Russians hear false echoes of Kosovo

Chechnya offensive is wrongly compared to NATO's campaign

November 15, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- With hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees pouring out of Chechnya, some spending days trapped at the border, villages being smashed behind them and an aerial bombardment surging relentlessly on, Russia's war in the Caucasus is looking more and more like Kosovo.

Less than five months after NATO air power forced an end to the conflict in Yugoslavia, it seems the story is being repeated. Familiar images of misery and desperation arrive from the war. Families crowd into the homes of generous strangers or find what shelter they can in tents by the roadside. They bring with them tales of death and terror.

But the parallel doesn't hold.

In Chechnya, wrote Sergei Kovalyov, one of the few Russian critics of the war, "we are trying to use NATO's methods to achieve Milosevic's ends."

The Russian military portrays its airstrikes as carefully selected attacks on legitimate targets and has welcomed comparisons to the West's bombardment of Yugoslavia. When Russian planes began the assault on Chechnya in September while ground forces hung back -- and when Russian generals offered missile-mounted video images of some of the strikes -- analysts here declared that Moscow had learned the lessons of NATO's Kosovo campaign.

Some critics thought the analogy was something of a stretch. The Russian attacks were more indiscriminate than NATO's, and pursuing a campaign to soften up the enemy before sending in the infantry is hardly a revolutionary tactic.

But the comparison breaks down in a much more fundamental way: In Chechnya, there was no one to play the role of the Serbs. The Russians aren't intervening to stop the uprooting of an entire ethnic group. Instead, intentionally or not, their intervention has caused just that.

Kosovar Albanians fled Serbian tormentors. Thousands were rounded up and deported. Chechens are fleeing Russian bombs.

For two weeks, the West has grown increasingly critical of Russia's assault on Chechnya, a breakaway republic that won virtual independence after the war of 1994-1996. The State Department said Russian forces, by taking insufficient care to avoid civilian casualties, were not in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. European leaders have pressed for talks to settle the conflict.

This has prompted a vehement reaction in the Russian government and most of the Russian news media. The war is an internal matter, the argument goes, and the West has no right to criticize Moscow after what it did to Yugoslavia. News accounts in the Western media that bring attention to the plight of the refugees, Russian newspapers declare, are distorted and aimed at destabilizing Russia.

Sergei Shoigu, the minister of emergency situations, proclaimed Tuesday that there can be no humanitarian crisis with the refugees in the Caucasus because Russia is a great country and can take care of its own.

Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, hinted last week at the depth of feeling behind that reaction. Moscow has become alert to the possibility that it will be maneuvered into seeming like another Belgrade. The Russians, trying to compare themselves to NATO, discover that NATO is comparing them to the Serbs.

On Friday, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev more or less welcomed the comparison. He warned that the United States wants to "weaken Russia" and "establish full control over the North Caucasus."

He said that the world had entered a new period of instability because of NATO's disregard of international law in the Balkans, and declared that the "armed aggression of the United States and NATO against Yugoslavia" was a challenge to Russia.

The news media, too, have been looking back more frequently at the Kosovo conflict, and in large measure recasting it in a Russian context -- with an imaginative interpretation of the facts. An article in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda talked about the "Kosovo bandits" -- meaning the Kosovo Liberation Army -- in the way that most people in Moscow refer to the "Chechen bandits."

The article, like others that have appeared recently, went on to argue that NATO never considered stopping its campaign in Kosovo despite the humanitarian catastrophe, nor did it worry about the 500,000 Kosovars who were forced to flee NATO bombs. Why, the newspaper asked, should the Russians act any differently in Chechnya?

That is a fundamental distortion of what happened in Kosovo. The humanitarian catastrophe was caused by Serbian police and paramilitaries, and the Albanians who fled -- closer to a million than 500,000 -- were fleeing Serbs, not missiles.

This type of rewriting of history is part of what Valentin M. Gefter, executive director of the Institute of Human Rights in Moscow, described as an attempt by Russia to justify its actions in Chechnya by relying on the precedent of Kosovo. But to do that, it must refashion the truth about what happened there.

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