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Chechnya: Anti-Terrorist Operation or Human Rights Disaster?

"In the last eight years, Russia has fought two wars in Chechnya which have entailed massive indiscriminate bombings of cities and villages with high civilian casualties, sweep operations, and herding of people into so-called filtration camps, with evidence of extra-judicial killings, torture, and disappearances," remarked Matthew Evangelista, Professor of Government, Cornell University, at a recent Kennan Institute lecture on 6 January 2003. He noted that Russia's military campaigns in Chechnya have broken many international and European laws and agreements, and throughout the 1990s, many European organizations and governments called attention to the human rights violations committed by the Russian army. However, following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the Western view of the Chechen conflict has changed. Evangelista suggested that President Vladimir Putin had "Chechnya on his mind" when he called to offer his condolences to President Bush. According to Evangelista, Russian officials continue to portray the Chechen conflict as part of the international war against terrorism, rather than as a civil conflict.

Evangelista contended that the international reaction to the Chechen situation has been a series of ups and downs with little apparent effect on Russia's behavior. He cited examples of how Europe has reinforced its demands on Moscow to pursue negotiations to end the war with stronger, albeit largely symbolic measures, including the delayed implementation of the EU's 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and the suspension of the Russian delegation's voting rights in the 2000 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unless it agreed to pursue negotiations with "a cross section of the Chechen people." He explained that Russia failed to comply with these demands, yet its voting rights were restored.

Evangelista stated that while the events of September 11th changed a great deal in international politics, "the links between Chechnya and terrorism long predate the attacks on the World Trade Center." He explained that many of the actions of both the Russian armed forces and the Chechen rebels could qualify as terrorist acts. According to Evangelista, Chechen terrorist acts during the first conflict, "led to a deeper demoralization of the Russian population over the war." However, he explained, recent terrorist plots such as the theater hostage crisis and the recent bombing of the headquarters of the pro-Moscow government in Grozny have resulted in "a bolstering of support for the Russian government and a very hostile attitude towards Chechens in general."

According to Evangelista, Russia's motives for supporting the international war against terrorism remain puzzling. He contended that although President Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone President Bush to offer condolences in the wake of the September 11th attacks, it appears that Putin was perhaps thinking about Chechnya. In Evangelista's opinion, Putin was willing to support the West in the war against al-Qaida and international terrorism if "the West would stop criticizing Russia's actions toward Chechnya." However, it appears that Russia did not get what it expected as human rights organizations and Western governments have continued to denounce Russian behavior towards Chechnya.

Even more confusing, noted Evangelista, has been Russia's handling of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. He explained that Moscow has not seemed interested in exerting the leverage it held regarding the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Evangelista pointed out that Russia could have "threatened access to U.S. airbases in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, which would have thereby undermined the war effort." Instead Moscow welcomed the U.S. presence in Central Asia and in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Evangelista explained that the prospect of a U.S.-led war against international terrorism "led to a serious rethinking of Russia's understanding of its own security to include an acceptance of U.S. military involvement along Russia's periphery as a valuable contribution to the war against terrorism."

Evangelista stated that while "Russian cooperation in the campaign against terrorism did not apparently hinge on the war in Chechnya, recently we have seen a dramatic change in Western attitudes toward the Chechen conflict." He attributed this change to the theater hostage crisis in October 2002, and noted that, "President Putin characterized the hostage taking as international terrorism." This successful shift in focus has led President Bush along with other Western leaders to "accept Moscow's line on the Chechen crisis." Evangelista warned that Western leaders must remember that this crisis originally began as a move for greater autonomy, and that militants inspired by Islam make up only a small portion of the Chechen resistance. He concluded that while he does not have a solution to the conflict in Chechnya, he believes that the Russian government's solution of classifying the war against Chechens as an anti-terrorist operation is very unlikely to succeed.


About the Author

Nicholas Wheeler

Former Short-Term Scholar;
Ph.D.candidate, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more