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Chechnya: War Enters Fourth Year With No End In Sight (Part 1)

  • Gregory Feifer

Three years ago yesterday (23 September), Moscow launched its second campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya. Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, vowed the conflict would be short and decisive. Yet to this day, the war drags brutally on, with no end in sight to daily atrocities and a death count that possibly reaches into the tens of thousands. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports in the first of a three-part series on the ongoing war in Chechnya.

Moscow, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Three years after Moscow launched what it promised would be a quick and effective campaign in Chechnya, the operation has proved anything but. Russia's second war in the breakaway republic has bogged down with no end in sight. The Kremlin, bolstered by the new global focus on terror, is refusing to negotiate with rebels it calls "international terrorists" and "bandits."

Despite assurances by officials in Moscow that the military phase is winding down, the conflict continues to generate reports of unimaginable violence and suffering. Human rights groups say Chechen civilians are regularly abducted, tortured, and killed by Russian soldiers unable root out rebel groups sheltering in the treacherous Caucasus Mountains. Russian military forces, meanwhile, suffer daily losses from mines, ambushes, and skirmishes with rebel fighters.

Official statistics put the number of Russians killed in the conflict at 4,500, a figure human rights groups say is far too low. The military in turn claims to have killed some 20,000 Chechen rebels. There are no numbers for the number of civilians killed, but some observers put the number at tens of thousands.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians, meanwhile, remain displaced in and outside of Chechnya. Refugees returning home find ruined buildings and a lawless, dangerous region where Russian forces have control only during daylight hours.

The downing by Chechen rebels of a large Mi-26 military helicopter, killing 121 in August in a relatively safe area of Chechnya, refocused attention on the military's inability to control the region.

Ruslan Khasbulatov is a former speaker of the Russian parliament. A Chechen himself, he is a prominent critic of the war: "It's already the fourth year of the war. There's no end in sight. The military could not accomplish their tasks, although no one hindered them. Unlike in the last war [from 1994-96], they cannot say that someone got in their way or that politicians snatched victory away from them. They are completely unprepared. They don't know how to fight with a small number of mountain bandits. They've led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The entire economy, culture, and social sphere of a whole republic has been destroyed. What kind of counterterrorist operation is that?"

The path to a settlement, if and when it gets under way, will not be easy. The Russian generals who helped set the conflict in motion are loathe to give up a struggle that ensures them federal budget money and alleged control of lucrative arms and oil trade in Chechnya. Putin -- elected president on a notorious promise to crush the Chechen rebels "in the outhouse" -- is no more eager to admit to an impasse.

A comment published in the "Financial Times" on 11 September by Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Theodore Gerber, a professor at the University of Arizona, says the war is serving the personal interests of a small and entrenched group of officers at the considerable expense of the country and the rest of the military. It says: "The war wastes scarce economic resources needed to fund reforms, while helping to institutionalize corruption and corrode professionalism of the soldiers serving in Chechnya."

The start of the second campaign appeared auspicious for Moscow, which launched its first round of air strikes on Chechen targets on 23 September 1999. The bombs sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing for safety, most to neighboring Ingushetia.

By the end of the month, tens of thousands of Russian troops were moving steadily across Chechnya's flat northern plains toward Grozny in the south. Humbled in the first war -- with ill-trained, badly armed Russian conscripts ultimately forced to abandon the Chechen capital -- the Kremlin was glad to be seen once again flexing its military muscle.

Putin, prime minister at the time, said the new war would put an end to the years of crime and lawlessness that had engulfed Chechnya and resulted in the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of Russians. More directly, Moscow was responding to an attack by Chechen rebels in neighboring Dagestan in August 1999 and a series of apartment-block explosions that killed over 300 people in Moscow and elsewhere. The blasts were quickly blamed on Chechen terrorists despite a lack of evidence or any claim of responsibility by the rebels.

Putin vowed revenge and protection of Russia's territorial integrity. The population reacted with overwhelming support. Public-opinion ratings for Putin -- an unknown when he was appointed premier in August -- shot up, enabling him to sweep into power as president in early elections the following March. Russian troops took the capital, Grozny, in February 2000. But the nature of the campaign changed dramatically as Chechen rebels retreated south to hideaways in the rugged Caucasus Mountains and began waging a guerrilla campaign.

In their so-called "mopping-up" operations aimed at flushing out rebels from local villages, Russian soldiers have repeatedly been accused of committing unspeakable atrocities, torturing and murdering uncounted Chechens, and ensuring that those not killed would live in fear.

Routine reports say Russian soldiers, often wearing face masks, take men and boys away from their homes, allegedly for questioning. Many of the abducted vanish; others are found only as corpses, often in shallow common graves.

A Moscow-installed government now nominally runs Chechnya and says it is planning to conduct a referendum on a new constitution that would recognize the region as a part of Russia. News agencies cited Putin's human rights envoy to Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, as calling the measure a "radical breakthrough" that would help create a working legal system and the basis for representative government in Chechnya. Parliamentary elections may be held in Chechnya in December of 2003.

Meanwhile, Moscow says conditions in the region are improving. Speaking at a Russia-EU summit in Moscow in May, Putin boasted of the government's efforts: "Despite all the difficulties, the process of positive development continues in the [Chechen] Republic. All conditions for international organizations to work there have been set. A normal social environment is being built and there are local government and law enforcement agencies being created. Our task now is to help set up the Ministry of the Interior of the Chechen Republic that would be composed primarily of those who live in the Chechen Republic."

Some observers are less optimistic. A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) traveled to Chechnya earlier in September and criticized conditions there. Lord Judd, who led the delegation, said he is not convinced of Russian claims that conditions are returning to normal. Judd also reiterated concerns of human rights groups that refugees in Ingushetia are being forced to return to the war-savaged region.

Former parliamentary speaker Khasbulatov is likewise dismissive of the Kremlin's upbeat statements regarding the campaign: "How are [conditions] getting better? Not a single building has been built. Half a million people are fully deprived of their ability to live. Housing is destroyed in Grozny. Do you know that not even one toilet is left, not one building is left? That's not even to mention that everything is ruined in hundreds of other villages. Nothing is rebuilt, there's no help. People are starving. People are dying from illnesses."

A Moscow spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Vera Soboleva, told RFE/RL that her office is now providing roofs and construction materials for Chechens to rebuild several thousand partially ruined houses. She said that Chechnya remains a dangerous place and confirmed that Grozny residents lack even the most basic facilities, including toilets and water. The UNHCR has criticized as unrealistic Moscow's plan to relocate to Chechnya all refugees living in tent camps in Ingushetia -- an estimated 40,000 people -- before the onset of winter.

The war, meanwhile, continues to present a certain stumbling block in Moscow's relations with the West. Russia maintains that the conflict in Chechnya should be seen as part of the war on terrorism, and Washington and other European capitals toned down criticism of the war after 11 September. But the United States remains quietly critical of the Russian campaign and continues to press for a political solution. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow recently echoed Washington's concerns at a roundtable discussion in Moscow.

"We continue to be concerned by the continuing reports of human right abuses carried out by Russian security forces against the civilian population, and we continue to make the case at the highest level and at every other level that there will only be a solution to Chechnya through a political process and not through a military strategy," Vershbow said.

But a breakthrough seems unlikely to happen soon. In mid-September, Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said negotiations with Chechen rebels are unacceptable, arguing that Chechen rebels take negotiations as a signal to step up their activities. The Interior Ministry official also said the ministry is creating six special antiterrorism units comprising a total of 3,700 troops, adding that two of the units will be deployed to fight rebels in Chechnya in November.

(Part 2 will address growing support for a political solution to the Chechen war. Part 3 will feature a Q&A interview with RFE/RL's Andrei Babitsky on his view of the conflict.)

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