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Chechen War:  Struggle for Independence or International Terror? - 2004-09-15

Once a separatist movement, the Chechen struggle against Russia has become more complex and increasingly tied to international terrorism. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke discussed the roots of the conflict and possible solutions with American analysts.

War and upheaval have marked Russian-Chechen relations since the 19th century when imperial Russia conquered the Caucasus.

The Chechen, a Muslim population in the northern mountain range who resisted the longest, have been mistrusted by the Soviet government and were treated especially harshly during the Stalin era. So for more than a century they cherished the hope of regaining independence. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, they claimed it. But the status of the autonomous province has made Chechnya legally ineligible for secession. Russia also refused to consider it for fear of inspiring similar movements among numerous other ethnic groups.

“This clash between Russian territorial integrity and the Chechen pro-independence movement is what is at the heart ultimately of the Chechen war,” says Anatol Lieven, the author of the book Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power.

The Russian army invaded Chechnya in 1994, bombing its capital and causing thousands of deaths before the rebels forced it to withdraw in 1996. But with a weak government of its own, this quasi-independent Chechnya descended into chaos and lawlessness, a haven for smugglers, slave traders, kidnappers, illegal arms sellers and international terrorists. Organized crime and ethnic violence have spread from Chechnya to previously peaceful neighboring regions. Chechens have committed terrorist attacks throughout Russia.

Anatol Lieven says these could hardly be considered a struggle for independence: “It was an independent Chechnya, in effect, which was then taken over by these radicals and Islamists. They had the opportunity, if they had wished, to build up Chechnya as a modern state and society. They failed to do that. Instead, it became a base for criminality, radicalism and terrorism.”

But human rights advocates say this is no excuse for Moscow’s repression of ordinary Chechen citizens, which resumed when Russian troops returned in 1999.

Diederik Lohman, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, says: “We are still receiving reports on a very regular basis of Chechens being detained by Russians and subsequently disappearing. In some cases, relatives find mutilated dead bodies in unmarked graves by the sides of roads. We are continuing to get reports on torture, on executions, on looting. Basically, we are looking at a situation that for the last five years has hardly changed.”

President Vladimir Putin has reacted angrily to critics in the West suggesting Russia should negotiate with the separatists. After the Beslan school siege, in which children were the target of terror, he announced tough new measures, including pre-emptive attacks on terrorist strongholds anywhere in the world. Yet Mr. Putin has rejected any notion of letting international peacekeepers into Chechnya, indicating he considers the conflict a domestic issue.

Matthew Evangelista, professor of government at Cornell University, says Mr. Putin is inconsistent: “If it’s a domestic problem and they can deal with it without committing vast human rights abuses, fine. Then it’s a domestic problem. But if they want to call it international, then why not get more involvement by the international community.”

Many Russians today say they would gladly give up Chechnya for the sake of peace. But Anatol Lieven warns that could cause an upheaval throughout the Caucasus.

“If you pull out of Chechnya, the only way of isolating that region is to pull out of Dagestan and Ingushetia as well, says Mr. Lieven. “Then you have created a massive out-of-control area in the region which it is extremely likely would fall both into ethnic conflict and bits of which would be taken over again by Islamic terrorists and extremists. This would be a massive problem for the West and not just for Russia.” Anatol Lieven says this does not mean Chechens must give up their dream of independence forever. But their first priority should be to rid their land of terrorists and establish a viable autonomy.

The Russian government, for its part, must protect Chechen civilians from terror, whether it is perpetrated by Russian soldiers or by local thugs. Analysts say Mr. Putin is right to refuse to negotiate with the terrorists, but he must engage in talks with moderate Chechens. Some also say he should not resist international help in the Caucasus because Russia needs it now.