Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2003
Issue No. 642
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The 'black hole' of Chechnya

The Chechen civil war is corrupting the Russian state, writes Shohdy Naguib from Moscow

The nine-year Chechen conflict can be described as the Russian "black hole" which is sucking up funds, lives and hopes for a better life, while discharging at the same dazzling rate xenophobia, radicalisation of politics, corruption and crime. In other words, if transparency can be regarded as the opposite of corruption, then this conflict is tantamount to a powerful smoke generator that is suffocating the nascent Russian democracy. Placing this independence war within the framework of the global "war on terror" was a lucky strike for the Russian president and the likely doom for the 200 years of struggle for self-determination by this proud nation.

The alleged link between Chechnya's rebels and Al-Qa'eda raises the question of whether that link exists despite, or because of, Russia's anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya. And it certainly cannot justify the horrendous scale of atrocities that has befallen its people.

According to the International Herald Tribune, the "statistics on murders and so-called disappearances show that Chechnya is one of the most dangerous places on earth," outstripping Colombia by a wide margin, which leaves no doubt as to the total failure of the federal government to contain the situation. Staging a referendum on the future of the republic and the adoption of a new constitution against such a troubled background could not have been more inappropriate. The 96 per cent of votes which were cast "in favour of peace and against the separation" are viewed by most international observers as irrelevant and as having nothing to do with durable peace in the region.

Indeed, all the assurances of stability in Chechnya issued by the Kremlin-backed administration of Ahmad Kadyrov are regularly truncated with news of stinging attacks by the rebels. The suicide attacks on the tightly secured administration buildings wipe out all such claims, while the incessant reports of atrocities committed in the course of "cleansing operations" carried out by the federal forces and Kadyrov's militia may well explain why entire families have chosen to become shohada (martyrs).

The frequent use of suicide bombers, particularly women, by the Chechen separatists further validates the Kremlin's claims of the "foreign hand" which dares to meddle in Russia's internal affairs. Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, reporting to President Vladimir Putin, recently said, "This was brought to us from abroad. There were previously no suicide attackers in the Chechen conflict." The wave of terror attacks is also spilling over from Chechnya to the neighbouring regions of southern Russia.

On Thursday 5 June a female bomber dressed in the white garb associated with medical personnel, blew herself up in front of a bus carrying military and civilian personnel to a nearby airfield not far from the city of Mozdok in the North Ossetia region, killing herself and at least 16 others.

Conventional guerrilla warfare also seems to be gaining momentum after a period of relative calm. On the following Friday an intensive fight broke out in the republic's third largest city of Argun, which lasted for many hours and produced contradictory reports as to the number of casualties on both sides. Certain, though, is the fact that Kadyrov's deputy, Colonel Aud Yusupov, lost his life in an ambush in the city centre. Fighting, therefore, is no longer confined to the southern mountainous regions, as has been claimed.

The Western guests who recently attended the international summit in St Petersburg during its splendid tercentenary anniversary did not say a single word to their host regarding the situation in the war-torn North Caucasus. Nobody wanted to spoil the party.

The miserable human rights record in Chechnya will, sooner or later, surface at the highest diplomatic level. The upcoming trial of Ahmad Zakaev -- official envoy of Chechen President-elect Aslan Maskhadov -- in London will probably trigger this. He is currently facing extradition in England and his defence is based upon accusations aimed at Russia regarding massive human rights violations in Chechnya. In an interview with Radio Liberty he said, "For three or four years now, our leadership has been seeking the creation of an international committee to investigate these horrible crimes, followed by an international tribunal to bring the war criminals to trial." Such an approach may well turn the tables on the Kremlin.

Looking at the situation from the other side of the Atlantic, one can see that the hard line adopted by President Putin ever since he assumed office at the beginning of the second Chechen campaign has been consistent enough to prove his intention of keeping Chechnya within the Russian Federation. The recent developments demonstrate to the outside world that the federal government is taking all necessary steps to formally validate the legitimacy of its non-compromising policy towards the Chechen separatists.

Whatever the real reasons behind the tacit acceptance by the Western powers of the arm-twisting democracy practiced by their Russian ally, the options available to them are few. A plain disregard for the results of the Constitutional Referendum in Chechnya would be inappropriate, and at the same time the label of "international terrorism" has stuck too firmly to Aslan Maskhadov, regardless of his attempts to disassociate himself from it. The exiled Chechen president is still waiting in hiding for the Russians to call him for the peace talks, but it seems that his time has run out. Apart from the brave-hearted Vanessa Redgrave, who is courting his envoy in London, no one seems to care too much about his legitimacy.

Seeking to legitimise Russia's counter-separatist efforts in Chechnya, President Putin has proposed a new legislation to grant partial amnesty to participants in the Chechen conflict. The bill went through the State Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament) in its third and final reading and has been supported by an overwhelming majority.

The amnesty, which will be in effect from Saturday, applies to both Chechen rebels who are willing to lay down their weapons by 1 September, 2003, and those federal army troops who have committed minor crimes since the start of hostilities on 12 December, 1993. The amnesty does not apply to those guilty of committing murder, rape, armed robbery, kidnapping or other serious crimes, nor does it cover foreigners who fought with the rebels.

The Russian president's representative in the State Duma, Alexandre Kotenkov, has told reporters that the amnesty will affect some 300 federal army soldiers -- 90 per cent of all those who have been already sentenced -- as well as about 1000 rebel fighters who are now in custody. He has underlined the importance of this "act of humanism aimed at creating further conditions for the eventual return of peace to the Chechen republic".

Meanwhile, human rights watch-dogs have cried foul at a possible attempt to cover up abuses by federal soldiers, but there are certainly no indications regarding the validity of their concerns within the body of the new law. At time of going to print, there were reports that more than 30 fighters have already given up their arms. They have been duly registered and temporarily released pending further investigation.

There is a general consensus in Russia that these recent efforts at legitimisation are primarily aimed at pacifying Western peers, who are very uneasy about their strategic partner's undemocratic practices. There is a great deal of apathy amongst Russians with regard to the possibility of positive change. The government's chaotic policy of half-measures is even seen as perpetuating the conflict on a lower level. As the general socio-political situation deteriorates there is a high risk of it flaring with a renewed force. Such is the opinion of Dmitri Rodin, the chief editor of a popular web-zine www.zvezda.ru, who laments the numerous opportunities blocked and ignored by the presidential aids. Foremost of these in his opinion is the project of the Eurasian Federalism, a concept promoted by a prominent Russian thinker Alexandre Dugin. This original concept is aimed at giving a political status to an ethnos, an idea that indeed has a great potential for the future of the vast Russian domain. But his arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Russia is still being ruled by the adherents of the western liberal democracy rather than an authentic doctrine that might better suit it's specific.

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