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Russia: Chechnya A Delicate Issue For Human Rights Group

Inside Russia, the chorus of support for the war in Chechnya is growing. Even former Soviet dissidents have added their voices. Oleg Orlov, one of the leaders of Russia's respected human rights group Memorial, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato about why criticizing the war is so difficult. Orlov argues such criticism is also necessary.

London, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A ceasefire should be called in Chechnya to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and to give the Chechen people time to decide whether they support militantism or democracy. That is the view of Oleg Orlov, one of the leaders of Russia's most respected human rights groups, Memorial.

Orlov returned last week from a fact-finding mission to Chechnya's neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where some 200,000 displaced Chechens are sheltering. Immediately after his return to Moscow, he traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to attend the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At that summit, Russian President Boris Yeltsin rejected Western criticism of Russia's military operation, but in the end the Russians did agree to allow an OSCE mission into the area.

At the OSCE conference, Orlov said the Russians were targeting civilians.

"We see how federal forces make random hits against villages without taking into account the security of the civilian population. Even worse -- sometimes civilians are the target of the attacks. All the people [we spoke to] in Chechnya or after fleeing said that this war is being waged with more cruel methods than the past war. For example, there weren't any carpet bombings during the first war."

But Memorial's stance is not so clear-cut. In an article published by the London-based Institute for War and Peace reporting, Orlov says that Memorial activists are embroiled in a serious internal debate over what to advocate. They want to be taken seriously by Russian authorities, and for that they cannot minimize the threats to peace and to human rights posed by Chechen militants. Yet they also want to relieve the suffering of Chechen civilians.

Orlov says most Russian human rights activists do support the right of the federal government to take steps against Chechen rebel commanders and fighters who attacked neighboring Dagestan in August. He says that it is, indeed, the duty of Russian authorities to fight terrorism on Russian territory. But the current fighting, he says, is not just targeting terrorists, as Moscow claims. He says indiscriminate missile attacks on Chechen villages must be immediately stopped.

In Istanbul, Orlov put it this way:

"We think that under cover of an anti-terrorist operation, the federal forces actually deployed large-scale military operations that are not aimed against terrorists but against the people in Chechnya."

The problem, Orlov says in his article, is that a nuanced position is not easy to maintain, because Russian public opinion and media almost unanimously support the war. He says the apartment bombings that killed 300 people in Russian cities, which the government blamed on Chechen militants, made Russians fear that lawlessness was spreading from Chechnya throughout Russia.

Most human rights activists feel that it would be over simplistic to portray the war as Russian aggression against the Chechen nation. But they do point out that Russian politicians have been strongly promoting a negative stereotype of all Chechens.

Orlov says Russia missed a real opportunity to influence Chechnya for the better after the Khasavyurt peace accord was signed in August 1996, ending the first conflict. Moscow did not deliver much of the promised reconstruction aid, and what did end up in Chechnya was mostly misdirected or stolen. Orlov also says Moscow did not do enough to help Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to fight kidnapping.

But the human rights activist says his own group was also too passive. Memorial, he says, paid too little attention to Chechnya after 1996 and did not carry out enough documentation work from within the republic. This was partly because many felt Chechnya was becoming increasingly closed and dangerous.

The leadership of Memorial is not calling for a complete halt to the military offensive or an immediate launching of peace negotiations. Orlov says any such cessation would mean a victory for the Chechen warlords, who he says are not themselves defenders of human rights. Orlov says that a constructive proposal would be to implement a limited ceasefire to assess the possibilities for a negotiated settlement based on the will of the people of Chechnya.

Orlov argues that a temporary ceasefire would allow desperately needed humanitarian assistance to reach both the Chechens who have already fled the republic and those still stranded there. And, he concludes, it would also give the Chechen people time to consider where they stand.