Sticks and stones

September 15, 2006

The president of Chechnya - the rebellious redoubt in the Caucasus Mountains that was famous for kidnappings and beheadings and organized crime until the Russian army essentially blew it to smithereens, so that it is now principally famous for jihad and ambushes and wreckage and corruption - believes it has an image problem. He says Chechnya is a Russian word that by now is loaded with negative associations. He suggests that the whole world would feel better about the place if the people there adapted a local term and began calling it the Republic of Nokhchiin instead.

The idea, floated by President Alu Alkhanov during a visit to St. Petersburg, was immediately shot down by almost everybody, including Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, the swaggering son of the late Chechen president (bomb under the reviewing stand) and most likely the man who will become the next president, as soon as he reaches the eligible age of 30 later this year (assuming he gets that far).

But it strikes us as nearly ingenious. Plenty of people in this country have had trouble figuring out how to pronounce Chechnya (CHECH-nya, chech-NYA, che-CHEN-iya, etc). Throw them a word with that eye-popping "khch" combo, followed immediately by the weird double-I, and they'll throw it right back - and there's the whole idea. If it's not worth wrapping your tongue around, it's probably not worth wrapping your mind around, either, and the Chechens (or Nokhchiini) could then be free to find their own way through life (and mutual death).

It may have occurred to you by now that Chechnya isn't alone in having a war-torn, fanatical, shot-to-tatters image problem. What if you renamed Iraq and no one could say it - or find it on a map? Wouldn't it be a great way to resolve what has become a totally impossible situation?

If only. Peace through nomenclature is a nice thought, especially when there doesn't seem to be any other way to achieve it, but wishing away trouble with a euphemism wouldn't work in Iraq any more than it will in Chechnya. But here's a word that you can use for both: Call them Intractable.

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