Casualties have become acceptable
This article was first published in Czech weekly Respekt on October 15, 2001. The right to publish it in English was granted to Prague Watchdog.
At last, terrorism has turned to be what really joined the two powers, Russia and the United States. Animated and sometimes even stormy discussions on the American National Missile Defense project, NATO enlargement or limitations to Russian steal exports overseas have become unimportant and ridiculous. Nowadays the US are effectively haunted by the same nightmare of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism as the Russians have been for years already.
Russians got it right
On the fatal day of September 11, Russia was given an outstanding argument for its rather outlandish behaviour in its own, if you like private ”antiterrorist” campaign in the Northern Caucasus. When the first missiles hit Kabul, Kandahar and Maza-re Sharif, bombardment has become a completely legal and internationally accepted way of eliminating terrorism. At the same time human rights failed to serve as an effective argument for the limitation of a state-run violence against its people. That must have been a terrible relief for the Russian President Vladimir Putin. He got over the worst point making the world community concede that it was him who got it right when he ordered bombing of the Chechen capital Grozny, though guerillas made only one percent of the population there. Adequate casualties have thus become acceptable.
In contrast to Yeltsin, who not only resembled but also acted like a real Russian bear, Putin has an excellent sense of intuition and a gift for dealing with people the way that is expected from him. Besides, he is reasonable enough to understand that for a few months at least, he may afford to use far tougher methods of tackling terrorism in Chechnya. Attention of the world community as well as humanitarian agencies and human rights defenders has been drawn further to the east.
Regardless of this, Vladimir Putin is faced with a hard decision. On the one hand, the public opinion has failed to be a serious obstacle to doing away with Chechen separatists. On the other hand, the technical potential of the Russian army and the police has been exhausted as almost all the military means usable in such a local conflict have already been deployed in the Northern Caucasus. Things like carpet bombing can be ruled out right away because the most of the territory is occupied by Russian soldiers and guerilla groups are scattered all over the mountainous areas. From the military point of view, it almost seems that the only thing Putin can do is to conserve today’s state of affairs – Russians control ninety per cent of the territory with their flag flying outside administrative buildings in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Russia must be absolutely sure that any stronger action, for example bombing of mountainous villages among whose guerilla groups operate, will result in rebels’ ruthless response. Recently, Chechen fighters have managed to occupy a part of the second biggest city Gudermes for a few hours, they controlled district centre Vedeno in southeast, mountainous Chechnya for a few days, triggered heavy fights near Argun, and shot down a helicopter with top military officials right in the centre of the city. Putin responded with prudence and diplomacy. Instead of torching one or two villages or sending heavy aircraft to calm down the Chechens, he only ordered to reinforce checkpoints, and ”mopping-up” operations the local people had almost got used to have become harsher. The blockade of the country continues with the Russian army taking economic advantage of it, so only one thing has changed – bribes for passing lorries loaded with various goods to Chechnya have risen moderately.
Power of diplomacy
However, something significant has happened as reports emerged that Moscow launched negotiations with the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. At the moment, only formal rules of the talks-to-come are being discussed but the fact that both sides feel they have been increasingly more tired of the two years of fights is the most striking. Besides, less rough methods of tackling terrorism, and certainly not things like torching villages, somehow better correspond with the Russian president’s way of thinking. Putin realized that what he needs more than anything else at this moment is a carrot and stick policy.
The people in Chechnya are exhausted and they forget about their deep-rooted pride. For their shabby, though after years of absence regularly paid pensions, they are willing to put aside some of the old ”minor disputes” with the Russians. Putin’s emphasis on the social policy, his efforts to buy some of the Chechens through employing them in the police and local authorities but also mere sympathising with Islam – these are the reasons why many drained Chechens are ready fall in with the ”time out” offer.
The Russian-Chechen talks are likely to take place for a long time and the only successful result will be if they are not disrupted for too long. The talks do not mean that Moscow has lost its war or made a concession to the separatists. They only throw light on the effort to achieve a certain goal – to keep Chechnya within the Russian Federation and to create a system there that would be possible to influence, control, and even terminate and re-establish if necessary. The international position of Vladimir Putin is excellent: the world community will be grateful to him that he will take care of one of the potential sources of terrorism, and Russians will be forgiven for mistakes like false imprisonment of thousands of Chechens, a few graves packed with bodies of civilians and air strikes against villages. Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Leila Khajieva is a journalist.