Washington, 21 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As Russian forces continue their attacks on Grozny, Moscow appears to have decided as part of its broader campaign to render a portion of Chechnya uninhabitable and to forcibly move people living there to other locations.
At the end of last month, several Western journalists reported from Moscow that the Russian government had decided to destroy the villages of highland Chechnya in order to deny Chechen fighters any sanctuary and thus to speed the end of the conflict.
But because such actions recall some of the worst features of the Stalinist era, many Western analysts treated these reports with extreme skepticism. Now, however, a document, apparently leaked in Moscow and circulating in the West this week, suggests that Moscow has decided on even more radical measures.
The document in question consists of a report on the December 15 meeting of the Russian Security Council under the chairmanship of then-prime minister and now acting President Vladimir Putin. Marked for official use only, the two-page paper is addressed to Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev.
According to this report, which several Western analysts consider authentic, the Russian Security Council on that date addressed two issues: strengthening Moscow's influence over the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States and suppressing the Chechens.
If the decisions concerning the CIS are very much a continuation of Moscow's recent policies, the Security Council's conclusions about how to deal with Chechnya represent a major departure from what Russian officials have said in public in the past.
According to this report, Russian forces have virtually completed the second stage of what the document calls "the anti-terrorist operation for the liquidation of bandit formations on the territory of Chechnya." And the meeting thus had to decide what to do in the third phase.
The language of the report is stark: it says that participants in the mid-December meeting agreed that Chechen settlements in the mountains do not have "any economic or other value" and thus "must be completely liquidated."
All structures there -- "including cult and historical ones" -- must be viewed as potential hiding places for bandit formations, the document specifies, and thus they are to be subject to "total destruction." Such actions, the report says, will effectively "liquidate forever the basis for the rise of new bandits and terrorists."
The Security Council report provides additional details on what that will mean: "the creation of conditions absolutely unsuitable for human habitation in the future" and "the resettlement of peaceful residents from this part of Chechnya either north of the Terek River or their assimilation into other regions of Russia."
And the Security Council adds that "after the completion of military operations all construction and other materials are to be removed from this part of Chechnya," thereby making it impossible that anyone will ever be able to live there again.
Such draconian measures not only represent a significant escalation of Moscow's expressed aims of ending Chechen resistance but inevitably invite comparisons with tsarist policies in the Caucasus in the nineteenth century and Stalin's forcible deportation of the Chechens in 1944.
As tsarist forces marched into the northern Caucasus in the last century, they routinely destroyed crops and deforested much of the region as part of their effort to pacify the population. In most cases, the policy backfired and left the local population more anti-Russian than before.
Then, in 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Germans and deported more than 600,000 of them to Central Asia.
That bitter experience that cost more than a third of them their lives and left those who remained alive and their descendants even more determined to return home and ultimately to escape Russian rule.
But neither the tsarist authorities nor Stalin's secret police resolved to make an entire portion of Chechnya uninhabitable and to forcibly move the population living there to other regions.
That is what Moscow under acting President Putin now appears prepared to do. But unless this action leads to the total extermination of all Chechens, it is likely to have an even more disturbing outcome than did the earlier efforts of tsars and commissars.
It is likely to generate an even more radical Chechen national movement, one defined by its hostility to everything Russian and prepared to engage in precisely the kind of actions that the Russian authorities have claimed they are acting to forestall.