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Russia: How Western Attitudes Toward Wars Have Shifted (Part 3)

  • Kathleen Moore

An estimated 200,000 civilians and thousands of Russian troops are believed to have perished in the course of Russia's two wars in Chechnya. The battles - and the widespread accusations of Russian atrocities that accompanied them -- were once at the forefront of the international agenda, the subject of high-level criticism that overshadowed Russia's relations with Western countries. But if the issue comes up in talks these days, the criticism, if any, is subdued. On the eve of this weekend's presidential elections in the breakaway republic, RFE/RL takes a look back at how the West has responded to the conflicts.

Prague, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In autumn 1999, Russian troops entered Chechnya, after rebels based there had invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Daghestan.

It was the start of the second war in a decade in the breakaway republic. As tens of thousands of civilians fled Russian air strikes, the campaign quickly sparked international alarm.

Chechnya was the hot topic at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that November and a G-8 summit the following month.

As Russia gave residents of Grozny just days to evacuate the city or face destruction as terrorists, EU leaders meeting in Finland joined the international outcry. They criticized the Russian military campaign, and said they would review EU assistance programs to Russia. EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, speaking in December 1999, said: "We do want the best possible relationship with Russia. But [the] disproportionate use of force in Chechnya does not make it easier for us to have that sort of relationship, which is why we've made the decisions we have today on the common strategy, and on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, and on our other trade agreements with Russia."

But all that was before Russia offered its help in the war on terror following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Since then, Western leaders have appeared much more sympathetic to Russia's argument that its campaign in Chechnya is part of that war, an argument presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin late last year.

"Today, it is not only our country but many other countries in the world that are confronted with problems of terrorism. Terrorists very often use Islamic slogans. And I must tell you that it is also one of those problems that have been brought into our country from outside, either by religious fanatics or by people who only use Islamic slogans to do what they've been told to do, for money. They are trivial mercenaries and bandits," Putin said then.

Since 2001, Chechnya has quietly slipped lower on the agenda at EU-Russia summits -- if it even appears at all. Gone is the tough talk. Instead, respect for human rights is urged on both sides, and terrorism is denounced.

The softening stance is not limited to the European Union. U.S. officials are also notably less critical. In early 2001, before the attacks, a skeptical Richard Boucher gave the State Department reaction to announcements of Russian troop withdrawals from Chechnya. "The fighting has continued, and there are continuing and credible reports of humanitarian abuses against the civilian population by Russian troops," he said. "Thus it remains to be seen whether this announcement represents a change in Russian strategy that could resolve the stalemate in Chechnya."

That language has since changed. U.S. officials continue to urge a political solution but also stress the "common threat" both countries face from terrorism. This is how U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about Chechnya following his summit with Putin last week: "Russia and the United States are allies in the war on terror. Both of our nations have suffered at the hands of terrorists, and both of our governments are taking actions to stop them. No cause justifies terror. Terrorists must be opposed wherever they spread chaos and destruction, including Chechnya. A lasting solution to that conflict will require an end to terror, respect for human rights and a political settlement that leads to free and fair elections."

Lawrence Uzzell, editor of "Chechnya Weekly" for the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation, told RFE/RL: "It's certainly fair to say there's been a softening in the tone. Everything in the West is being seen through the one lens of terrorism, and the Kremlin has enjoyed remarkable success in getting the West to sing from its script in portraying itself as a partner in the global war on terrorism and thus immune from criticism."

As U.S. scholar Michael McFaul notes in a recent paper, Chechnya is not important enough to risk a serious rift in U.S. relations with Russia. Other issues have repeatedly taken priority -- cooperation in the war on terror is only the most recent example.

In fact, U.S. criticism of first war in 1994-96 was muted, too, in contrast to censure from European leaders. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton even once compared then Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Abraham Lincoln, and the war in Chechnya with the U.S. Civil War.

"There was a romanticism at work here," editor Uzzell said. "People wanted the film of the Cold War to have a happy Hollywood ending and it took a long time for Boris Yeltsin to use up the credibility and the good will he won in the West for the role he played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If you read [Clinton's leading expert on Russia] Strobe Talbott's memoirs you'll see he now admits that the White House in the 1990s never paid enough attention to Russian human rights violations in Chechnya."

Not everyone was happy with the Clinton administration's muted criticism of Russia. Clinton's political opponents used it against him -- including a candidate for president in the 2000 presidential elections, George W. Bush. He said the U.S. should cut off International Monetary Fund aid and other loans to Russia until they stop "bombing women and children."

It's not that there are no voices criticizing Russia's role in Chechnya these days. The Council of Europe won't be sending observers to this weekend's presidential election because, as spokesman Frans Timmermans told Radio Netherlands this week, to do so would lend legitimacy to a "Soviet-style" election tilted heavily in favor of one candidate. Timmermans also called Russian claims of a peace process "ridiculous," adding, "The war is still going on."

The European Union's top aid official in Russia has also been critical of Moscow's efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Chechnya. And last month, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer was critical in his report to a congressional commission. He said the conflict in Chechnya and the human rights abuses associated with it "pose one of the greatest challenges to our partnership with Russia." He added that the elections will lack credibility -- comments immediately dismissed by Russian Foreign Ministry as "unobjective and tendentious."

But Pifer's testimony was followed just days later by the chummy Bush-Putin summit and its bland comments on Chechnya.

It's hard to know how the world stands, said Usman Ferzaouli, the Chechen representative in Europe. "Of course we very much welcome this [Pifer testimony] because this is reality. It's very welcome, but at the same time Bush says 'My friend Vladimir Putin.'... That's why we're confused," he said.

The weekend elections, the ongoing violence in Chechnya, extradition hearings in London for a top Chechen envoy, Akhmed Zakaev. Possible hearings at the European Court of Human Rights for Chechen claims of abuse by Russian troops -- all these will keep Chechnya in the headlines to some extent in the coming days and months.

But will these be enough to force Chechnya back to the top of the international agenda? Probably not, said Arkadii Moshes, a Russian analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. "The problem is no longer new and even if Western capitals would like to exercise pressure on Russia I don't think by means of this, by raising tension they would succeed because the Moscow position is not going to change. That's absolutely clear," he said.