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The Harvest of Beslan

09.07.2004 | BOOKS

The Russian public has made the mistake of accepting the dual thesis that "the Chechens" are to blame for the atmosphere of fear in which they live, and that their beloved Tsar-President and the apparat that he has folded about him are their only hope for salvation. Russia is primarily an Orthodox Christian society in its emotional traditions, and this quasi-mystical devotion to Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin has much of the irrational appeal of religious faith. Like religious faith, it offers something to cling to when all other values seem to have collapsed, which after a decade of freedom and democracy, is a fairly accurate description of the situation in Russia today.

I place "the Chechens" in scare quotation marks like that because few Russians know or care any more just which particular Chechens deserve their enmity. The proof of that is the public acceptance of a war which has been conducted in a manner that should have brought down every government implicated in it--Yeltsin's, that is, as much as Putin's first and second terms. Although the Kremlin does its best to keep journalists out and the truth securely buried, this Soviet method of thought policing is long past its sell-by date, and in the age of satellite phones and the internet, information cannot be forced to respect borders. Human rights organizations around the world have published report after report condemning Russian atrocities, and while they are obviously biased, direct reports from the victims are also easily available on line. No one pretends that the Chechen paramilitary opposition has clean hands, but they are, after all, outlaw guerillas. The Russian forces (regular army, Ministry of the Interior troops, contract soldiers--i.e. mercenaries in all but name, and responsible for some of the worst excesses--and representatives of many different branches of the big happy family of the Russian war machine) are complemented by local gangsters who have bought into the Russian idea of what Chechnya should look like.

This idea is neatly summed up by the name given to the capital city of Chechnya. "Grozny" is often translated as "terrible," as in "Ivan Grozny": Ivan the Terrible. My dictionary is eloquent in expanding the meaning for us: "groza" is "storm, calamity, terror," which forms a verb, "grozit", "to menace, threaten," and an adjective, "grozny," which is "threatening; rigorous; formidable." Grozny, originally a simple military base for imperial Russian troops, was given this cheerful name in 1818 to encourage the Chechens to give up any plans they might have for an independent existence. This was part of a campaign in the Caucasus that led to 25 years of war. From the beginning of Russian involvement in Chechnya, the idea has been to destroy the Chechens' will to resist, and destroying their will to live has been one method employed to achieve this. Other methods have included mass deportation, and more recently, the random slaughter of innocent civilians, accompanied by artillery and rocket barrages to destroy their homes and workplaces. Practically the whole of central Grozny has been destroyed like this.

Still, there are no signs that Moscow is winning in Chechnya. At one time, there was a real attempt to create a rival governmental system, with a President (Dzhokhar Dudayev, assassinated in 1996 by a smart missile targeting his mobile phone signal), mass popular support for a unilateral declaration of independence, and appeals to the international community for recognition. The international community, and principally the United States, meretriciously decided that a chance to cash in on the kleptocratic boom in Russia was more important to them than human rights in Chechnya, and the Chechens, left to their own resources and hammered relentlessly by Russian heavy weapons, have mostly given up. Their democratic project has been hi-jacked by paramilitary leaders whose agenda has steadily diverged from that of mere Chechen independence, until, as we have just seen, the "spirit of jihad" has come to the fore. This has nothing to do with the aspirations of ordinary Chechens, who are, like many other post-Soviet peoples, in the uncomfortable position of having had their society rebuilt along lines suggested by Communist Party ideology, which means that there is no place for them in the non-communist world. The best they can manage is to become market traders in Moscow. What everybody else does is to stay at home with vodka and television, but in Chechnya your house is likely to have been demolished by high explosive shells.

But the bandits (as Moscow calls them) took to the hills long ago, and shoot down helicopters that come looking for them. They have the same kind of uncomfortable symbiotic relationship with Chechen society that the Provisional IRA had with Catholics in Northern Ireland for many years. While particular bombing campaigns or murders were condemned by most Catholics, they nevertheless gave general support in the form of silence and passivity, because they were not going to condemn the only organization acting in the name of their central historical grievance. Chechens do not support the murder of children, but they do support the idea that someone should do something to stop the Russians from destroying their culture and society. Having exhausted all other possibilities, apparently it has come to this.

The message is clear. The Russians have the means to murder Chechen children through bombing, kidnapping and straightforward bullets to the head. The Chechens cannot persuade any outside governments to take any notice of this--since there is always the convenient option available of pretending to believe Moscow's denials--and they have no large army themselves. Terrorism, then, or asymmetric warfare, to give it a less emotionally-charged name, presents itself as the most efficient option. The Russians kill children one by one, far away from TV cameras and foreign journalists. The Beslan school operation was evidently planned and executed with the idea of killing hundreds of them all at once.

The Russian government has given such sketchy and self-contradictory accounts of the whole affair that it is hard to believe anything they say, but we are told that the hostage-takers demanded freedom for Chechnya, or withdrawal of Russian troops, possibly--two things they were clearly not going to be granted. So the explosives and weapons were probably going to be used all along, as indeed the explosives in the Moscow theatre siege in 2002 would probably have been used had the Russians not used their poison gas assault to stop this from happening. The outcome, then, though a disaster for the Russians in all senses, is more or less what was expected by the hostage-takers, though shooting fleeing children in the back makes for even more shocking television than blowing them all up in one big explosion. It was, in fact, a successful operation in its own terms. World attention is once again focused on Russian policy in Chechnya, with ten years of brutal war coming under the spotlight. There seem to be no leads back to those who planned the operation, beyond what seems to me a highly questionable televised confession from a young man said to be a captured member of the gang. Putin says that he will crack down further, reorganize the security services, stop corruption in the army, etc., etc., but all this has been said before, and the situation of the Chechens can't get much worse.

What is frightening is the scale of what is being attempted. Choosing this particular target under these particular circumstances seems to be a deliberate attempt to reignite conflict between Ossetians and Ingush, and to identify this as part of a wider conflict between Putin's Russia and a rising Muslim jihad. Throughout the Muslim part of the former USSR, there is a similar rise of a radical element against the background of a basically passive population, for whom Islam is an old-fashioned national tradition rather than a call to arms. Re-casting the Chechen conflict in these terms is a horrifying proposition. Not only would normal Chechens be forced into accepting a Taliban set of values so as to avoid destruction, but the Russians as a whole would drift towards a kind of Christian fascism whose signs are already apparent. This, after all, is what made imperial Russia tick, and the society is to a degree pre-programmed for it.

The alternatives? There are two. Russia has been bogged down in a war in Chechnya that produces only these awful results, and this needs to end if any kind of normality is to be established. Logically, there are two ways this can happen. One is victory for the Russian forces, and the other is their withdrawal. Putin has already proclaimed victory in Chechnya, so it seems that this option is no longer available. There is no evidence that Russia is capable of beating the Chechen bandits. If they were capable of it, they would have done so by now. All the talk of stamping out corruption, reorganizing the security forces and the rest of it is just talk. The Chechens, bluntly, cannot be beaten.

This leaves the second option, and as contradictory as it may be to come to this conclusion after the appalling events in Beslan, international opinion seems to be drifting to this consensus: Free Chechnya. End the farce of puppet governments and the tragedy of military occupation. Let international organizations in to oversee a transition to a democratic regime with foreign observers to see fair play. The longer the war goes on, the more it will take on a Christian versus Muslim, neo-Soviet and neo-Tsarist character. Putin says he will not negotiate with child-killers. The best hope, then, and it is a remote one, is that Putin's government will fall.

About the Author
Christopher Lord's new book, Parallel Cultures, has just been published by Ashgate.
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