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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Facing Facts In Chechnya

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A senior Russian Duma deputy argues that Moscow cannot achieve its ends in Chechnya through a counter-terrorist action alone but only if it ends human rights abuses there and succeeds in persuading the Chechens that they will be better off as part of Russia.

In an article published in Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 3 April, Konstantin Kosachev, the deputy chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee and the deputy leader of the Fatherland-All Russia faction, argues that Moscow has been making a fundamental mistake in how it addresses Chechnya and must change course before it is too late.

According to Kosachev who recently visited the North Caucasus, Moscow has had two choices at each point throughout the 1990s in how to respond to those Chechens who seek independence. It could seek to "physically destroy" Chechen leaders who want independence, or it could persuade people there that "it is better for Chechnya to remain part of Russia than to strive for independence."

Unfortunately, Kosachev continues, Moscow has at each point "preferred to send in the troops," adding that "this method failed us in 1995 and 1996, and God forbid it should fail us again now." He suggests further that "glowing reports about the military and its triumphant march across Chechnya are just wishful thinking." Consequently, he argues, the Russian government must reexamine its approach.

To do so, Kosachev says, requires that Moscow recognize that "the people of Chechnya have serious grievances against federal troops." And the Russian government must also recognize that "lack of central command and coordinated effort as well as lack of personal accountability have influenced the effectiveness of the regular army in Chechnya."

But even putting the security services in charge has done little to improve the situation because officials there are rotated so often that they do not develop the contacts and expertise needed to do their jobs. And as a result, Kosachev continues, "the counter-terrorist operation in its present form is pointless."

Many people, including Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, are advocating new tactics, Kosachev says, but all of their plans have the same basic flaw, that is, they are designed to be "forced on the people of Chechnya" by Moscow rather than being the expression of what the Chechens themselves want. He further says that Moscow can only count on the Chechens wanting to remain inside Russia if Moscow changes its approach.

To win over the hearts and minds of the Chechens, Kosachev argues, Moscow must devote more attention to what he called "the process of post-war restoration," centralizing Russian control over aid distribution and providing dramatically more assistance to the Chechen people.

The Chechen people, he says, "will start siding with the federal government when it sees that new schools and hospitals are built in place of the destroyed ones, when it sees that all this is not the result of lobbyist efforts but a deliberate choice and a sincere intention on the part of the political leadership in Moscow."

Kosachev's analysis flows from both criticism this week by an international human rights group concerning human rights violations by Russian forces and a statement last week by President Vladimir Putin that the Russian reconstruction effort in the North Caucasus is not going well.

But it goes significantly beyond both. And as a result, Kosachev's argument is likely to be challenged by some because it appears to rest on three implicit assumptions, all of which are likely to be viewed by many as highly problematic.

First, to succeed, Kosachev's proposal requires that Moscow be willing to admit its own past mistakes, to address rather than deny charges of human rights abuses by its own forces, and to provide significantly more assistance to the Chechens with whom it has been locked in a battle for most of the last decade. None of those things now appears to be much in evidence.

Second, his proposal can succeed only if sufficient number of Chechens are in fact prepared to accept such a shift in Moscow's approach as genuine. The record of the last decade suggests that even the most war-weary Chechens are likely to be skeptical.

And third, his proposal also assumes that those Chechens who have been fighting for their independence over the last decade will be willing to view such a shift as something more than a recognition by Moscow that it has been losing the conflict on the ground. If the Chechens do not do so, they may simply redouble their efforts.

If even one of these assumptions proves false, Kosachev's call for a new realism about Chechnya could have just the opposite impact he intends, sparking a wider war rather than bringing that conflict closer to resolution.