Remember Chechnya

Source: Washington Post
By Anna Politkovskaya
Date: November 14, 2001


Three years ago Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power by launching a war in Chechnya that is still referred to in Russia as an anti-terrorist operation. The war continues, with almost 4,000 Russian soldiers having been killed and more than 13,000 wounded. Why?

In Russia, the disjunction between official statistics and real life is as great as that between Putin and democratic freedoms, an issue President Bush should raise in his discussions with Putin this week. This disjunction is evident to all who seek to answer the question: What is the reality in Chechnya today?

The answer is that Chechnya is an isolated enclave within Russia, a 21st century ghetto. No one may freely enter or freely leave -- neither men nor women; neither children, nor the old. Military checkpoints are everywhere. In order to pass these checkpoints, civilians must place a "Form #10" (a 10-ruble bribe) in their passports. Without such bribes, soldiers might shoot you in the back or simply detain you, the consequences of which are also usually fatal.

The most characteristic feature of life in Chechnya today is the uncontrolled blizzard of bullets and shells all around you. No one is safe. Any discussion of human rights is silly: Such rights simply do not exist. As Sultan Khadzhiev, one of the few surgeons remaining in Chechnya, stated, Chechnya is a place where some people can do anything they like, while the rest have to put up with it.

In this drama, the leading roles are played by the military and the supporting roles by the civilian population. As for the fighters and other militants, they are nothing more than extras, providing the necessary background and scenery for a dirty little war.

A brief look at events on a typical day this month illustrate the point. Nov. 4: Federal troops at a checkpoint open fire on a passing tractor. Fifty-two-year old tractor driver Sultan Suleimanov and his assistant, 42-year-old Akhmed Sadullayev, are lucky. They are in intensive care, but they are alive. While proceeding along a road bordering the town of Akhchoi-Martan, a military column opens fire on a roadside cafe. A 19-year-old waitress, Larisa Bugaeva, a refugee from Grozny, is killed immediately; another waitress, 30-year-old Larisa Khatimova, is seriously wounded and is taken to the intensive care unit. The column, meanwhile, continues toward the mountains without even slowing down.

There has been no criminal investigation of these incidents, either on the day they occurred or since. This is reality in a military-bandit zone: The procurator's office is helpless to prevent the federal troops' excesses and, more often than not, prefers not to become involved. Even when it takes action, as it did in early July after the troops conducted a viciously thorough sweep in the villages of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, nothing comes of its efforts. Federal troops in that instance gave the procurators no information, and the civilians simply disappeared. Almost 2,000 civilians have disappeared in Chechnya in this way: Picked up during a sweep, they are never seen again, dead or alive.

The courts -- which exist in name only -- do nothing. The police act as badly as the military. In fact, the worst torture chambers in Grozny are in the offices of the Interior Ministry -- i.e., in the police stations. Add to all this the barely functioning pro-Moscow governmental organs established during the war, wrecked schools and hospitals, an economy in a collapse and a nonexistent banking system, and the overall picture of the Chechen ghetto is not just grim, it is incomprehensible.

What does Putin want in Chechnya? In place of Chechnya? From the Chechens? What, in view of the fact that not one of the goals of the anti-terrorist operation has been realized? Civilians do not feel even relatively safe. The terrorist leaders are still at large. And the resistance easily replenishes its ranks with new recruits seeking revenge for the suffering and deaths of family members.

Putin constantly sounds the theme of Russia's great-power status in his public speeches, and the Russian public eats it up. In what, specifically, does Russia's status as a great power manifest itself? What aspects of Russian life demonstrate that we have or should be proud of something today?

Putin's Russia has no positive aspects. The economy is still in the hands of oligarchs. Corruption is still rampant. Our social safety net is nonexistent. In fact, there is nothing on which to build a domestic policy. Nevertheless, the Russian people want to feel that they live in a big and important state.

Chechnya provides the yeast for the growth of the great-power mentality, the basis of Putin's state morality. For that reason, Putin forgives the army for committing daily crimes and atrocities. In fact, by providing the ideological basis for its active struggle with Islamic extremists, Putin encourages the military's addiction to criminal irresponsibility in Chechnya. Putinism is equally appealing to those in Europe and America who have warmed to the Russian president because of his genuine ability to keep Russia under control. Among Western premiers and presidents, no one is willing to disturb the Russian beehive by raising the question of the catastrophic situation in Chechnya.

So here we are, America, Europe and Putin, all happy with one another, mired in compromises that look like betrayal. This betrayal will deepen as Putin and Bush solidify their support for their respective campaigns against international terrorism. Bush should be aware that in his meetings with Putin, continued compromises will only reinforce Putinism and further entrap those Chechens living in this 21st century ghetto.

Anna Politkovskaya is a special correspondent for the Russian newspaper Novaia Gazeta and the author of: "A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya."


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