16 December 2003, Volume
ESCAPING THE CHECHEN QUAGMIRE...
On International Human Rights Day, 10 December, a representative of the Russian government and a representative of the Chechen government of former President Aslan Maskhadov sat down at a table together at a conference on how to bring peace to Chechnya. But it was only the semi-circular table of a panel discussion, not the round table of informal talks, much less the square table of real negotiations.
The conference, "Catastrophe in Chechnya: Escaping the Quagmire" sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and RFE/RL, was the largest event ever to be convened in the United States on the subject of Chechnya, bringing together several hundred scholars, government officials, journalists, and human rights activists to discuss a topic that normally only attracts a few think-tank specialists or a handful of demonstrators at a candlelight vigil (for a complete videotape of the proceedings and related materials, see
That the world has treated the ongoing conflict as merely a humanitarian crisis was illustrated by the prominent placement of Ruud Lubbers, the United Nation's high commissioner for refugees, as the opening speaker. The UN official spoke of a funding appeal of a "far too limited" $62 million for the North Caucasus and the protracted problems of thousands of internally displaced persons who still remain in Ingushetia, even as Russian federal authorities claim they all wish to return -- and must return -- to the Chechen Republic.
Fred Hiatt of "The Washington Post," a frequent editorial writer on the subject, bemoaned the tendency to see the conflict as hopeless, a trend he hoped was starting to be countered by the very fact of so large a conference. Seated in the hall at AEI were America's major specialists on Russia from top universities and research institutes, as well as officials of the State Department, Pentagon, U.S. Army, and Congress. They assembled as it was confirmed that the weekend's elections in Russia had led to the ouster from parliament of two small liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces, the only ones that had persistently tried to address Chechnya, and also as the news broke that six people had been killed in a terrorist blast in Moscow near the National Hotel -- the closest to the Kremlin to date -- by female suicide bombers believed to be related to the Chechen resistance. The terrorist attack followed a train explosion, killing 44, also blamed on Chechen terrorists, one of a string of attacks this year carried out mainly by female suicide bombers, in which some 300 people have been killed.
In struggling to come to grips with the increasing radicalization of the Chechen fighters, the escalation of terrorist attacks outside of Chechnya, and the obvious failure of Russian pacification and federally imposed political processes, a number of speakers cited a Carnegie Endowment study of May-June 2003, which stated that only 6 percent of Chechens said they supported the guerilla struggle against Russia for the reason of a religious jihad, while 24 percent supported armed resistance for the sake of independence of their nation and 56 percent said they backed the fighters for the sake of revenge for brutalities visited on themselves or their relatives and neighbors by Russian armed forces. While once the Chechen conflict was seen as mainly only Russia's headache and one that did not trouble them in the capital and the heartland, today the fighters have brought the war home in ways that have galvanized international attention and led to increasing charges that the Chechens are aided by the same international terrorist movements being fought elsewhere in Eurasia and the Middle East.
The failure to find a solution in Chechnya is not for lack of information about the horrors of the war for both Chechen civilians and Russian soldiers, despite a virtual blockade on independent journalists and extensive propagandizing or silence by the state-controlled media, in contrast to the first war of 1994-96. The somber photos gathered by Amnesty International for display at the meeting at AEI, or the reports by Russia's Memorial Human Rights Center distributed at the conference have reached decision makers and are now increasingly covered by the media.
Several new books in English have been favorably reviewed and have reached wider U.S. audiences, as they are now visibly displayed in major bookstores during the holiday season and discussed in Internet forums . Such works were unknown in the first war, even with its better news coverage. Khassan Baiev's "The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire" describes the wrenching field experience of a Chechen doctor who treated the wounded from both sides of the conflict, a work described at the AEI conference by Lawrence Uzell, editor of the Jamestown Foundation's "Chechnya Weekly," as "the most important to come out in some years, a classic on the effects of war."
Veteran Caucasus reporter Thomas Goltz has produced "Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent's Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya," a personal account probing the hard questions of how the media itself affects the war and its victims. The authoritative Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the most extensive chronicler of the war, has followed up on her 2001 book, "A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya," with "A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya." Photojournalist Stanley Green's "Open Wound: Chechnya 1994-2003" has recently appeared, arguably the most disturbing work ever to be published in English about the two Chechen wars, with haunting text to accompany pictures that should become as indelible in the mind as the photos of Hiroshima or Vietnam.
With more Chechens now forced to make their way to the West seeking asylum, more firsthand details are coming to light. Speaking at the conference panel, Dr. Baiev, a refugee in the United States, described how "the entire Chechen nation suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome" -- indeed the stress is not over yet. There are increasing cases of depression and suicide, heart attacks among people in their 20s, and difficulties in lactation for new mothers, Dr. Baiev says. An epidemic many are ashamed to talk about is rape, said the doctor; numerous women as well as men have been raped in "filtration camps" run by the Russian forces to check for suspected terrorists. The incident of tuberculosis is high, and many children experience respiratory and other illnesses. "We live in fear day and night of execution for practicing our profession," he concluded, describing an utter absence of medical neutrality in the conflict zone.
More than one speaker alluded to the century-long dimension of the conflict, where Russians attempted on a number of occasions to eradicate the proud mountain people, only to pull back when their own losses were too great. One panelist, former U.S. Representative Stephen J. Solarz, senior counselor of APCO Worldwide, read aloud a passage from Tolstoy's famous short story "Haji Murat," about a Chechen warrior who in 1851 defected to the Russians, then engaged in a campaign to subdue Chechnya. "How little has really changed in terms of the way in which the Russians have sought to achieve their objectives," Solarz commented. Tolstoy's story is about the destruction of a Chechen village. His gaze pans across the ravages of war, the burnt home and orchard, the wails of women and children mingling with the lowing of hungry cattle, the father preparing to bury his son. "No one spoke of hatred of the Russians, as the feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hatred," Tolstoy wrote. "It was not hatred, for they did not regard dogs as human beings, but it was such repulsion, disgust and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures...."
Hours after the reading of the story at the conference, Ilyas Akhmadov, Maskhadov's foreign minister, spoke in terms that could have been lifted from Tolstoy's book of 150 years ago. Gesturing at a movie screen where a film had earlier shown the misery of wounded Russian soldiers in the mud, he said: "What kind of partner for the struggle against terrorism do you have? I'm sorry for the coarse reality, but [the Russian Army] are dirty, louse-ridden, stinking of vodka and sardines...."
Several speakers commented that they believed pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov rules with a fierce brutality that made some Chechens long for the days of Russian custody, where at least they had a hope of emerging alive after being tortured. Human rights groups report that while the number of "zachistki," or "clean-up operations" in villages in which people would often be arrested were now less frequent, the number of disappearances had jumped, and monitors believe that rather than torturing and releasing suspects, Kadyrov's men are killing them to remove any stimulus for revenge. Even by official statistics, at least 3,000 people are missing.
Journalist Andrew Meier, author of "Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall," called the Kadyrov forces "essentially a paramilitary operation sanctioned by Russian law but run at Kadyrov's whim." He said they originated from the Chechen OMON, or special-assignment riot troops of the police, in February 2000, with some 300-400 heavily armed and very well-trained men. Since their formation, at least 70 of them have been assassinated, along with nonmilitary personnel such as the secretary of a commander. Today, they have grown to at least 5,000 men. Several speakers alluded to the Russian policy of "Chechenization," said to have been begun by Aleksandr Voloshin, who recently resigned from the Putin administration. Meier bluntly explained the reality of this policy: "Chechenization means Chechen against Chechen, a civil war."
While experts shied away from calling the tragedy of Chechnya an outright planned policy of genocide, Jerry Fowler, staff director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum's Committee of Conscience, spoke of the "genocidal logic" evident in the comments of Russian military leaders prosecuting the war. He cited one commander in a film shown by PBS, "Wide Angle," discussing a raid where teenagers were rounded up from a village. The commander said that unlike the Nazis, Russians were not killing children, but then they were leaving a generation behind to fight them....AS JOURNALISTS UNRAVEL THE MYSTERIES OF WAR, BOMBINGS...
Despite the relative availability of fresh testimony about the war and substantive studies about its causes and effects, speakers at the conference, particularly journalists, commented on several persistent myths that shape public understanding of the war and mysteries that seem to defy full clarification.
One is the 1999 apartment bombings increasingly being questioned by both Western and Russian journalists as possibly the work of the Federal Security Service (FSB) itself. David Satter, author of "Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State," who has investigated the incidents, is convinced that at the end of the second term of President Boris Yeltsin, when corruption and fear of loss of power for the "Family" had reached its peak, elements of the security forces, possibly with the complicity of higher officials, deliberately set off bombs in Moscow and other Russian cities, killing some 300 people, in order to provide a pretext to send Russian troops to Chechnya again. Satter cited polls where at least 40 percent-50 percent of respondents in Russia believe the bombs were the work of the FSB, not Chechens.
An allegation that a sovereign state has deliberately killed its own people for political ends is of course a serious matter, and is rejected as not even a matter for discussion by Russian officials. Aleksandr Lukashevich, senior political counselor of the Russian Embassy, urged Satter and others to "be more responsible" in their remarks. Yet the persistent unanswered questions about who is responsible for the bombings and the trial of some suspects behind closed doors go to the heart of the conflict, conference speakers commented. As Satter explained, if the Chechens are "genocidal terrorists, then there are no moderates to talk to" and actions to suppress them would be justified. Yet if Russian authorities are shown to be addressing a homegrown separatist movement's aspirations by themselves committing state terror, the dynamic is entirely different, and points to a different kind of solution. Satter said that if Russian claims of Chechen responsibility are true, "they have nothing to fear from a full investigation." And yet numerous disturbing incidents point to official attempts to cover up the investigation.
Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, deputy chairman of a commission to investigate the bombings, was shot dead earlier this year allegedly by people connected to exiled oligarch Boris Berezovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December, 13 August, and 18 April 2003), a charge vigorously denied by Berezovskii himself, who points the finger back at the FSB. Yurii Shchekochikhin, a prominent journalist and Duma deputy who participated in the commission, died suddenly last summer, allegedly a victim of poisoning though the circumstances remain mysterious. A human rights activist in Ryazan involved in attempts to investigate the story obtained asylum in the United States after threats against his life. (He later died of cancer.) Alena Morozova, a relative of a victim of one of the Moscow apartment bombings who persisted in asking questions about it, also asked for asylum in the United States.
People who have attempted to show the Berezovskii-funded film "Assault on Russia" claiming to expose the FSB's involvement in the apartment-building bombings have been beaten, and customs officials have confiscated videocassettes of the film and barred it from a recent Chechen film festival in Moscow. Now Yurii Rybakov, a member of the investigative commission, has lost his seat in the Duma after the liberal rout in the last elections. The future of this commission or any kind of impartial examination of the events is now uncertain.
The investigation into the facts has been hampered by what appears to be a cover-up. The rubble from the explosions, which could have provided valuable clues, was cleared up within three days -- a remarkable feat in Russia for any kind of accident, Satter says, and it effectively destroyed the crime scene. Officials have not been able to explain how the 1.5 tons of explosive used in the blast found their way to Moscow. Four tons of hexagon were said to be produced in two plants guarded by the FSB, and yet a large amount of the explosive was taken and used.
Satter discounted the theory that the FSB may have staged the failed bombing in Ryazan in order to look as if they were valorously fighting terrorism after a series of obvious failures, citing the FSB's own claim that the Ryazan incident was "a training exercise" designed to "check the vigilance of the population" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 27 September 1999, 6 January 2000, and15 May 2002). Townspeople who spoke on NTV before its coverage grew more muted were highly skeptical of official explanations, pointing to wiretaps their own local police had made of the people discovered to have planted bomb materials, which led back to Moscow security agents, not to Chechen terrorist suspects. Both the U.S. FBI and Scotland Yard have offered to help in the investigation and have been rebuffed. Satter believes there is "massive circumstantial evidence" of official involvement in the apartment bombings, and notes that the FSB chief in power at the time of the apartment blasts, Nikolai Patrushev, is still in charge.
Another stark image of the war and a subject of much speculation are the "Black Widows," the Chechen female suicide bombers who are said to be responsible for many of the last year's bombings committed in Moscow and other cities. Experts have disagreed as to whether the Black Widows are a concoction of Russian propaganda or a genuine force indicating the radicalization of the Chechen resistance. They have further disputed whether the women emerge spontaneously and operate autonomously from the grassroots, or are trained in cult-like subordination to male fighters and directed by resistance leaders.
With the news blockade, little credible information has been available about the phenomenon, and apparently only one female journalist in Russia has claimed to interview a woman said to be brought forcefully to serve as a Black Widow (see "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies," 2 October 2003). Andrew Meier traced their appearance to the worsening brutalities of the war, and specifically the "Chechenization" of the war that brought Kadyrov's forces to power. Before, Chechens spoke of independence, but now they speak of revenge. He noted that 18 of the 42 terrorists were women in the October 2002 Moscow-theater hostage taking. While the FSB has not given a breakdown of who they were and information has been scarce, one was said to be 16 years old, one was pregnant, another was a new mother who had left an infant behind, two were sisters, and one had lost four brothers, Meier said. A tape of the crisis has one of the women shouting that they are all prepared to die.
Meier interviewed a Chechen fighter who described himself as an "amir" or spiritual leader, who said he was a squadron leader of Black Widows who claimed to have four to six women under his control, but who declined further interviews with Meier -- a fact that the journalist took as an indication that he was telling the truth. The theory of the deliberately trained Black Widows was challenged by Caucasus specialist Miriam Lanskoy of the National Endowment of Democracy, who pointed out that the Chechen women among the terrorists in the theater sat for at least a half-hour after special forces let loose gas on the audience, and did not detonate their bombs. Although the women may have not intended to die, Meier says, at least one was on tape as saying they were prepared to go to Allah, and that perhaps they did not set off the bombs because they had not received orders to do so. He suggested that there were both women going into terrorism on their own, leading parallel lives, and women coerced. Lanskoy also pointed to the virtual absence of any interviews or testimony that would constitute proof that Chechen women were involved in such a deadly movement. Another audience member commented that in contrast with the suicide bombers, significant groups of women in the North Caucasus were involved in efforts to make peace.
In Meier's view and that of other U.S. journalists at the conference, the claims of international, specifically Arab involvement in the Chechen resistance are exaggerated, although he cited the presence of volunteers from neighboring Caucasus countries that were eager to cut their teeth on what they saw as a locally available Islamist jihad....AND OBSERVERS SUGGEST WAYS FOR PEACE.
David Ensor, national security correspondent for CNN, proposed that one solution for curbing the worst atrocities in Chechnya would be reform of the Russian military. Widespread corruption and abuse in the Russian armed forces themselves had contributed to the abusive practices found in Chechnya, he said, and suggested that the United States should help with military contacts with the aim of professionalizing the army.
Several human rights activists in the audience reacted with pessimism, concerned that educational programs for the Russian Army could merely make them more efficient at suppressing Chechnya. The notion was also vigorously contested during audience questions by Konstantin Preobrazhenskii, who introduced himself as a former KGB colonel and said that the mentality of brutality in the Russian Army was so pervasive, and the will of current civilian authorities so lacking, that reform could not be achieved now, particularly as President Vladimir Putin's doctrine of "reconstruction of the army" pointed to the persistence of Soviet thinking. Professor John Dunlop of the Hoover Institution noted that in order for genuine reform to begin, the war would first have to be stopped completely. Former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski, now directing AEI's New Atlantic Initiative and the convener of the conference, summarized his position for "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies." "The problem with the Russian Army is not technical but ethical and the Russians themselves are best equipped to cope with it," he said.
The rising rhetoric around the issue, notable at the conference, is no doubt indicative of the frustrations encountered as the second Chechen war drags on, and "normalization" efforts such as the March constitutional referendum and October presidential elections are not convincing for either domestic or international audiences. Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski contrasted Putin with French President Charles de Gaulle, who he believed successfully dealt with the challenge of Algeria, and dubbed Putin "a small man appealing to the worst instincts." Akhmadov scoffed that Putin was "a little killer."
By contrast, Russian commentator Andrei Piontkovskii, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow and a critic of the war, said he "would not bash President Putin," and in any case preferred to do his criticizing in Moscow rather than Washington -- a confession that was in part illustrative of the increasing pressures on public debates in Moscow. Unlike other speakers who compared the Chechen tragedy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Piontkovskii said the war in Chechnya was not yet in an "end state." In contrast with Palestine, where both formal and informal talks are always taking place even against the backdrop of terrorist acts, and where a "road map" has been actively considered, the Russian taboo against talks with "bandits and terrorists" remains firmly in pace.
Especially given the results of the recent Duma elections, where more hard-liners were brought to power, a new nationalist party made a surprisingly strong showing, and liberals were essentially eliminated, those interested in bringing an end to war in Chechnya would have to take into account Russia's "legitimate interests" involving leaving a garrison of Russian soldiers in the region, Piontkovskii said. Contrary to the Palestinian situation, whatever first step is taken now in resolving the conflict by the two sides will be far more decisive than in the Middle East, he said. It would be a mistake to pressure Putin now on the war, he said; giving peace a chance now involved giving Putin a chance, rather than Maskhadov.
Lord Frank Judd, former rapporteur on Chechnya for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who has made eight trips to the region, turned aside such cautious considerations, as did other speakers such as David Ensor who called for "telling the Russians like it is" and saying it did them no favors to soft-pedal Western concerns about the conflict. Judd compared the Chechen conflict with the ongoing dispute over Northern Ireland, but explained that at best one could only hope for "talks about talks" in the Chechen situation. "If you had set out a deliberate policy to drive people into the desperation of extremists, you couldn't do a better job," he said about the radicalization of the Chechen fighters.
In the search for peace, Russians should not "cherry-pick" their interlocutors on the Chechen side, Judd said, but "cast a wide net." That means forces that have committed terrorist acts have to be brought into talks or they would not succeed. Speaking of the Irish Republican Army, he said, "We talk to their representatives, we talk about the future and their commitment, and leave aside what they did in the past." Within such a wider realm of dialogue, "reconciliation is a word of which we should not be frightened," he noted, indicating each side would have to make significant concessions. Chechens could gain a lot of credibility, he commented, if they could demonstrate they understood some of the legitimate concerns of Russian security on their southern flank. Judd characterized as "counterproductive" Russian intransigence on negotiations: "refusal to countenance talking to them [Chechen fighters] is exactly...what drives the young in desperation to more extremist loyalties." He also called on the West to have a sense of humility in dealing with the Russians and "practice what it preaches."
The Chechen conflict is not at all the local quagmire that some have viewed it as; Brzezinski noted that there was now "a maturing recognition that this is not just some isolated, remote but trivial situation that can be ignored." "Putin is at the front line of the struggle against militant Islam," Judd said. "Therefore it is important to show a political solution is possible, and that strengthens moderate leadership." If the idea of a political solution is not emphasized, and if talks are ruled out, then in conflicts involving Muslim populations around the world, "the message goes out that moderates are Uncle Toms, and that only the tough can achieve something," he concluded.
At the close of the conference, journalist Nicholas Daniloff, a professor at Northeastern University, confronted Akhmadov's fellow panelist at the semi-circular table, Russian embassy official Lukashevich. He asked Lukashevich whether he could consider sitting down seriously with Maskhadov's representative for talks about how to end the war. Lukashevich said that his government could not negotiate with Chechen fighters commanded by Maskhadov. Pressed further by Daniel Pellathy of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya as to whether the Russian official would in fact define Akhmadov as a "bandit and terrorist," Lukashevich clarified that he could not begin talks "with those associated with bandits and terrorists" -- a smidgen of a concession.
In Akhmadov's case, the Russian official's epithet was not merely a matter of personal insult. As Brzezinski revealed in his lunchtime speech, Akhmadov, who came to the United States to give a lecture in 2002, had been forced to apply for political asylum in the United States after Russian authorities refused to extend his Russian passport. Initially, a positive decision was made on his case, but U.S. authorities reversed the decision earlier this year, evidently in the wake of terrorist bombings, despite claims by the Maskhadov government that they were not responsible.
Danish authorities refused to extradite Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov's special envoy, despite a request by Russian authorities, and the British government recently ruled through a legal proceeding that Zakaev should be granted political asylum, thereby dismissing the Russians' charges that he, as a representative of the civilian government of Maskhadov, had any complicity in terrorist acts. The same logic could apply in Akhmadov's case, Brzezinski said, since his position was similar to Zakaev's, and he ought to be speedily granted the status under U.S. law due to a "well-founded fear of persecution."
Most conference-goers spoke from anecdotal experience of an increasing flow of Chechens out of Chechnya to other Russia cities, neighboring countries in the Caucasus, or even away from the region completely to Eastern and Western Europe and North America. While only some 74 out of the 40,000 Chechens eligible for housing compensation had received compensation to begin to rebuild their homes with state aid, others were using any resources they could get their hands on to pay bribes to Russian soldiers to make their way out of the republic. Veteran war correspondent Andrei Babitsky of RFE/RL described his trips to Chechnya in recent months, commenting that checkpoints had grown more lax and the cost of bribes had decreased.
Such decisions to abandon Chechnya by people in this conservative, traditional nation who had once staked their lives on the struggle for independence was a stark testimony of the hopelessness of the situation. Many more people were motivated to leave with the coming to power of Kadyrov, described by Akhmadov, who said he had fought with him in the first Chechen war, as a "jihadist" who had once asked for the heads of Russian soldiers and was now inaccurately being described as the "flower of democracy."
In the end, a panel titled "Searching for Peace" succeeded mainly in illustrating how hardened the sides in the conflict have become, and how shrill have become even the positions of those described as observers. Notions of reform of the Russian Army appear unrealistic, just as the idea that the UN, which has trouble even enforcing the principle of coerced return of refugees, will provide peacekeeping troops someday in the region.
In this atmosphere, any tiny sign of concession is seen as a glimmer of hope. Professor Peter Reddaway of George Washington University inquired hopefully about a theory put forth by Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, that Russian forces knew the whereabouts of Maskhadov but were not attacking him in order to keep him alive for talks. Akhmadov peremptorily dismissed the concept as one of the myths of the war. Reddaway noted that Politkovskaya, who had been invited to speak at the conference, had been advised by her Russian editor not to travel, that if she left Russia she might not return, indicating a possible return to the Soviet-era practice when dissident figures like General Petro Grigorenko and Valery Chalidze were given exit permits to give lectures in the United States but then not allowed back to Russia. The Russian Embassy's representative had no comment.
The American Committee for Peace in Chechnya maintains a website with the latest news features from both the Russian and international press and offers a peace plan drafted by the Maskhadov government, background materials, and resource links. http://www.peaceinchechnya.org/
The American Enterprise Institute has made available a complete videotape of the 10 December conference "Chechnya: Escaping the Quagmire" available for viewing over the Internet and has also supplied background materials on speakers, a timeline of events in Chechnya, and quotes by noted officials and public figures over the course of two wars. http://www.aei.org/events/f.video,eventID.675,filter./event_detail.asp
Amnesty International, the international human rights organization, has a campaign to stop disappearances and torture in the Russian Federation and bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses. http://www.amnesty.org/russia/chechnya.html
Freedom House defined the Russian Federation as only "partly free" in its annual comparative survey of civil and political liberties. http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/freeworld/2003/countryratings/russia.htm
The Jamestown Foundation issues "Chechnya Weekly," covering news and discussions about how to bring peace to the republic. http://www.jamestown.org/pub_chechnya.htm
This special section on RFE/RL's website contains the latest breaking news stories and features on Chechnya and contains links to archived articles. http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/chechnya/index.html