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Experts Urge West to be More Involved in Chechen Solution

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been able to either defeat the Chechen separatists or find a political solution to the conflict.

For the past 10 years, Chechnya has been the scene of violence as Russian troops try to defeat separatist rebels.

The toll on the civilian population has been devastating. Chechnya's capital, Grozny, has been almost razed to the ground. Western human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, say an estimated 300,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict, both inside Chechnya and in neighboring republics. It is unknown how many civilians have been killed as a result of the conflict, but the most conservative estimates say the number is in the tens of thousands.

But civilians in Chechnya face another threat. A recent report by Human Rights Watch says since 1999, thousands of people have disappeared. The organization says they have been taken either by Russian federal forces or local Chechen security squads subordinate to Russian authorities.

Rachel Denber is the acting Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. She says the targets are men between the ages of 17 and 45.

"So they are youngish men who I suppose the authorities suspect of somehow being linked to Chechen rebel forces," she said. "Either they are being disappeared because they suspect they are part of the rebel forces or because they suspect that they are somehow involved in arming rebel forces or somehow collaborating or somehow, maybe have information about rebel forces and they would like to interrogate them in very secret ways. "

Russian authorities deny any responsibility for their fate or knowledge of their whereabouts.

Marshall Goldman is a Russia expert with Harvard University. He says Russian president Vladimir Putin will use any means to stop the independence movement and keep his country intact.

"From Putin's point of view, he sees what's going on there as an effort to not only separate Chechnya, but to ignite the whole region in the northern Caucasus and spread all the way up to the Volga, to bring about the disintegration of Russia and he's paranoid about this," said Mr. Goldman.

President Putin says the Chechen issue is an internal Russian problem. At the same time, he places Russia's fight against Chechen separatists in the context of the global war on terrorism. And he has refused any talks with the rebels.

Thomas de Waal, expert on Chechnya with London's Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says there is a fundamental paradox in the Russian government's position.

"The Russians constantly say this is a front on the international war on terror and the West needs to support us on this and yet they do not, so far at least, accept that there needs to be, in order to defeat what they call an international problem, there needs to be some kind of international involvement in Chechnya, purely on the practical level," he noted.

Many human rights and aid organizations have criticized Western countries for not speaking out on the situation in Chechnya. U.S. administration officials have been reluctant to talk publicly about Mr. Putin's policy on Chechnya. But they have consistently called on the Russian leader to find a political, rather than military, solution to the Chechen conflict.

Charles Fairbanks is director of the Central-Asian Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He says the West needs to act and find a peaceful solution in Chechnya.

"I do think that this is a very dangerous hotbed, a potential source of terrorism and I frankly don't see that the Bush administration or European countries have really had any strategy for dealing with the problem. And we urgently need one," he said.

For his part, John Russell, Chechnya expert at Bradford University, says western leaders have shirked their responsibility vis-à-vis Chechnya.

"When you've got conflicts going on in the world like the Middle East conflict, the situation in northern Ireland, which are so complicated and so difficult to find a satisfactory conclusion to, the war in Chechnya is not only complicated, but it's a long way away," said Mr. Russell. "Nobody really knows, the public really doesn't know too much about it, and it's easier to think of in simplistic terms: the Chechens are the terrorists and the Russians are the good guys."

Experts say in the final analysis, solving the Chechnya conflict comes down to a matter of political will. They say that President Putin must change his policy and be open to talks with Chechen separatists, and the United States and other Western countries must get more involved in helping find a political solution.