Bombings Aren't the Whole Story

* Chechen terrorist attacks grab the headlines, but

Russia's brutality also fuels this nasty war

By Rajan Menon, Rajan Menon is a professor of

international relations at Lehigh University.,1,4348779.story

This weekend's carnage in Moscow — where two Chechen

women laden with explosives blew themselves up at a

music festival, killing 16 and wounding 50 — is

further evidence that the Chechen resistance (itself a

fragmented and fractious gaggle with varying political

orientations) contains an extremist wing that hews to

a militant version of Islam and which has embraced

suicide bombings to further its cause.

Last October, extremists took hostages in a Moscow

theater, an episode that ended with the deaths of 129

captives and 41 Chechen commandos, most of them killed

by a gas that Russian security forces piped into the

building to incapacitate the guerrillas. There have

also been four other suicide bombings in Chechnya and

the neighboring republic of North Ossetia and a spate

of assassinations of local officials in Chechnya.

Chechens in one form or another have been fighting the

Russian state ever since they were defeated and

annexed to the empire in the 19th century. The current

struggle between Chechen separatists and Russia dates

to the last days of the Soviet Union.

Much of what the outside world knows about Chechnya

today comes from the Russian authorities. They have

shaped the story line successfully by portraying the

struggle as a war against terrorists and Islamic

fanatics, and by linking the militants with Al Qaeda.

This has played particularly well in Washington since

9/11: Criticism of Russia's brutal war has all but

ended, and President Vladimir Putin has been feted as

an ally in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

Not that the Kremlin's version of Chechnya is entirely

false. Has a segment of the Chechen resistance engaged

in terrorism? Undeniably; there's no other way to

describe suicide bombings that kill and maim

civilians. Are the planners and perpetrators of such

horrors motivated by a radical variant of Islam? Yes,

by their own admission. Is Al Qaeda operating in

Chechnya? Quite possibly, but we can't know for sure

given the tightness with which the Russians control

access to Chechnya.

In addition to shutting out reporters, the Kremlin's

increasing control of Russian radio and television

under Putin has resulted in sanitized stories from the

front that emphasize military victories and progress

toward a political solution. Recently, Russia

terminated the Chechen mission of the Organization for

Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it continues

to throw up obstacles to keep U.N. observers out.

Western human rights organizations are denied

permission to operate in Chechnya.

Consequently, the Kremlin's portrayal of the Chechen

issue as a straightforward case of terrorism has

gradually stuck. This is a distortion. Chechnya has

certainly come to resemble hell, but the nature of

Russia's campaign, which features arbitrary

detentions, late-night abductions, torture,

executions, rape, theft and bribery, is a major reason

why. The Russian judicial system has discredited

itself with its abysmal record of bringing to justice

the soldiers involved in such brutality.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 60 Chechens (mostly

young men) are abducted each month. Russian officials

blame Chechen extremists, but the contention that

bands of masked men drive unhindered through territory

controlled by Russian forces to carry out late-night

kidnappings is absurd. Those swept up rarely return.

Forty-nine mass graves containing a total of 3,000

bodies have been discovered.

Meanwhile, Chechnya is in ruin. A generation of

Chechen children is growing up knowing nothing but

fear, displacement and poverty. Not a few are orphans.

Some 200,000 Chechens — out of a total population of

roughly 1 million — are dirt-poor refugees, mainly in

neighboring Ingushetia.

Because the Kremlin is eager to show that normalcy is

returning, the refugees in Ingushetia face various

obstacles — the denial of registration for residency

and the withholding of social services —to returning

to their homeland, which remains mired in war.

Chechens living in Moscow are routinely attacked by

thugs, swept up in police dragnets and denied housing.

None of these injustices justifies suicide bombings,

but they do reveal a side of Chechnya's saga

unfamiliar to most Westerners.

By waging a war that has brutalized civilians, the

Russian government has cultivated an endless supply of

cold-eyed individuals capable of suicide bombings; it

is ensuring that reasonable Chechens with whom

negotiations are possible are marginalized (if not

eliminated) and that the much-vaunted signs of

progress in Chechnya (such as the March referendum on

Chechnya's autonomy) are meaningless. What's required

is a federal treaty that gives substantial power to

the Chechen Republic, leaving only defense and foreign

policy in Moscow's hands.

Chechnya validates the observation that ethnic

conflicts are rarely solved, only managed. Innocent

Chechens and Russians are caught in a pitiless war

waged on both sides by people for whom moderation and

compromise are dirty words — and truth an expendable

luxury. This bodes ill for Russia's economic and

democratic prospects, not to mention for the thousands

of Chechens languishing in refugee camps. Amid all the

uncertainty about Chechnya, just about the only

certainty is that Saturday's massacre in Moscow will

not be the last of its kind.


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