War in Chechnya

The war in Chechnya goes on, as the Kremlin continues to deny its very existence.


Sunday was Victory Day, when Russians, celebrate the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, and festivities were held all over
the country. It was supposed to be the perfect occasion
for the recently re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin
to project his vision of a strong, united Russia by
remembering one of the country’s greatest military triumphs.
Instead, an explosion in Grozny, during one of the many
Victory Day commemorations, served as a reminder of an altogether different war — the one in Chechnya, whose very
existence Kremlin denies. The assassination of Akhmed
Kadyrov, Moscow’s puppet-president of Chechnya reminded that the bombed-out region is still far from
being under Moscow’s control.

Kadyrov, a former cleric and rebel leader, fought against
the Russians in the first Chechen War between 1994 and 1996, but
shifted loyalties after the second Russian invasion in
1999. With an assist from Moscow, which pressured all his opponents to
withdraw their candidacies, Kadyrov won the republic’s
presidency in bogus elections held last October.

Not many Chechens will be shedding tears over Kadyrov. The ex-president used his power to further Moscow’s designs, terrorizing the republic’s population, most notably
by means of the 3,000-man militia headed by his son. As Irina Zvegelskaya, an expert at the Center
for Political and International Studies in Moscow puts it:

“Kadyrov made himself indispensible to
the Kremlin…He wasn’t much loved or respected by the
majority of Chechens, but there is no doubt that he imposed
a kind of order in Chechnya. He did this by using violence,
oppression and other very unpopular measures, but he was
able to deliver stability. With him gone, the whole program
is in crisis.”

The problem is that Kadyrov’s – and Putin’s — “order” is an illusion. The Kremlin has regained
control of television channels, and widespread
self-censorship among journalists has ensured that Russians
see, for the most part, what the government wants them to
see. Even so, extensive coverage of conferences between Kadyrov and
Putin and happy Chechen children going on field trips have not erased the reality of daily attacks on
Russian soldiers. The media’s silence has been in sharp
contrast to the critical coverage of and public
opposition the 1994-1996 Chechen War. In 1996, a ceasefire
between Moscow and the rebels was reached and Chechnya was
accorded self-rule. Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel leader who
was elected Chechnya’s president in 1997, was unable to
establish control over the republic’s militias — some of
which established ties to al-Qaeda and other
extremist Islamist groups abroad.

In 1999, apartment bombings in Moscow and
incursions into the neighboring republic of Daghestan by Chechen rebels translated into strong support for Putin, who
orchestrated the second Chechen war under the then President
Boris Yelstin. A number of Chechens believe that the
bombings and the Daghestan unrest were the work of Kremlin, merely a pretext to launch the second war — a charge Russian officials have furiously denied. Following
the First Chechen War, the rebels have increasingly resorted to
bombings, including suicide bombings, of government and
civilian targets in Chechnia and beyond — as was the case
with the February metro bombing in Moscow. The rebels want
the Russians and their Chechen puppets out of Chechnya —
this has remained a constant since 1994 and long before
then. Although in 1996 most Russians were willing to
swallow de-facto Chechen independence, the “Palestinization”
of Chechnya — with the suicide bombings and the collective
punishment of the civilian population that this entails — has
fundamentally transformed public opinion.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Chechen
civilians and tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have
been killed in the two wars. Leaked government
statistics provide a picture of a republic far from normal.
As Human Rights Watch reported on the
findings on one such government source:

“According to an unpublished report on criminal activity in
Chechnya, in 2002 1,132 civilians were killed, or between
five and eight times the murder rate for Russia, and between
ten and fifteen times the murder rate for Moscow.”

There are some 70,000 Russian troops in Chechnya right
now, and according to an estimate last year by one human
rights group, some

11, 000 have been killed so far in the recent war. The
Russian government, insisting that the situation has
normalized, has been closing down refugee camps in
neighboring Ingushetia, forcing the refugees to trade one
set of miserable living conditions for another. As

Human Rights Watch reports:

“During
the Chechnya conflict, now in its fifth year, tens of
thousands of civilians have fallen victim to abuses
perpetrated by both Russian forces and Chechen rebels. These
abuses include indiscriminate bombings and several
massacres, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances,
rape, torture and arbitrary detentions. The overwhelming
majority of these crimes remained uninvestigated and
unpunished.”

Kadyrov’s assassination is bound to bring about more such
abuses. Putin has already said that retribution will follow; immediately following the assassination, he promoted
Kadyrov’s son — the man responsible for some of the worst
human rights abuses in the republic — to the post of First
Deputy Prime Minister of Chechnya. As Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty
‘s

Andrei Babitskii put it:

“I think
that, of course, a vendetta will take place…I think that
now, all of Kadyrov’s forces, who already acted very cruelly
— much more cruelly than the federal forces — they of
course will start a hunt. In most cases this hunt will be
motivated by revenge. It will aim to avenge the death of a
political leader as well, the death of a relative, a man who
belonged to the same clan, if you want.”

Having invested so much power in
Kadyrov and given him a free-hand in eliminating his
political opponents, it won’t be easy for Moscow to find a
suitable replacement.

Since the second Iraq War, criticism by Western
governments of the abuses in Chechnya have subsided, in
large part because of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In the case of the United States, looking the other way on
Chechnya has been repaid with Putin’s relatively subdued
critique of the occupation of Iraq, which is deeply
unpopular in Russia. Many point to September 11 as the
turning point that allowed Bush and Putin to use the label
of “international terrorism” to paint their enemies as one
and the same. The links between al-Qaeda and some of the
Chechen rebels are real – which is more than can be said of
the Saddam-Qaeda link. Unfortunately, Putin’s propensity
to label Chechen leaders who don’t agree with him as
terrorists — whether they are not — and the Russian
military’s brutal conduct in the republic have only
won more converts to al-Qaeda’s cause. As

Andrei Piontkovsky, Director of Institute for Strategic
Studies in Moscow, writes in Washington Post:

“The Russian leadership constantly
reiterates that it is not fighting Chechen separatists but
international terrorists, and this has finally become a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to the methods with which
we have waged this war, we have turned practically the whole
population of Chechnya into enemies and created for
metaphysical terrorism a huge reservoir of living bombs —
desperate people ready to carry out the plans of the
terrorists.”

The E.U., which has been a much more outspoken critic of
Russian tactics in Chechnya has, like the U.S., been
consumed by the Iraqi invasion and occupation. The recent
E.U. enlargement — a matter on which Russian cooperation
was necessary – has also deflected attention from Chechnya.

With the photos of American soldiers torturing Iraqi
prisoners at Abu Ghraib broadcast all over the world, the
State Department’s Human Rights report has already been
delayed. When it does come out, abuses by Russian forces and
Chechen rebels are not likely to be high priority for either
Western governments or media organizations. Now, more than
ever, Washington’s lecturing of Moscow and others on the
need to respect human rights are going to be scoffed at as
highly hypocritical.

Putin said that “Akhmad Kadyrov passed away on 9 May,
on the day of our national holiday, the day of victory. And
he left victorious as well.” It was indicative of the sort
doublespeak that has been become the hallmark of government statements on Chechnya. The Chechnya that
Kadyrov left is a bombed out, destitute, and lawless.
Chechnya is a feeding ground for terrorism that has spread
far beyond it. If Kadyrov left “victorious, ” it was only
in they eyes of those who would accept nothing less than his
death and Moscow’s ouster from the region as a victory.