Held hostage

September 02, 2004

RUSSIA'S AGONY continues. Planes downed; a suicide bomber in Moscow; now, an entire school taken hostage in the Caucasus. Officials say they expect more soon. The Russian government says it is the victim of international terrorism, and it's partly right. But if it weren't for the Kremlin's brutal and indiscriminate policies in Muslim Chechnya over the past decade, jihadist organizations never would have gotten a foothold in Europe's eastern reaches.

The war in Chechnya began as a war of secession by a contentious mountain republic that had become a haven for organized criminal gangs whose specialties included extortion and kidnapping. Russian commanders took to calling the guerrilla forces they faced "bandit formations." But after subway bombings in Paris in the late 1990s, and especially after Sept. 11, 2001, the Russians began to switch the formulation: An ugly, local conflict had become the front line in the war on terror. All Chechen resisters became Islamist warriors; all became unworthy villains, to be hunted down like dogs. Negotiation was out of the question. So, with nowhere else to turn, the Chechen gunmen turned to the international terrorist organizations that were just itching to give the Russians a black eye.

Now, Chechen fighters actually are in contact with al-Qaida and other groups. Now, Chechen rebels actually do want to impose a strict Islamic law on the Caucasus. Support and materiel for the Chechens flow from two sources: Islamic donors abroad eager to back a holy war, and corrupt Russian officers and soldiers with no scruples about selling munitions to the enemy.

Chechnya allowed President Vladimir V. Putin to cast himself as the leader who would make Russia safe, the tough man needed in perilous times who wasn't afflicted by doubts or nuances. But that was five years ago, and still the war won't go away.

A bogus election on Sunday for president of Chechnya gave the Kremlin's hand-picked puppet 75 percent of the vote; the man he would be succeeding was blown to bits earlier this summer. The election was a mockery; it was probably the occasion for the upsurge in terrorist attacks in Russia over the past week.

Are there lessons for Iraq in all this? Certainly, the Russian army cares less about collateral damage than the American one, and U.S. attempts to install compliant governments are not quite so ham-handed. But there seems to have been an obliviousness in both Moscow and Washington to the anger that would inevitably be stirred by invasion and its messy aftermath. Neither Chechnya nor Iraq were terrorist havens beforehand; now, they both are.

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