President Vladimir Putin is engaged in a systematic and murderous campaign of suppression of Chechnya’s struggle for independence. In this campaign anyone sympathetic to Chechnya’s desire and aspiration to leave the Russian Federation is classified as terrorist; even international aid-workers bringing in desperately-needed aid and supplies to the war-torn country are not excepted from this rule. Yet the Russian president (who is certain to win the next presidential election) is getting away with it both locally and internationally, despite the fact that his crusade is against both Russian and international law, and constitutes one of the worst war crimes the world has witnessed.
The European Union, the US and its allies in the ‘war against terrorism’, including some Muslim countries, prefer to do business with Putin and ignore the plight of a Muslim people whose only ‘fault’ is that they have the courage to fight for their right to self-determination. Indeed, they actively cooperate with Putin, who is a former KGB chief, to block financial and other support to the Chechen cause under the pretence of "fighting terrorism". Even humanitarian aid and supplies from Muslims in other parts of the world (many of whom have nothing to do with governments or governmental organisations) is blocked in this manner.
President George W. Bush, who declares that he is a devout Christian, is on record as having said of the bloodstained despot in the Kremlin: "I looked the man in the eyes. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy... I was able to get a sense of his soul." More recently – and after the explosion in the Moscow Metro on February 6 in which 39 people were killed – Bush telephoned Putin to pledge him his support against the "terrorists" responsible for the explosion. Putin had blamed the blast on Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen pro-independence leader, vowing "not to negotiate with terrorists", but the Chechen leaders denied any involvement. Ahmed Zakayev, a spokesman for Maskhadov, denied all Chechen responsibility, in a statement issued in London on February 17. A British judge had earlier foiled Moscow’s attempt to secure Zakayev’s extradition: Judge Timothy Workman ruled that torture had been used to obtain false evidence against Zakayev, and also rejected Moscow’s claim that its operations in Chechnya are legitimate and directed against terrorism.
In his early days at the White House, Bush ignored Putin altogether, but after the events of September 2001 he transformed him into a very close ally. But EU rulers had been supportive of Putin from the beginning, "not least because he sits astride a big chunk of the Union’s energy supply," as an editorial in the Financial Times (London) put it (February 16). Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who maintains friendly relations with Putin, was the first western leader to meet him when he was declared acting president. Putin was also given the red-carpet treatment when he visited London last June. The Russian ruler must be feeling very pleased with the American and British rulers, and particularly grateful for their policy of studied silence over his policies in Chechnya.
But Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, whose country recently held the EU presidency, goes even further in his support for Putin. In mid-June, for instance, he said at an EU event that he was Putin’s "defence lawyer", and that Putin is getting "an unfairly bad press" both over human-rights abuses and over the arrest of Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
But even if other Western rulers do not go as far as Berlusconi in their support for Putin over Chechnya, their silence – like that of Washington’s other allies in the "war against terrorism", including some Muslim governments – is a serious blow to the Chechens’ struggle to secure their legitimate right, namely independence, and is inexcusable. This is particularly the case when Moscow’s ruthless suppression of that right is widely known and well-documented. A report issued at the beginning of last November by the UN Human Rights Commission, for instance, expresses deep concern about the extent of known violations of human rights in Chechnya –particularly the large number of unlawful operations resulting in death, disappearance, torture, physical attack and various other abuses. The report, written by a committee of 18 experts, points out that the violations are committed with impunity; even when officials are indicted they are charged with minor offences that do not reflect the gravity of the crimes that were really committed. And a member of the committee said at a press conference that the war crimes – including executions and torture – are committed in an atmosphere that guarantees immunity to punishment. He added that the explanations offered by the Russians did nothing to allay the Commission’s anxieties.
The Commission’s report calls for an enquiry into all the war crimes being committed in Chechnya, for the pursuit and apprehension of those committing them, and for the payment of compensation to the victims (or their families). The problem with the report is that it is not devoted specifically to war crimes in Chechnya, but instead covers human-rights violations in all of Russia, and that the powers that control the UN support Putin and will not allow any action to be taken against him by the UN or any of its bodies. More seriously, those Muslim countries that can demand action through the UN general assembly – at least creating publicity for the Chechen cause – are allied to the US-led ‘war on terror’, which targets (among others) Chechen freedom-fighters. This happens despite the media publicity generated by the Moscow Metro blast (February 6), which Putin blamed on the Chechen leaders. Many of the media reports on the following days agreed that the blast was carried out by "terrorists", but concluded that Putin had brought the tragedy on himself by his conduct in Chechnya, giving a small minority the pretext to commit terrorism. Even some Russian newspapers criticised Putin on this count.
An article in the Moscow Times (February 9), for instance, said: "The Metro bombing was carried out, presumably, by a group of criminals... It was immediately and loudly denounced by the entire world... The Chechen disappearances, by contrast, were ultimately carried out not by unaccountable criminals, but [by] a democratically elected government –Mr Putin’s. They occurred with little comment or complaint." The article explained that this "fed the determination of crazed extremists" to turn to terrorism. It cited Memorial, the Russian Human Rights Commission, as putting the number of disappearances in Chechnya in 2003 at 269 "cases in which people were taken into custody and never heard from again."
But straightforward support for the Chechens’ right to fight for their independence came from an unexpected source: an editorial in the Australian of February 9, although the Australian government is a firm supporter of the US-led war on terrorism and has no sympathy for the Chechen cause. The editorial pointed out that the Chechen conflict "is a war of national independence, not another front in the worldwide battle between democracy and Islamic fundamentalism," warning that if the Russian government "persists in its cruel and corrupt methods for subduing the Chechen resistance, it will become just that." This paper also points out that although Putin is right not to negotiate with terrorists, he "will have to negotiate with someone who is recognised as a representative by the million or so Chechens." But this attitude, like that of Western papers that call for a challenge to Russia over its policies in Chechnya, must be taken with a pinch of salt, as the reference to "Islamic fundamentalism" shows. There is a refusal in the press (and other communications media) to accept that the "war on terrorism" is really a war against Islam; even those editorials that censure Moscow for its conduct in Chechnya do so largely as part of a larger attack against its attitude to journalists and to states of the former Soviet Union wishing to join the EU or to have closer ties with the West. Some call the Chechen fighters terrorists even while they criticise Russia’s policies.
Clearly the Chechens are fighting very bravely and, given their small number, they may eventually even face extinction unless they get some real, significant support from other Muslims to make the war less one-sided. Whether and when that help will arrive, however, remains to be seen.