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Chechnya: Is Western Support For The Republic Eroding?

  • Kathleen Moore

In the wake of the devastating terrorist assault on the United States, Germany and the U.S. have softened their tone on Russia's handling of the war in Chechnya. The U.S. has also toughened its stance towards the separatists, calling on them to cut all contacts with terrorist groups. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox explores how much sympathy the Chechen cause has outside Russia and if it's on the wane following the 11 September attacks.

Prague, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the breakaway republic's two wars of the last decade, "Chechnya" in many Western minds has conjured up images that evoke sympathy: squalid refugee camps, innocent civilians caught up in fighting, a burned-out capital.

Though it slipped off the international agenda in recent months, human rights organizations and the occasional Western government official still took the Russian government to task over allegations of human rights abuses in the breakaway republic.

Human rights activists say Russia has used excessive force in what the nation calls its own war against terrorism, and directed much of it against the wrong people.

But what a change a few short weeks can make.

On 11 September, extremists brought terror to the United States in horrific attacks that left almost 7,000 dead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin -- instead of having to deflect criticism of Russia's human rights record in Chechnya -- is now describing the conflict as a necessary part of the broader war on terrorism.

Former critics are adopting a new, softer stance on Russia's handling of the war. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder went so far this week as to suggest that the world re-evaluate its opinion of the situation in Chechnya.

The attacks didn't just put Russia's war in the breakaway republic in a new light. They also sparked a hunt for the orchestrators and their associates, with one of the trails leading to Chechnya. Some of the separatist fighters have long been suspected of receiving training and funding from international terrorist associations. That link is now receiving greater attention with the claim that these associates include Al-Qaeda, a group headed by Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the U.S. attacks.

U.S. government officials yesterday said there's no doubt this link exists, and urged the Chechen leadership to cut all contact with such groups. U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday, "To the extent that there are terrorists in Chechnya, Arab terrorists associated with the Qaida organization, I believe they ought to be brought to justice."

If proof of this link with international terrorist organizations is firmly established, will this erode all international sympathy for Chechen separatists?

RFE/RL put this question to Alexander Rahr, program director at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Berlin.

He says there's always been a certain degree of sympathy among what he called the European elite for the Chechen desire for greater autonomy. He says the view goes like this:

"[Russia] has to find at least a 'modus vivendi' with not only Chechen forces but maybe in the future with other ethnic nationalities in the Russian federation who would like to leave the federation. Otherwise, they believe, Russia would not be able to keep these ethnic minorities peaceably in its state."

He also says sympathy for the Chechen cause is strong in parts of the Muslim world.

"There is sympathy with the cause of Chechnya, with their aims to get political and cultural autonomy within Russia. But in the majority of Islamic countries there is no sympathy with terror because they must understand that this kind of terror as practiced in Chechnya will not serve the general Islamic cause and will create new hot spots in this area, which will turn against Islamic states later as well as against Russia."

He says the conflict is likely to be regarded differently in the post-11 September world.

"The outside states like the U.S. and EU...[were] more -- not on the side of the separatists -- but were urging Russia to keep the fight within a civilized framework and fight terrorists with specific methods and not doing things against human rights. Those forces will calm down now and have to admit that in the global fight against terrorism, some Chechen forces are directly involved. The former sympathy will change towards more radical demands, also towards the leaders of Chechen separatists, to separate themselves away from open terrorism which will be linked to bin Laden."

Frank Judd co-chairs the joint working group on Chechnya at the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly.

He says the 11 September attacks may color the debate over Chechnya.

"Obviously, people are worried about international terrorism and that does affect the overall situation. There's no argument about that. But I think you'll find that the feeling of solidarity with the people of Chechnya will be as strong as ever."

Rahr says one good thing for Chechnya could come out of the global antiterror campaign.

"I could guess that when bin Laden is finally caught, arrested or his terrorist camps eliminated, the world or those who will do this -- the U.S., NATO -- will find out what he really had done in Afghanistan, and whether he was planning attacks not only on the U.S. but maybe also in Chechnya against Russia. With the elimination of that organization in Afghanistan, the terrorist structures that exist among Chechen rebels will also be eliminated and some terrorists that still hide there, among the separatists, would be arrested or liquidated or flee back to Saudi Arabia or Jordan or elsewhere, because they wouldn't get the support from Afghanistan, or from the Taliban."

He says this could then pave the way for a resolution to the conflict between Chechens opposed to terror tactics and Russians fed up with the war.

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