The only hope for ending the Chechen nightmare

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The Independent Culture
FIGHTING BETWEEN imperial Russia and the Chechens in the 19th century lasted on and off for some six decades - and the way things look at the moment, the 21st century will be no different. Historically speaking, every time Russian power has faltered, the Chechens have struck for independence. Of course, there have been periods of relative peace - but these have generally proved to be mere truces before the next war, whether of Russian conquest or Chechen rebellion.

The West's room for action is limited. Western governments should put strong pressure on Moscow to allow international agencies to help the Chechen refugees, since Russia is obviously both unwilling and unable to do so itself.

Without international aid, it seems likely that thousands of people will freeze and starve to death this winter. Coupled with aid should be an insistence that Moscow open the Ingush border to refugees, to end the horrible scenes we have seen in recent days. Humanitarian concerns aside, it cannot be in the interests of any sane Russian policy to pin civilians in Chechnya, where they will have no choice but to support the Chechen fighters.

The West should also push hard for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to be given a role in Chechnya comparable to the one accorded to it last time, when it arranged the negotiations between Chechen and Russian officials that paved the way for the Khasavyurt Accord, which ended the war.

The presence of international organisations also did something to prevent atrocities by Russian troops. It may, for example, have contributed to the fact that (in contrast to certain other colonial wars) there was only one Balkan-style massacre of civilians by soldiers, at the village of Samashki in April 1995. The coming OSCE summit in Istanbul gives an ideal opportunity to press a role for the organisation on the Russians. For a long time to come, however, the OSCE is likely to be restricted to the role of observer. On the one hand, the Russian government is utterly unwilling to reopen negotiations with the Chechens, preferring instead, yet again, to try to build up its own discredited, despised Chechen stooges such as the former Communist First Secretary Doku Zavgayev. This did not work during the last war, and it won't work this time.

But, on the other hand, the Russians have a point when they say that there is no one in Chechnya with the power to reach a settlement and stick to it. For there have really been two aspects to the Chechen catastrophe of the Nineties. The first has obviously been the behaviour of the Yeltsin regime: first the stubborn refusal to grant independence to Chechnya, although this is clearly desired by most Chechens and would not necessarily have any repercussions in other Russian autonomous republics; then the mixture of criminal incompetence, chauvinism and brutality that led Russia into the war of 1994-96.

Since being defeated in that war, Moscow has failed to give President Aslan Maskhadov any serious aid to reconstruct Chechnya's shattered economy. By doing so, the Kremlin fatally undermined the only Chechen leader who has combined a desire for pragmatic relations with Russia with real prestige at home. The ruin of the Chechen economy obviously contributed enormously to the dangerous anarchy of the region, as thousands of unemployed, heavily armed ex-fighters turned either to kidnapping and raiding or to Islamist and nationalist extremism. Some of the results have been seen in the British press this week, in the reports of the abduction and murder of the Granger Telecom engineers. During the same period, some 1,300 Russians were kidnapped, and many tortured and killed. Finally, in August, came the large-scale incursion of the forces of Shamil Basayev and the Saudi Arabian Islamist commander, Khattab, into Russian Daghestan. This was followed by the terrorist bombings in Moscow and elsewhere. None of this was the will of President Maskhadov - but he proved to be completely unable to prevent it, not least because leading members of his own administration have been credibly implicated in the kidnappings. Other leading commanders such as Basayev failed completely to unite effectively with Maskhadov to create some kind of order.

It now seems that the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the military commanders on the ground are determined to press on, to capture Grozny and eventually occupy the whole of Chechnya. Underlying this disastrous error is not only "mission creep" and hatred of the Chechens, but also Putin's own political advantage. Unlike in the last war, opinion polls continue to show that the Russian offensive is strongly popular. And herein lies perhaps the only hope of ending this nightmare. That after suffering the inevitable heavy losses, ordinary Russians will once again begin to call for a partial withdrawal, and the start of negotiations.

But for any lasting settlement to be reached, the Chechens for their part will have to produce a united, effective and responsible political leadership. All this is another way of saying that the prospects for the region look appalling. At the very least, though, we have the right and duty to insist that Moscow allows us to ameliorate the human consequences of the latest war.

The writer is author of 'Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power'