raped.
Putin, however, is no closer than Sharon to winning his conflict. The Chechen resistance now has decentralized into small but potent fragments, spread across the republic; even if Moscow struck a deal with the remains of the former leadership, it might be impossible to implement. The puppet government finds itself unable to rule, as money for restoring services and resettling refugees disappears without a trace. The war grinds brutally on, week after week, killing one to two Russian soldiers a day on average. With the world's acquiescence, it will likely go on that way for years -- unless Russia gives up and unilaterally withdraws.
For many of the wrong reasons, the world has checked the hand of Ariel Sharon while giving Vladimir Putin a free pass. But it has not done Russia a favor.