Brutality breeds brutality

September 09, 2004|By Svante Cornell

THE SPATE of terrorist attacks in Russia illustrates that President Vladimir V. Putin's hard-line policy in Chechnya is failing to resolve that conflict or to make Russians safer. Worse, it has led to a broadening of the Chechen conflict that threatens surrounding areas in the North Caucasus.

Still, Mr. Putin shows no sign of reversing his failed policy, promising only more of the same.

The Russian president has argued for two years that the war in Chechnya is over and that the situation in Chechnya is "normalizing." The past months disprove this argument.

In May, the pro-Russian president of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated. In June, Chechen and Ingush rebels invaded the capital of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, which shares language and culture with Chechnya. And just as Mr. Putin was arranging the election of a successor to Mr. Kadyrov, to prove that the situation in Chechnya is normal, three serious terrorist attacks rocked Russia - most tragically the seizure of more than 1,200 hostages at a school in Beslan. Also, bombs downed two Russian airliners, killing 90, and a suicide bomber blew herself up in Moscow, killing 10.

The Beslan massacre was unprecedented by the high death toll - at least 326 - but even more by the horrific choice of a target, a school with more than 1,000 children in it. Its timing was clearly related to the fraudulent Aug. 29 presidential election in Chechnya, but the reasons for the choice of target are less clear.

Beyond seeking maximum attention, the assault could have been the result of a more sinister aim to spread the Chechen conflict to the entire North Caucasus. Beslan is in North Ossetia, which has a long-standing conflict with the Ingush. It's conceivable the choice of an Ossetian school was meant to rekindle the conflict between Ingush and Ossetians in which more than 600 people died in 1992.

Both the escalation of terrorism and the apparent spreading of the Chechen war to neighboring republics are sure to upset Mr. Putin. But why the terrorist attacks? Chechnya once was a classic guerrilla conflict pitting rebels against Russian forces, but increasingly it has taken on a terrorist dimension. While Mr. Putin seeks to portray the events as an integral part of the global war on terrorism, this is at best an exaggeration. True, the tactics are inspired by Islamic extremist groups elsewhere, and a limited number of foreign fighters are active in Chechnya. But the core of Chechen terrorism is homegrown.

In fact, the increasing pool of terrorist recruits in Chechnya is a direct result of Mr. Putin's policies there, which have amounted to allowing the military free rein and doing nothing to stop the massive and well-documented violations of human rights that security forces have committed on Chechen soil.

More than one in 10 Chechen people have been killed since the first Chechen war started in 1994. Perhaps half of the people have been forced to flee their homes. Thousands of Chechens have been taken to concentration camp-like "filtration camps," raped, beaten or looted of their belongings by Russian soldiers, often under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Only a handful of Russian officers and soldiers have been convicted of such abuses.

The result of these practices has been the creation of terrorists. They are not, like the al-Qaida terrorists of 9/11, well-off men brainwashed by Islamic extremists. Rather, most are Chechen women who saw their entire families killed in Russian atrocities or youths who grew up amid death and destruction. They have been easy prey for Islamic extremists inciting them to commit suicide attacks, and Mr. Putin's policies fundamentally are to blame for the societal meltdown that has made Chechnya fertile ground for terrorism.

Moreover, the war in Chechnya is spreading. A raid into Ingushetia in June marked the first time in five years that rebels have conducted a full-scale assault outside the Chechen republic. That half of the guerrillas involved were ethnic Ingush, and not Chechens, indicates that the conflict could be engulfing Ingushetia, too.

Mr. Putin's policies have failed to normalize Chechnya, regardless of what the Kremlin would have others believe. Russia's brutal war in Chechnya and its mismanagement of the North Caucasus through former KGB officials are exacerbating the already dismal situation in the region. And it is by now clear that Mr. Putin's policies have not made ordinary Russians safer - quite the contrary. How the spiral of violence can be stopped is not known, but Mr. Putin's promises of more violence surely will not help.

Svante Cornell is deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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