Chechnya - the forgotten conflict?

Posted in Russia | 15-Oct-03 | Author: Rado Petkov

The ongoing conflict in Chechnya has produced two full-blown wars and taken more than 150,000 lives over the past decade. Yet despite periodic calls for international intervention from human rights organizations and occasional media scrutiny, Chechnya has been recently taken off the agenda of the international community and relegated to a Russian internal matter. Eager to secure Russia’s cooperation in the war on terrorism and improve access to Russia’s energy resources as an alternative to Gulf oil, the U.S. administration seems to have given Kremlin a blank-check in dealing with the insurgence in the breakaway republic. European leaders also appear to be more concerned with Russia’s stability and uninterrupted supply of natural gas and oil to the continent than with human rights violations.

Putin’s administration has masterfully seized on the post-September 11th aversion to terrorism and has defined the Chechen conflict as anti-state terrorism, sponsored by Islamic radicals. The infiltration of the Chechen resistance by Wahhabi fundamentalists has not helped the Chechens’ cause. Nor have terrorist acts such as the seizure of a Moscow theatre last October by a group of suicide bombers. Yet there is more to this conflict than Islamic terrorism versus the civilized world. There are natural and just grievances by a population that has been abused by the Russian military and misused by corrupt local leaders and war profiteers. There are also oil pipelines that are of strategic importance to Russia’s export capacity and to the region’s economic well-being.

Peace and rebuilding in Chechnya would be impossible to achieve through pretense of self-governance orchestrated in rigged elections or through annihilation or collapse, somehow, of the other side. Merely a week after the farcical presidential elections on October 5th, guerrillas killed nine Russian soldiers and the Russian artillery pounded suspected rebel positions in several areas of the republic. Russia cannot let Chechnya go, if only for the sake of the pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Ukraine and Western Europe. Chechen guerrillas cannot push the Russian army out, if only because of its sheer size. Compromise solutions, which lead to authentic autonomy and genuine economic opportunity for both sides, are on call here. The international community must be clear that one-size-fits-all model of “terrorists versus the free world” can sweep under the carpet legitimate grievances and booby-trap the future of the region. International leaders should engage Russian and local decision makers in a dialogue facilitated by organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe and urge the two sides to realize that peace and economic gains go hand in hand and can be achieved only through a genuine autonomy for the republic. Towards this goal, Russia and the international community should seek out true representatives of the Chechen population, not corrupt warlords, and cultivate local self-governance bodies that could gradually take over the administration and policing of the republic. Chechen leaders should cut any ties with Islamic militants while the Russian military should pullback and hand over security to elected local representatives, aided by international observers. The Chechen crisis represents an opportunity for Europe to step in and urge Russia to deal with its “internal matters” in a way respectful of human rights and conducive to her recognition as a political and economic partner.