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No One Is Winning in Chechnya

September 02, 2004|Rajan Menon | Rajan Menon teaches international relations at Lehigh University and is a New America Foundation fellow.

The last several days have been gruesome ones for Russia. On Aug. 24, two airliners crashed, apparently blown up by terrorists laden with explosives. On Tuesday, a female suicide bomber -- most likely one of the "black widows," women who have lost husbands, brothers or sons in Chechnya's war against Russia -- blew herself up at a Moscow subway station, killing nine bystanders.

The latest incident of bloodshed is even more chilling. In Beslan, in the southern republic of North Ossetia, 15 armed guerrillas commandeered a school, taking up to 300 hostages -- many of them children. At least eight people have been reported killed. The rebels threatened to kill 50 children for each guerrilla killed in any Russian rescue operation and 20 for each one that was wounded. The savage arithmetic testifies to the horrors that Chechnya's secessionist war has spawned without let-up.

The headlines rightly publicize acts of terror committed by Chechens and Islamic groups linked to them -- a non-Chechen group, the Islambuli Brigades, named for one of the men who assassinated President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981, claimed responsibility for the downed airplanes and the subway explosion -- but acts of brutality are committed daily by Russian forces in Chechnya.

Intermittent security dragnets pick up young men from towns and villages, often simply because they are the right age to join the Chechen resistance. Many are never seen again, or they are found dead by the roadside, dumped there after having been tortured and executed.

Others survive but are consigned to "filtration camps" and thrown into deep, dark, dank pits in which they live, eat and excrete.

Human rights groups have documented that rape remains a part of Russia's merciless war, in which military operations pay scant heed to the safety of innocent civilians.

Neither side is winning. Despite President Vladimir V. Putin's boasts to the contrary, Russia is no closer to having a government to which it can entrust Chechnya than when Putin's war began in 1999. (Boris Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya in 1994 but was forced to withdraw them in 1996 in the face of stiff Chechen resistance and mounting opposition to the war among Russians.)

Tens of thousands of Russian troops will have to fight the dogged resistance indefinitely, many more Russians and Chechens (both combatants and civilians) will die and the cycle of terror will continue to turn relentlessly.

Chechnya's recent presidential elections, won by the Kremlin's favorite, Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov, the former Chechen interior minister, will not bring calm. The Chechen resistance sees Alkhanov as a quisling similar to his predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a bomb attack in May after being elected last October. Like Kadyrov, Alkhanov is a marked man. No government he leads would survive without Russian bayonets.

Nor was the election clean: There were widespread reports of irregularities, and many Chechens simply boycotted the polls in disgust. (Moscow reported a 76% voter turnout.)

The rebels are no closer to victory either. Their battles against the Russian army have made Chechnya a vast graveyard. There is no sign that Putin will withdraw as Yeltsin did. The rebels are so divided that Aslan Maskhadov, the last freely elected Chechen president, does not head a unified movement. In particular, he has little control over the hard-liners, such as Shamil Basayev.

The only hope is for Putin to change strategy and announce that he is ready to talk. He should then offer Maskhadov a deal under which Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya and are replaced by peacekeeping forces drawn from countries acceptable to both sides.

The breathing space should be used to repatriate the thousands of Chechen refugees now languishing in neighboring Ingushetia and to draw up a referendum on an autonomy plan that gives a future elected Chechen government authority over all areas except foreign policy.

The vast majority of Chechens yearn for peace and would approve such a solution; the extremists would not, but they would then be isolated.

There's no guarantee this approach would work. But the alternative to a bold gambit for peace is clear: more acts of terror (which are now increasingly occurring in the Russian heartland); more Chechens and Russians perishing in Chechnya's killing fields; extremists on both sides looming larger; Russia's democratic aspirations, already endangered by Putin authoritarianism, being dashed as national security and the war on terrorism are invoked to reduce citizens' freedom and to expand the state's license; and the increasing involvement of Islamic militants from the outside in terrorist campaigns against Russia.

If Chechen and Russian leaders continue on their present course, or await a foolproof plan for peace, they will have even more blood on their hands.

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