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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Demonizing Chechens

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A recent study says the Russian government's negative portrayal of the Chechens during its military campaign in that North Caucasus republic has led to acts of discrimination and violence against ethnic Chechens across Russia.

That 18-page study, made public this week by the U.S.-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, documents what it says is official and popular discrimination against and mistreatment of Chechens in 26 regions of the Russian Federation since 1998. But it concludes that even this listing "probably represents the proverbial tip of the iceberg." The study concludes that widespread official tolerance for and even occasional open support of such discrimination encourages hate groups to act against Chechens and makes it difficult for ethnic Chechens to turn to the authorities for protection.

The authors of the UCSJ study, who normally focus on the state of anti-Semitism in Russia, say that they looked into the mistreatment of Chechens because once a government or community mistreats one group, it makes it more likely "that other groups, including Jews, may face similar persecution in the future."

The report suggests that anti-Chechen prejudices have a long history among Russians. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians, especially in major cities like Moscow, came to view people from the Caucasus and especially the Chechens in extremely negative terms because groups from this region often appeared to dominate public markets and were widely assumed to dominate organized criminal groups there.

Russian officials sometimes played on these sentiments. In October 1993 Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov issued a decree calling for the expulsion from the city of Moscow of all "persons of Caucasus nationality." That decree, which was enforced by federal officials as well, is believed to have opened the door to exploitation and mistreatment of Chechens.

During the first Chechen war between 1994 and 1996, official and media comments against the Chechens were moderated by the extensive press coverage and by the actions of groups like the Soldiers' Mothers Committee which called attention to Russian brutality against the Chechens. But since the start of Russia's second Chechen campaign, the situation has changed.

On the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a series of comments about the Chechens that the UCSJ report says "was greeted with joy by Russia's hate groups." And on the other hand, the Kremlin has moved to control coverage of the war by among other things moving to take control of formerly independent media outlets and thus reducing the chance for people to present the Chechens in a more favorable light.

Events this week suggest that that situation may be about to change, at least in part. The acknowledgement by Russian commanders and Kremlin officials that Russian forces have engaged in atrocities in Chechnya has received widespread coverage and may cause some to reconsider their attitudes toward the Chechens.

But the UCSJ report says that the widespread Russian hostility to the Chechens that the Russian government has helped to promote is not likely to dissipate entirely and that in turn threatens other minorities in that country and hence the prospects for Russian democracy as a whole.

(The UCSJ Special Report, "Ethnic Persecution of Chechens in the Russian Federation" is available online at