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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Criminalizing Politics

Washington, 20 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's ongoing efforts to portray the Chechens as "criminals" and "terrorists" appear to be intended to generate support at home and forestall criticism abroad concerning the Russian government's military moves in the North Caucasus.

But this demonization of an entire people not only has offended many in Russia and the West: It has had the effect of severely limiting Moscow's future options, reducing the chances for a negotiated settlement, and thus making a wider, longer, and bloodier conflict ever more likely.

And because this effort to classify an entire nation as criminals violates fundamental principles of human rights, it is leading ever more governments in the West to reconsider their assessments of Russia's progress away from totalitarianism and, as a result, to reassess their current relationships with Moscow.

Only some of these consequences appear to have been on the mind of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when he called on Tuesday for an international effort to combat Chechen "terrorists."

Speaking to a G-7 law enforcement seminar in Moscow, Putin said that his government had launched its military campaign against Chechnya in order to fight "criminals" and "terrorists." And he appealed for "all countries" to support Moscow's effort since "it is not possible" for any one country to "wipe out" such groups on its own.

In repeating charges he has made before, Putin appears to have three distinct goals.

First, Putin clearly hopes to win popular support among Russians by depriving the Chechens and their cause of any standing of legitimacy.

Second, he apparently hopes to prevent any quick end to the conflict either by an end to the Russian military advance against Grozny or by the negotiations that many Russian officials have advocated. Such an end to hostilities would likely cost Putin much of the domestic support he has gained since launching the campaign.

And third, Putin certainly hopes to deflect any Western criticism of what Moscow is doing in Chechnya by suggesting that the Chechens are part of a broader, Islamic challenge to the West as well.

But in pursuing these goals, Putin may be creating a situation in which he, his government and even his country could lose much more. Labeling the Chechens a "criminal" group, something other Russian officials have been doing for some years, has had the unintentional effect of unifying the Chechens.

Even more, such charges have undercut support for moderate Chechens, such as President Aslan Maskhadov, who have called for talks and boosted the prestige of those, like Shamil Basaev, who argue that the Chechen nation can achieve its goals only through force and suggest that Chechens have nothing to lose if they launch attacks on Russian civilians.

And that shift of opinion within the Chechen community thus opens the way to ever more violence if Russian forces continue their attacks on Grozny and if Putin continues his campaign of demonization.

But the most serious consequences of Putin's continuing efforts to portray the Chechens as a uniquely criminal nation are likely to be felt elsewhere. Such charges may very well poison relations between ethnic Russians and non-Russian groups within the Russian Federation by opening the door to the possible demonization of others.

Such charges are also likely to complicate Moscow's relationships with the post-Soviet states. Not only are these countries certain to see such charges as evidence of growing nationalist fervor inside the Russian Federation, but they may see such descriptions of the Chechens as an implicit commentary on their ethnic communities.

Such comments by a Russian prime minister are already having an impact on Moscow's relations with the West. Even governments and peoples who sympathize with Moscow's effort to combat terrorism appear to be increasingly disturbed by Putin's broad brush approach to the problem.

Putin's remarks in recent weeks have prompted some Western observers to raise questions not only about what Moscow is now doing in Chechnya but also about the Russian government's policies in other areas. And that examination has led at least some in the West to adopt a more critical approach.

Putin's rhetorical effort may have counterproductive results far greater than anyone in his entourage appears to have anticipated.