Western coverage of Russia's latest invasion of Chechnya has been hopelessly one-sidedby Anatol Lieven / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Russia’s latest intervention in Chechnya is a crime and a blunder, and the bombardment of civilian targets far from the front line is indefensible. Military occupation will lead only to an endless terrorist war-Russia will never be able to stabilise its rule over Chechnya.
That said, any honest commentary on the d?b?cle must also stress that the Russians, and the Chechens’ Caucasian neighbours, have suffered much at the hands of Chechens over the past two years; the situation could not have continued. This aspect of the problem was spelt out in recent interviews (by myself and other journalists) with Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. Mingled with the condemnation of the Russian killing of civilians were bitter complaints about the anarchy into which Chechnya had fallen. We were especially struck by the hostility of the great majority of refugees to the Chechen commander Shamil Basayev (hero of the last war) for his alliance with the “Wahabi” Muslim extremists which led to the attack on Russian Daghestan in August, and for his failure and that of other commanders to support President Aslan Maskhadov (elected with 65 per cent support in 1997) in trying to create order in Chechnya.
By ignoring this reality, most western commentary becomes empty rhetoric. Imagine for a moment that the Chechens were living on the territory of a western ally, and had revolted-and then imagine the torrents of anti-Chechen prose about “terrorists” and “criminals” that would have flown from the pages of the newspapers now excoriating Russia. The recent writing of Anne Applebaum, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others is motivated not by real sympathy for the Chechens, but by pure hostility to Moscow. Contrast Brzezinski’s support for the Chechens with some of his other positions: his advocacy of early Turkish membership of the EU, without reference to Ankara’s record in the field of human rights; or his advocacy of US support for the ruthless dictatorship of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan-regarded as a bulwark against Islamic revolution. Have any of these people ever bothered to mention that, in contrast to the Kurds of Turkey, the larger Russian minorities all enjoy full political and cultural autonomy in their own republics, and that this option has always been open to Chechnya?
Several commentators have taken it as almost self-evident that the Russian secret services must have carried out the bomb attacks in Moscow and elsewhere in September. We must indeed keep an open mind on this issue in the absence of definite proof. But given the presence in Chechnya of Arab-led Islamist revolutionaries, and given the record and experience of such people in the field of terrorism, it is ludicrous to suggest, as one newspaper did, that they would have lacked the expertise or the will to carry out such attacks. Long before the Moscow attacks there had been a whole series of bombings and ambushes of Russian forces and civilian targets in the Caucasus.
Like many other journalists who covered the last Chechen war, I developed an intense admiration for the Chechens’ qualities of courage, panache and hospitality. One reviewer of my book on the conflict even accused me of being in love with them. All the same, study of the anthropological and historical literature on the Chechens, coupled with an examination of their record in the field of organised crime, left me with no doubt that resistance to authority and “raiding” are integral features of Chechen tradition. I hoped that some of the spirit of sacrifice and cooperation generated by Chechen society during the war would carry over into the peace, so that men like Basayev would work with President Maskhadov to create the basis for a working Chechen state-something which President Dudayev so singularly failed to achieve between 1991 and 1994. In this I was utterly mistaken.
Any sensible analysis of the Chechen catastrophe must recognise that it has had two central aspects. The first is the refusal of the Yeltsin regime in Russia to grant full Chechen independence, and the mixture of ruthlessness and incompetence with which Russia has twice intervened in Chechnya. The second aspect has been the collapse in Chechnya, since the revolution of 1991, of the institutions and habits of the modern state. As a result, Russians, Daghestanis and Ingush have found themselves living next to a society which more closely resembles Somalia than anything in Europe. Suggestions that the record of organised crime in Chechnya is no worse than in Russia are grotesque. Russia is a weak and corrupt modern state; since 1991, and especially since 1996, Chechnya has been an anarchy.
The more than 1,300 kidnappings by Chechens of Russians, other Caucasians and foreigners (often ending in murder) in the past two years, has led to a real fury against the Chechens not only from Russians, but from Ingush and Daghestanis, too. Western diplomats negotiating the release of hostages are convinced that senior members of Maskhadov’s regime-although not Maskhadov himself-profit from kidnapping and protect the kidnappers.
Brzezinski has compared Chechnya to Algeria under the French, and suggested that like France’s withdrawal from Algeria, Russia would be strengthened if it let Chechnya go. This is true, but it ignores one big difference: the sea.
To make a parallel between Chechnya after the Russian withdrawal of 1996 and Algeria, you would have to imagine that within a few months of the French withdrawal, Algerian corsairs had reverted to pre-colonial traditions and were launching slave raids on the coasts of Provence and Languedoc, helped by an Islamist group dedicated to creating an Islamic revolution in Marseilles as the first step towards driving France out of the whole of the Midi. In these circumstances, no considerations of past French crimes against the Algerians would have prevented a ferocious French response. None of this could actually happen to France, because the Mediterranean rolls between it and north Africa.
Any stable settlement in Chechnya must have three aspects. The first is an end to the war, Russian military withdrawal to a security zone north of the Terek River (which is in any case old Russian territory), and the eventual grant of formal Chechen independence. We may wish that after 1991 the Chechens had, like the Volga Tatars, negotiated enhanced autonomy within the Russian Federation, but after the suffering and hatred caused by two invasions, it is too late to hope for this.
The second point is that sooner or later Moscow must negotiate with Maskhadov. Although he has failed to get a grip on the chaos within Chechnya over the past two years, he does favour accommodation with Moscow.
Finally, any settlement requires the creation of state authority in Chechnya, and the departure (say, for Afghanistan) of the warlords-including Basayev-who since 1996 have made Chechnya a source of misery for her neighbours and most of her own people.
None of this is probable, and the first moves have to come from Russia. Western governments should go on urging Moscow to do this. But if we want to influence Russia, we also have to recognise that Chechnya has caused serious problems in recent years, to which Russia and any other state would have been compelled to react.