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War in Chechnya May Impact Russia's Future - 2004-01-02

In the middle of December 2003 a group of Chechen guerillas crossed into the neighboring Dagestan, killing nine Russian border guards. The incident was just another reminder that violence and instability continue to plague the secessionist region in the Caucasus. VOA's Jaroslaw Anders looks at the heavy toll the conflict takes on the Chechen people, on the Russian political system, and on the international community.

The suffering of the Chechen people in the 20th century is comparable to the genocide committed against Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War... That is the opinion of former U.S. National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. He says that almost half the Chechen nation died during brutal deportations ordered by Joseph Stalin in 1944. Mr. Brzezinski points out that those numbers continue to grow.

Although is difficult to estimate how may have died since the 1990’s, when Chechnya declared its independence from the Russian Federation, but Mr. Brzezinski believes about a quarter of the Chechen population perished “not by accident, not by earthquakes, not by climatically induced starvation, but from the hands of others, deliberately.” Mr. Brzezinski was a keynote speaker at a conference on Chechnya organized in Washington by the American Enterprise Institute and several other organizations.

One of the participants, Chechen surgeon Khassan Baiev, author of a book The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, said Chechnya today is a humanitarian disaster, and the Chechen society has suffered a physical and psychological damage that may be difficult to reverse. “In my opinion, says doctor Baiev, the whole nation is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. People are nervous, they suffer memory loss, insomnia and depression. Suicide and suicide attempts are common.”

The conflict in Chechnya started in the early 1990s when Chechen separatists declared independence from the Russian Federation. Moscow never recognized the Chechen claim. In 1994 Russian troops moved in to start a two-year inconclusive campaign against Chechen partisans. They withdrew in 1996 to return in 1999 after a series of border incidents and terrorist attacks blamed on Chechen radicals. Four years later, Chechen fighters are still striking at Russian convoys and pro-Moscow Chechen administrators. According to reports, Russian forces respond by harassing civilians and kidnapping young Chechen men.

Many analysts believe that a tough position on Chechnya helped Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidate his power. But Professor Brzezinski says the war is corrupting the Russian political system. “I am going to put it in starkly geopolitical terms,” he said at the AEI conference. “I think the Chechen issue is delaying the post-imperial transformation of Russia. It is not only delaying it. It is helping to reverse it.”

Many analysts agree the Chechen war imperils Russian prospects of becoming an open, liberal society, and a constructive force in international affairs. They stress that above all, the conflict threatens the young generation of Chechens, who know only a life of violence and desperation.

Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky, who covers the Chechen conflict for the US-funded Radio Liberty, recalls that several recent attempts to define the Chechen future ended in failure and disillusionment. There were two abortive efforts to establish an independent Chechen state: first, a secular state under Dzokhar Dudayev, and second, an Islamist state under Aslan Maskhadov. In Mr. Babitsky’s view the kind of future that Moscow is trying to offer Chechnya today is invariably associated with the nightmare of cleansing operations, concentration camps, and mass murder of civilians. The Russian reporter adds that while many Chechens try to flee their country, those who remain grow increasingly radical and isolated from the world.

John Dunlop, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and another participant of the AEI conference, agrees that while most Chechens are quite moderate and still wait for some kind of settlement with Russia, the younger generation may soon abandon any thought of compromise: “There is accumulating evidence that the younger Chechen fighters, those in their late teens and early twenties, are being radicalized and are turning to a variant of militant Islam. In this sphere, too, Russia may be running out of time.”

Russian officials claim that war in Chechnya is part of the global war on terrorism and that Chechen fighters have contacts with al-Qaida and with radical Islamist organizations. Aleksander Lukashevich, Senior Political Counselor at the Russian Embassy here in Washington, says his country is America's ally and will never negotiate with terrorists. He points out that when the catastrophe of the eleventh of September occurred, Russia “extended its hand in friendship and solidarity,” but makes no promises to ”the terrorists, the bandits who are trying to oppose the reconciliation within the Chechen society.”

The U-S government admits there are terrorist elements in Chechnya, though it hardly considers all Chechen fighters terrorists. It calls on both sides to find a political solution that would promote reconciliation in Chechnya as well as recognize the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

Frank Judd, a member of the British House of Lords, had investigated the Chechen conflict for the Council of Europe. He warns that the war actually increases the threat of global terrorism:

“If you looked for a policy designed to force young people into the arms of the extremists, to recruit for the extremists, the policy couldn't be much better than it is. The indiscriminate nature of this policy, the lack of human rights commitment in the policy, is driving the young in desperation into the arms of the extremists. Of course, there is the issue of counter-productivity on the other side as well, because when the other side is tempted into terrorist acts -- that doesn't help to build up concerned public opinion outside as well. Terrorism itself is not a way in which you win friends.”

Mr. Judd says that in the struggle with militant Islam, it is crucial to show that political solutions are possible. He believes this strengthens moderate Islamic leaders across the world. But many analysts say that both contenders seem locked in a stalemate and wonder whether they have any negotiating partners on the other side.

Neither Chechens nor the Russians seem able to reach a decisive victory in the field or to gain unconditional support abroad. Ilyas Akhmadov plays the role of a "foreign minister" in the unrecognized government of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. He says the recent elections in Chechnya offered a very limited opportunity for progress, but even this was squandered when Moscow handpicked its own candidate, Akhmad Khadyrov, who has no credibility in Chechnya. As a result, Chechnya was left without any mechanism to break the impasse. He says there are a number of plans of solving the Chechen dilemma, but the problem today is ”the lack of small opportunities that could initiate some kind of action.”

President Putin seems poised for a landslide victory in the presidential elections in May 2004. Some analysts believe that his second term in office can offer a chance to find a negotiated solution to the Chechen dilemma. Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, says the Russian President has consolidated his power and now may be able to pursue peace: “There is no doubt, especially after the very poor performance of all his potential contenders in the parliamentary elections, he will win the second election with a crushing majority. He will be more free to address this problem.”

Mr. Piontkovski cautions Americans against trying to apply too much pressure on President Putin. He should be allowed, he says, to handle the issue at his own pace. But other analysts suggest that peace is not possible without a much broader American and international involvement.