Sep 23, 2003

Chechnya: the hidden genocide

Presentation of the Italian publication of the book Chechnya: 10 keys to understand by the Chechnya Committee
Can it really be that for the last fifteen years, that is since the fall of the Berlin Wall, history has repeated itself time after time? Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo come back to mind. Each time Europe waited. And evaded the issue. Finally deciding to intervene, but only after thousands and thousands of deaths. Rwanda, too, comes back to mind. This time Europe decided to intervene, but then changed its mind. With the result that 800,000 people died.
During these dark years there has also been the Russian invasion of Chechnya, a small Caucasian republic that declared its independence in 1992. The first Chechen War caused around 100,000 deaths, 10% of the population, before the Russian President Yeltsin, as the elections were nearing and he was under pressure both from his own people and from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was taking part in the negotiations, decided to give General Lebed the task of reaching a peace agreement with the Chechen resistance.
For three years, from 1996 to 1999, those Chechens who had snatched a heroic victory that gave them de facto independence, although at a massive cost in terms of human life and material destruction, tried to reconstruct their devastated country. But Chechnya was once again completely forgotten. No aid was forthcoming. Neither from the Russians, despite the terms of the peace agreements, nor from the international community.
Despite the victory in the 1997 elections, validated by the OSCE, of Aslan Maskhadov, the representative of the moderate, lay aspirations of the Chechen people, Islamic extremist groups close to the disreputable military leader Shamil Bassaev, secretly helped by Middle Eastern fundamentalist circles, as well as by sectors of the Russian secret services and the Kremlin, eventually rendered the situation uncontrollable.
At this point the scenario was ready. A couple of bombs in buildings in and around Moscow and Bassaev's sadly famous raid in Daghestan served as the trigger for an operation that had actually been planned for a long time: the arrival of the "providential man". The Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in the middle of the run-up to the presidential elections, gave the go-ahead to the armed forces, who had never "digested" the humiliation suffered in 1996, thus opening the way to another invasion and occupation of Chechnya.

This operation, conducted with an "iron hand", should have lasted just a few days, at most a few weeks. It has been continuing for four years. Four years, with another 100,000 deaths, yet another decimation. Grozny, razed to the ground, has become acquainted once again with Russian "peace and order", to the guilty silence of the international community.

At a strictly strategic level, the Russian armed forces drew a number of lessons from the first war. In the strategy of the second invasion, they introduced two elements that are essential to an understanding of the current situation: the control of news and information and of the "pacified" territories.
First lesson: no Western TV means no war. The Russian authorities hastened, in the very first days of new occupation, to issue a series of regulations restricting access for journalists to the Chechen Republic. There is no explicit ban, but a combination of restrictive measures, bureaucratic obstacles, and the creation of a climate of total insecurity through the repeated kidnapping and murder of Westerners. At the same time, the Kremlin made sure that the few Russian TV channels still not in its control would begin to toe the line: the very channels that had reported on the first war, allowing the Russian people to follow what was happening. With the exception of one or two journalists, commentators like Paolo Mieli, Adriano Sofri and Barbara Spinelli, a small number of freelance TV reporters and the representatives of the few Russian and Western NGOs present who have not been killed, like the Radio Radicale reporter Antonio Russo, or who have not yielded to blackmail and threats, showing courage, cunning and determination, no Western eye can now grasp the extent of the daily tragedy of the Chechen people.
Four years after the beginning of the second war, one thing is sure: the Kremlin has to all effects and purposes won the information war. A very convenient victory for the Western advocates of "stability at any cost with Moscow", who can continue thanks to this total news black-out, without any risk of contradiction, to repeat the line dear to Mr Putin: that Russia is merely fighting the battle - a perfectly legitimate battle! - against fundamentalist terrorism.

Second lesson: there is no point fighting by military means against a highly mobile and determined Chechen resistance that can exploit its knowledge of the terrain. So "pacification", which would be too costly to obtain through a military confrontation, must be achieved through terror. The new strategy has many advantages: losses of Russian soldiers are greatly reduced; the political and financial benefits deriving from the arrest of Chechen civilians and from ransoms for survivors, and even for the dead, increase; the profits from racketeering, the illegal control of oil resources and traffics of all types also increase in the same way. Moreover, this policy, implemented with the backing of minority Chechen groups, helps to divide Chechen society as a whole, threatening to delegitimise the authorities elected in 1997 and creating the premises for a full-fledged civil war.

All these Russian and Western "behind-the scenes manoeuvres", now difficult if not impossible for Russian, European or American citizens to understand, are analysed in detail in this brief volume, which reveals and allows us to see the true nature of the cynicism and cruelty of the Russian policy, the hypocrisy and cowardice of the Western governments and mass media, the failings and errors of the legitimate Chechen authorities, and the incredible suffering and the equally incredible powers of resistance of the Chechen people.

What can be done about it?
On the basis of what this book recounts and teaches, one question should automatically present itself to each reader. What must we do, what can we do to stop what is proving more and more every day to be a case of real genocide on the borders of Europe, within Europe? Right from the determined attempts of the Russian empire to take control over the Caucasus, over 200 years ago, the Chechen people has experienced repeated massacres. The most recent, before the one which is currently taking place, dates back to 23 February 1944, when Stalin had the whole Chechen population deported overnight to the Republics of Central Asia. With the result that 200,000 people (30% of the population at the time) died, first in the sealed wagons, and then following the deportation. Over the last ten years 200,000 Chechens (20% of the population) have died; 300,000 (30% of the population) have been forced to abandon their homes and take refuge around Chechnya or in the refugee camps in Ingushetia and elsewhere; tens of thousands have survived the sadly famous "filter camps" after being mutilated, traumatised and tortured.

At the end of the book, the authors propose a number of possible forms of solidarity.
At a political level, however, there are very few feasible proposals. Yet in such a gloomy context, illuminated only by the silent, stoical resistance of tens of thousands of Chechen civilians and by the dedication of a few hundred individuals in the West, there is a small ray of hope. Last March, in Washington, the Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov presented a peace plan that proposes the establishment of an interim United Nations administration in Chechnya. In other words, an "improved Kosovo Plan". A "Kosovo Plan" because it involves both the disarmament of all the Chechen forces and the withdrawal of Russian military and civilian forces, and their replacement by a UN administration. "Improved" because unlike the plan drawn up for Kosovo the Akhmadov Plan also provides, at the end of the United Nations mandate, for elections in which the Chechen people will be called on to decide the future status of Chechnya and to elect a government.
A plan which satisfies both the security interests of the Russian Federation and the legitimate aspirations of the Chechen people, and which assigns the international community, in particular the United Nations, the position and the role that it should have assumed long ago.
How could the international community expect that a people that over the centuries has repeatedly had to face the genocidal policy of the Kremlin would not pronounce itself freely on its own future, to decide whether to continue to be part of the Russian Federation, in the framework of increased autonomy, or to break away from Russia, if it believed this to be the only solution capable of providing real and lasting guarantees of security?

But the real innovation in the Akhmadov Plan lies elsewhere, in the goal which it sets out: the establishment of democracy and the rule of law as the means to satisfy the interests of Russia, the requirements of the international community, and the aspirations of the Chechen people. Democracy and the rule of law in Chechnya are the most effective antidote to the threat of moves towards fundamentalist or extremist policies, and to risks of instability. The innovation also lies in the method proposed to achieve this goal: the establishment of an interim United Nations administration: allowing sufficient time for democracy to take root in Chechnya, for the wounds of the war between Chechens and Russians, and to some extent among Chechens themselves, to heal, and to make sure that the war is not followed by civil war. What Ilyas Akhmadov proposes is the translation into operative terms of the only scenario that can bring an end to the war, check the influence of Islamist factions and hold off the militaristic and mafia drift of the Russian powers, countering the hypocritical and illusory pretext of the "war on terrorism" with a policy of "anti-terror peace" and "anti-terrorist peace", to use the words of André Glucksmann.
In the immediate future, the Akhmadov Plan also represents the possibility to recreate a space for political and non-violent action for the Chechens, both in Chechnya and in the diaspora, the possibility to loosen the vice of isolation that grips President Maskhadov and all the Chechens who reject the false alternative between Putin and Bassaev.
Finally, for all those who continue to hope in an international community organised on the basis of the principles of democracy and the rule of law, the establishment of an interim administration would give the United Nations the role it should always have whenever crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, anywhere in the world, become the "rule of cohabitation" against rights, democracy and freedom.

This is an invaluable book, indispensable for anyone who wishes to find out more and understand, and not to resign themselves to the requiem for an entire people being performed by the some of the world's powers in a peculiar dance of very different but converging interests: the fight against terrorism, stability at any cost, oil, gas, financial interests, investments, the laundering of dirty money…
A tragedy in which what is at stake is also the destiny and the very survival of Europe as a community of peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

Olivier Dupuis, Radical Member of the European Parliament
Brussels, 10 July 2003

(*) Published by La Découverte, Paris. Preface by Sophie Shihab. Authors: Joseph Dato, responsible of MDM for North Caucasus; Juliane Falloux, responsible for East Europe of FIDH ; Anne Le Huérou, specialist of Russia (CADIS, EHESS-CNRS) ; Bluenn Isambard, specialist of Russia (INALCO) ; Alexandra Koulaeva, permanent member of FIDH, member of Memorial Saint-Petersbourg ; Aude Merlin, specialist of Caucasus (IEP, Paris) ; Amandine Regamey, specialist of Russia (IEP, Paris) ; Guylaine Saffrais, journalist, specialist of Russia; Mylène Sauloy, journalist, director of several films on Chechnya; Florent Schaeffer, permanent member of CEDETIM ; Silvia Serrano, specialist of Caucasus (Observatory of Post Soviet States, INALCO).