What happens when a president’s commitment to be uncompromising in negotiations with a rogue province turns into a declaration of war made by that province against his own people? Just ask Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To dub Chechen history since 1991 chaotic would be an unforgivable understatement. The small province bordered to the south by Georgia has become one of the key flashpoints in the world and yet so little attention is paid to it in our media. Every so often we hear about a hostage-taking or some other radical uprising that again threatens not only the people of Chechnya but also ordinary Russian citizens throughout the country. With such a volatile situation escalating within Russia, you would be forgiven for questioning President Putin’s determination to stick to his policy of absolutely no negotiations. Yet Putin has maintained an ongoing occupation of Chechnya that numerous human rights organizations have decried as gross violations of human rights. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the conviction that one should never negotiate with terrorists, the consequences of inaction on both sides has resulted in the needless deaths of thousands.
Following a brief period of relative peace in the mid-1990s, Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency while promising a hard-line against the rebels who had been threatening stability in the region ever since unsuccessfully declaring independence for the Chechen state back in 1991. As a result of ongoing lawlessness in the region, President Putin established direct rule from Moscow in May of 2000 as more Russian troops poured into the province.
“What has come of the occupation?” one may ask. Although there is no definitive answer, the results have been anything but positive. Thousands have been killed in hostage-takings as well as in daily fighting between rebel forces and Russian troops, with no end in sight. Most recently, Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed Chechen president, was killed in a Grozny bombing in May of this year. What is left is a stand-off between Vladimir Putin and Aslan Maskhadov, a rebel leader and former president of Chechnya, a man who at one point in the 1990’s seemed to be on the verge of a permanent peace agreement with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Now turn to the events of this past week in Beslan, an Ossetian town to the west of Chechnya. The carnage is unbearable to entertain as hundreds of bodies of mainly children continue to be counted in the one locale that should be a safe haven for children: school. Such an event brings with it the recollection of the apartment block bombings in neighboring Dagestan that killed over 300 in September 1999 and, more recently, the Muscovite theater hostage-taking in October 2002 which killed over 120.
All three of these incidents point out one of the most striking aspects of the Chechen War — that no one in Russia is safe. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many believe the Muslim rebels are backed by Al Qaeda, as reports continue to come from Beslan that some of the hostage takers were Arabs, not Chechens. This probable link between the world’s largest terrorist network and a seemingly unorganized band of rebels further demonstrates the need for Moscow to reconsider its position in Chechnya as the rebels grow in strength and the Russian forces become more and more incapable of acting successfully, as illustrated by the mistakes made in both the theater and in Beslan Middle School 1.
Chechnya, an Islamic anomaly in Orthodox Russia, has gone so far as to establish Sharia law and holds no obvious strategic importance to the Russian Federation. It will continue to be a thorn in its side, conceivably until it is granted the independence it sought almost 15 years ago. The problem with granting this independence, as one would imagine, is that doing so would be a capitulation to terrorism. It is thus no wonder that Putin is hesitant to make any concessions, and yet the rebels have successfully brought the issue of Chechnya back to the forefront of Putin’s mind as well as that of the ordinary Russian citizen.
The reported Chechen link with Al Qaeda has raised the stakes in Russia’s own war on terror as Russians themselves come under siege by a threat that to most seems so distant. Inaction will accomplish what inaction usually does — nothing. In his address to the Russian nation following the tragedy, Putin maintained his conviction that this recent influx of terrorist acts was caused by weakness as, “We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon.” According to Putin, this new found strength will not come through the change of policy but rather through the strengthening of the military force in the region.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 diverted the world’s attention away from an ongoing war against terror in Russia, but now the stakes have been raised as another 300-plus innocents perish at the hands of a conflict that has no prospect of ending any time soon. By capitulating, Putin will give into terrorism, while an increase in Russian force will merely incite more violence. Chechnya is a quagmire, but it is one that will become worse if idleness continues. President Putin, it is your move.
Adam Barth is a sophomore in Silliman College.