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The Russia Journal
October 12-18, 2001
Putin melts Europe’s lines of division
But extending the horrors of the Chechen war could lead to disaster

Russian politicians have no more cherished lament than bemoaning the "lines that divide Europe" and the fact that Russia is cut out of the decision-making processes in European political institutions like NATO and the European Union.

President Vladimir Putin also paid tribute to this tradition during his recent visits to Berlin and Brussels – packaged by his PR people as the European promotional tour of a statesman and leader of one of Europe’s major 21st-century powers.

It all worked. Putin tugged at the heartstrings of the sentimental Germans by speaking in the "language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant" in the Bundestag. He scored points with his unconditional and sincere support of the global coalition against terrorism and presented a relaxed yet competent face at press conferences and public meetings, displaying a measured sense of irony combined with irreproachable manners. Indeed, the "lines of division" simply melted, scrubbed away by the energetic efforts of Putin and his team.

But, as has already been noted in the past, and not just in this column, that all this carefully planned work literally falls to pieces whenever anyone raises a subject that touches Putin to his core – the war, or, as he prefers to call it, the "anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya.

The jargon of thugs

No sooner does Chechnya come up than Putin’s European polish suddenly loses its shine and gives way to much deeper and more natural layers of our president’s commonplace nature. This can manifest itself in criminal slang – "wipe out in the outhouse," "bastards" and "control shot to the head" – or, as was the case at the closing press conference in Brussels, in the equally hard-to-translate vocabulary of a professional Chekist.

Answering questions about human rights violations during the military operations in Chechnya (and not even the servile Kolomanov commission has any doubt as to the massive scale of such violations), Putin, this brilliant statesman and leader of one of the G-8 countries, suddenly transformed in full view of everyone into a petty Chekist investigator, slamming his fist on the table and barking at a quivering Samizdat reader, "Names! Addresses!" This alone was enough to etch such deep "dividing lines" in the consciousness of all those watching this painful scene that even decades of vicious "slander against Russia" wouldn’t be able to match.

As a full member of the global coalition against terrorism, Russia must, of course, participate in drawing up the strategy and tactics of this struggle. All serious analysts are well aware that this fight stands a chance of success only the Russian win a stubborn political and ideological battle for the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people in the Islamic world. This must be a battle not against Islam, but for the Islamic world.

If Islamic radicals react to careless actions on the part of the coalition (for example, mass bombings that lead to civilian deaths) by winning over most of the population in the Islamic world, this will result in a catastrophe. No special forces, bombs and missiles will be enough to prevent the apocalypse a clash of civilizations would represent. This is why it is so important and so complex a task to put together an adequate but politically mature reply to the challenge thrown down by the terrorists.

Putin has actively joined in the discussion, enriching it with "Moscow’s positive experience gained in its years-long fight against international terrorism."

"Yes, there will inevitably be civilian casualties during the anti-terrorist operations," he lectured his Western audience. "But it would be wrong to lay the blame for these casualties on those carrying out the operation. The blame will lie with the terrorists and with those who shelter them." Then he paused and added modestly: "We’ve already encountered this in Chechnya." This last remark was superfluous; it was already eminently clear that Putin was talking, above all, about himself.

Among friends

This thought was obviously so dear to him and so deeply felt that he decided to repeat it word for word two days later when his friend Tony came to Moscow. Having obtained indulgence from the West for what has happened and could yet happen in Chechnya, Putin generously extended this indulgence to the future actions undertaken by his buddies Tony and George.

But it’s impossible not to notice how amazingly easily Putin, the constitutional guarantor of the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens, brushed aside any responsibility, even moral responsibility, for the fates of tens of thousands of Russian citizens who have died in the ruins of Grozny and in other Chechen towns and villages.

But even this isn’t the ultimate issue. What’s in the balance now is far more important than the responsibility or lack thereof.

The only "positive" element in Russia’s Chechen experience is that it demonstrates what a major part a war can play in an election campaigns. The rest of "Russia’s accumulated experience" is important and interesting only as a negative experience. Instead of winning over the majority of Chechens, who were weary of the bandits and willing to support Russia in autumn 1999, the methods used by the counter-terrorist operations made opponents of them. These same methods, rather than foreign support for the rebels, are also responsible above all for bringing new recruits to the rebel ranks.

Step to disaster

Yet again, Russia is experimenting with repercussions for the whole of humanity. Extending Russia’s Chechen experience to the global fight against international terrorism would lead to inevitable global catastrophe.

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