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|Russia on Chechen " Triumph or failure?"|
|10/29/02 at 01:27:57|
|Triumph or failure?|
Oct 28th 2002
From The Economist Global Agenda
What at first seemed a triumph for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is fast turning to failure. The way the siege at a Moscow theatre held by Chechen rebels was ended has won him few friends, at home or abroad
Free, but at a price
WITH each death from gas poisoning among the 700 or so hostages rescued over the weekend from a theatre in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s prestige slips another notch. When the hostages, foreign as well as Russian, were released from their Chechen captors in the early hours of October 26th, the death toll seemed thankfully low. Initial reports suggested that as few as ten hostages had died when Russia’s Alpha troops stormed the building. In retrospect, that was misleading.
It transpires that only two hostages died in the shooting. The remainder of those killed—at least 116—are understood to have been poisoned by the gas introduced by the troops before they entered the building. And the count seems certain to rise. Around 150 former hostages are still in intensive care in Moscow hospitals, more than 40 of them in a critical condition. What angered many Muscovites was the authorities’ refusal to let relatives see the injured hostages in hospital and the refusal to name the gas used in the attack. As a result, doctors have been working blind, doing what they can to treat people injured by an unknown, and perhaps illegal, agent.
The gas seems to have been a new form of neuroparalytic, which can cause permanent brain damage and incapacity to anyone not killed by it. If true, this may explain why the Russian authorities have so far refused to name it: stocks of such agents should be declared under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia has signed. The closest the government has come to a description is to say, unhelpfully, that the gas is similar to drugs used in routine surgery—a claim disputed by doctors treating the former hostages and by international specialists alike.
Anger at the mounting death toll blunted a day of national mourning on October 28th. In the circumstances, Mr Putin's vow that Russia would neither deal with terrorists nor give in to blackmail had a hollow ring to it, despite his earlier televised apologies to the Russian people and his decision to strengthen the army's powers to deal with terrorist threats. What good were pledges if Russians continued to die in the absence of a long-term solution to the problems posed by Chechnya, asked many Russians. Predictably, too, the offer on the same day of unconditional talks by Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya’s elected president since 1997, has so far been ignored.
Despite the deaths of the 50 or so Chechen rebels who took over the Moscow theatre, there are worries that other Chechens may try similar raids in future. Indeed, the manner in which the government ended the siege may even encourage others to avenge the deaths of their former colleagues. This is a prospect that terrifies many Russians. On October 28th, police arrested a Chechen carrying explosives and a detailed map of a Moscow train station, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. There have been hostage-takings before, including the capture of some 2,000 people in 1996. But all were in or around Chechnya itself, far from the centre of power in Moscow. True, Chechens were officially blamed for the bombing of two apartment buildings in Moscow, and the deaths of 300 people, in 1999. But no proof was offered.
For Mr Putin, Chechnya has become a personal crusade. He has consistently refused to negotiate with the rebels, ignoring olive branches offered by Mr Maskhadov and publicly slapping down Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal politician, who had called for an end to the fighting. Mr Putin used the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States to draw the parallel between the war in Chechnya and America’s campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—a comparison that the West will now be even happier to accept.
In April, Mr Putin claimed that the military operation in Chechnya was over, and handed responsibility for the region to the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB. The reality was different. According to independent observers, the Russians are still losing over 100 men every month in Chechnya. In August, rebels shot down a military helicopter, killing 118 soldiers. Guerrillas have also continued to carry out hit-and-run raids on villages.
Mr Putin is nothing if not pragmatic. In being economical with the truth about the gas used at the Moscow theatre and cavalier by western standards with the feelings of his own people, he clearly calculates that, in the long run, the end justifies the means. Perhaps he reckons, too, that the loss of 15% or even 20% of the hostages can still, in military terms, be regarded as a success. But, worryingly, he seems no nearer a solution to the problems of Chechnya.
Even if Mr Putin wanted them, peace talks with the rebels now look difficult if not impossible. The 20-odd clans that control the republic have found it hard to agree on anything. Although regarded as a moderate and open to compromise, Mr Maskhadov has only the loosest grip on power; many field commanders do not even recognise him as their leader. This, together with Mr Putin’s strong-arm tactics, suggests that hostilities both inside and outside Chechnya are likely to continue for some time to come.
|Re: Russia on Chechen " Triumph or failure?"|
|10/30/02 at 23:33:45|
|October 29, 2002|
Putin is forced into human rights limelight
Repression, arrogance, stubbornness, terrorism, suicidal violence, official lies. The
tragedy of the Melnikova Street theatre reminds us how dangerous the world is when people
grow desperate and their oppressors show no sign of compassion.
Russia, of all nations, ought to have known this. Even without glancing sideways at the
modern world, at the Middle East and the twin towers and Bali, Russia should know about
the power of rage, and the rage of those who have nothing left to lose. It is a nation,
after all, founded on a revolution against the careless brutalisation of the weak by the
powerful centre. Of course Chechen terrorists have repeatedly proved themselves to include
thugs, psychopaths, and venal blackmailers. Every cause embracing violence will always
have these people among them. But that does not excuse us from looking at the cause of their
rage, and the history which led men and women to strap explosives to themselves in a
crowded theatre, and shoot at fleeing children.
President Putin is being heavily criticised for killing the innocent along with the
guilty by using a gas which it seems likely he should not have had in his armoury. But even
those who give him the benefit of the doubt in the awful dilemma that faced him at the
weekend find it hard to excuse the subsequent evasiveness, repression of information, and
cavalier disregard of the rights of survivors’ relatives. Izvestiya puts it most clearly:
“Russian citizens are quite sane. In dealing with them one need not stoop to vulgar
totalitarianism, police repression or disparaging hushing-up and half-truths.”
But graver even than all that is the situation which fed this terror. Mr Putin may have
committed crimes last week against Muscovite theatregoers; but long before that his
federal troops were committing far worse crimes in the villages and towns of Chechnya. In the
past year the West has had to learn, very painfully, just why young Muslims sometimes hate
us to the point of giving their own lives to harm us. Now it is Russia’s turn. As
Izvestiya said yesterday, “Russia now has its own September 11”.
But among thinking Russians, hatred and revenge are not the only instincts. The popular
daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets goes straight to the heart of the matter. “It beggars
belief,” says the newspaper, “that in his Saturday address to the nation, President Putin failed
to mention Chechnya at all, as if the war there has nothing to do with what happened. If
you refuse to accept the truth, if you treat the consequences of the disease and not its
cause, you will never be cured.” The war inside Chechnya, says one liberal weekly, will
have to end, and it is the manner of its ending which is important. “To show political
will and a desire for peace, one political statement from the President would be enough”.
Such voices inside Russia — and I quote them because they are of higher value than any
perspective we outsiders can offer — say that Mr Putin must climb down, commit himself to
free elections in the rebel province, and above all accept an international peacekeeping
force so that he can withdraw his tainted troops and begin what the rest of the world has
learnt to call a “peace process” leading to disarming of the guerrillas and a painfully won
consensus that talking is better than fighting.
Over the past few years, the horror of what the most thuggish Chechen rebels do has
tended to eclipse our perception of what has been done to their compatriots. At the door of
the “guerrillas” we have to lay crimes like this siege, numerous hijacks and kidnappings
for ransom, and the murder and mutilation of innocent aid workers, journalists, engineers
and businessmen. Focuse` on that, the world has found it hard to give proper weight to the
real suffering of the Chechen people in the past century.
Their Muslim culture has little in common with the Russians who conquered them, after a
long and bloody war ending in the mid-19th century in victory for the Tsar. Chechnya
became an autonomous republic 80 years ago, within the Soviet Union, but in 1944 Stalin
deported its whole population to Siberia and Central Asia with accusations of collaboration
with the Nazis. Tens of thousands died. Its quasi-independence was restored under
Khrushchev, and held for 30 years; but with the crumbling of the Soviet empire it made another bid
for independence. The decade since has seen persistent and brutal attempts by Russia to
crush and rule; the 1994 war killed nearly 100,000 civilians. Attempts at peace have
failed, partly because Russia will never accept full Chechen independence and partly because,
fuelled by intransigence, resentful memory and the ongoing brutality of Russian troops,
the rage of the rebel factions has continued to run beyond reason. The grievances of
Chechnya are like the grievances of Northern Ireland, magnified a hundredfold; yet we try to
meet and moderate the grievances of Ireland, and with painful slowness succeed. But Moscow
does not think that way. Instead, it installs a puppet government and turns a blind eye
when its own demoralised, underpaid, ill-disciplined troops trash the place and torment
That casual, arrogant abuse is the fuel of terrorism. I do not propose here to go into
the pornographic detail of Russian military behaviour in Chechnya, because those who want
to know more have only to turn to numerous reports by human rights organisations and the
UN over the past few years. But it is all there: disappearances, torture, detention in
unrecorded places at the whim of local commanders, mutilated bodies in more than one mass
grave, and innumerable cases of casual rape, including gang-rape and the abuse of young
children. The perpetrators are soldiers; occupying soldiers. Amnesty International and other
bodies have protested strongly at the failure of the UN to hold Russia to account —
despite noises made by its human rights committee, it has turned a blind eye to the brutality
of Russian forces against a largely defenceless civilian population. Russia in this
context ignores the Geneva Convention, ignores the UN, and barely ever even attempts to bring
its killers and rapists to justice. A recent protest from human rights organisations
concluded that “it is this ongoing environment of impunity that facilitates continued,
In a culture like ours, where the word “abuse” has degenerated to describe people
complaining to employment tribunals about the slightest harsh word, I should perhaps repeat
again: mass graves, child rape, mutilation. If Chechen terrorists are brutal and care nothing
for poor terrified theatregoing families, there is an explanation — though never an
excuse — in what has been happening to their own families for years. Maybe some of those women
with bombs strapped to their bodies lost parents, or sisters, or babies, or were
themselves gang-raped by laughing Russian troops in an “ongoing environment of impunity”.
The aftermath of the twin towers attack has made it even easier for Mr Putin to be
“tough” and intransigent with Chechnya. There are allegations that Chechen rebels are in
cahoots with al-Qaeda; well, no surprise there. If you are Muslim, anywhere in the world, and
despair of getting reasonable treatment either from your direct oppressor or through the
mechanisms of international justice, then for the hotheads among you the loose, shadowy
cause of al-Qaeda will be tempting indeed.
Peace is never easy to make. Never in the world’s history has there been a brokered peace
deal which did not leave some people on both sides bitter, saying “those bastards got
away with murder”. Ireland, South Africa, the Middle East, all have to learn that hard
lesson. Chechnya and Moscow will have to learn it too. But whenever there is a faint glimmer
of hope of a peaceful settlement, it becomes apparent that Moscow is not really keen: its
instincts are still Soviet: crush and rule, don’t talk, don’t give in — “dump them”, as
Mr Putin says, “down the bog”.
The rest of the world has tended to turn its back and shrug. Well, not any more. Human
rights campaigners, like Amnesty, have quite rightly extended condolences to the victims of
the horror in the Melnikova Street theatre. Nobody with a shred of human feeling would
have wanted this to happen. But if it brings about international pressure on Russia to
think in a more modern, peacemaking way about its troublesome province, it may in the end
kindle a small, hopeful light in the stinking darkness.
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