Chechnya suffers under Russian terror

Devastating losses: As Islamic rebels leave Grozny, civilians bear the brunt of Russian assault.

November 24, 1999

NEARLY 200 years ago, when Russia extended its empire to the Caucasus mountain region, one fortress carried a warning to the rebellious locals. It was called Grozny -- "threatening."

Today, invading Russians feel Grozny is so threatening that they are bombing it out of existence. Moscow officials say that once Russian troops retake it, the capital of the rebellious republic of Chechnya will not be worth rebuilding.

Russia's decision to retake Chechnya from Islamic separatists has caused terrible suffering and misery. Because Russian and foreign media representatives have been barred from near the action, the full extent of the indiscriminate devastation is unknown.

The United States and other governments are right to be alarmed at the heavy civilian toll. But they ought not be hypocritical. Russian methods are excessively cruel, but few foreign governments disagree with that country's goal of safeguarding its historic borders.

Zbigniew Bzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, argues Russia should grant Chechnya independence. Moscow did, kind of. In 1996, after two years of fighting, Russia relinquished control of the republic to Islamic separatists. A decision on independence was to be made in 2001.

But President Aslan Maskhadov was unable to rein in militant warlords who staged incursions into neighboring Dagestan and apparently were responsible for lethal apartment bombings in Russia.

The United States has shown little tolerance toward hostile regimes from Cuba to Nicaragua. It is unrealistic to expect Russia, however weak its central government, to willingly create a trouble spot near the potentially explosive border with Turkey and Iran. Instead, Moscow will insist on a friendly local administration among Chechnya's ruins.

In condemning Russia's brutality in Chechnya, the world is not asking Moscow to tolerate terrorism. However, excessive force will sow bitterness among ordinary Chechens that makes lasting peace difficult to achieve.

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