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Caucasus Conundrum

As the people worry, Putin thrives on war.

November 25, 2002|Anna Politkovskaya | Anna Politkovskaya is a special correspondent for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Moscow and author of "A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya" (Harvill Press). This article was translated by Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau.

Chechnya is a sickness for Russia.

We may pretend to be happy at times, pretend that our economy is not stagnant. We may choose to be glad that we do not have to line up for sausages and eggs anymore. But it all seems irrelevant when you realize that it is the war in the North Caucasus that controls life in Russia, a war that has been going on intermittently for eight years, a war that has claimed the lives of thousands of our citizens. And no one even knows for sure how many victims there are because no one has counted.

The war enthrones the Kremlin leadership. It fires and appoints top-ranking officials. It cripples the judiciary to such an extent that, instead of being a democratic mechanism to ensure adversarial contests, courts turn into a doormat used by the authorities for their own convenience. The free press is being destroyed by this war. And on top of all this, today, after the October terrorist act in Moscow, we also have to live in a fear that does not let us go even for a minute.

An old acquaintance of mine called once and said: "Weird. There were lots of people out in the streets over the weekend, and no terrorist act. Do you happen to know why not?"

An hour later, another friend called, with almost the same words and the same feeling: "I have been waiting for a terrorist act, but they will probably again get us where we least expect it."

This is exactly the fear that has become hard-wired into our genetic code: The war that to John Q. Public had seemed rather remote has now crept into every household. For the thinking majority, life after the mass hostage-taking at a Moscow theater is a feeling of being up in the air around the clock: Will a new act of terror occur? And where? And how can all this be stopped?

Even President Vladimir V. Putin -- he who tries to prove to the world that he is such a strong and dashing guy -- has publicly hushed and rebuked everybody and raised his voice to say no, do not hold your breath. That it will not stop, there will be no peace talks because we are fighting "international terrorism."

So is peace in Chechnya possible at all? And what kind of peace is possible now, after Putin's statements that there will be no peace until all terrorists are crushed and all those who even dare to breathe a word about it will be reckoned among international terrorists?

All wars end in peace. History has failed to come up with any other outcome. Moreover, peace, as history teaches us again, always starts with the same thing: The warring sides, although they have killed lots of people, sit down at the negotiating table and face each other. This is what will happen in Russia too. Yet it is unclear when, exactly. And it is this "when" that is the rub.

Some in Russia say, "There will be peace when the military wants it." Others say, "When Putin needs it." I support a different point of view.

Putin is indeed the pragmatist that the West believes him to be. However, the naive West thinks that Putin's pragmatism is for the sake of the country he leads. Instead, Putin's pragmatism is, first and foremost, for his own sake.

Today's regime in Russia, as personified first and foremost by Putin, is interested only in power -- to keep it, consolidate and augment it, and do it in such a way that opponents would not even be able to raise their heads.

As far as the current Chechnya war is concerned, Putin practices exactly this pragmatism of personal power to the highest degree, which in fact is barefaced cynicism. Putin does not care about civilian casualties (in more than three years of the war he has not once expressed condolences to the families of the killed Chechens) or even the thousands of victims among the military who perish in Chechnya or die of wounds in hospitals. All that interests him in the war is deriving the benefit that will guarantee his reelection for a second term.

What do I mean by this? It is common knowledge that the Russian people are irrational by nature. The majority of them do not require candidates running for offices to provide clear-cut economic programs. In fact, the people are even slightly irritated, as opinion polls show, when a candidate is too intelligent -- or at least more intelligent than the mass. At the same time, Russian people love macho -- they love brutality, demonstrations of strong-handed policies and tough moves made for show.

I am sure Putin and the new team of spin doctors being knocked together to run the 2004 presidential campaign are saving "peace in Chechnya" as a tidbit for that campaign. A "strong Putin" will again be shown as a person who had the guts to launch the war even before he became president, as the president who allegedly broke international terrorism in the North Caucasus and, finally, as someone who managed to "make peace," no matter how hard it was to initiate peace talks.

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