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Toronto Star
December 30, 2001
West must not allow Russians free rein in Chechnya
By Ken Ernhofer
Ken Ernhofer, a Toronto-based freelance journalist and media consultant, is a former Moscow correspondent for CTV News.

The news is filled these days with hopeful stories about the resurgent closeness between the West more specifically NATO and Russia.

However, we should be aware that the milder climate between these two historical adversaries could come at a great price: Western blindness, deafness, and even acquiescence to Russia's checkered record in its breakaway province of Chechnya.

Chechnya has emerged as one of Russia's greatest tests since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

It is also a test for the West.

The strategic Caucasus mountain republic has always rebelled against Russian colonialism, whether under the czars or the Communists. Stalin even tried to rid himself of the Chechens by breaking up the population and sending them away.

The Chechens survived, but remained fractious, even among themselves. In the last decade, Chechnya became ungovernable. In 1994, Chechen separatists resumed their historic battle for independence against Russia, even as Chechen warlords battled each other.

Russia has been mired in a renewed Chechen conflict ever since. It has cost Russia the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians.

Chechnya is important to Russia because it is a vital transit point for Caspian Sea oil.

Russians see also Chechnya as a potential domino; if Chechnya gains independence, other similarly nationalistic areas could also fall away and reduce Russia to a fraction of its current size. This terrifies nationalistic Russians who long for the day that their country will once again be a "great" power.

Russia is also terrified that Chechnya could be a beachhead for a new fundamentalist, Islamist state in the Taliban mould.

Chechnya may seem quiet these days, but Russia's war there rumbles on. The rebels are conducting a low-level insurgency, with sporadic explosions that more often than not send Russian boys home in body bags.

Nobody talks much about it. The Russian press is virtually controlled by the Kremlin and dissident voices don't get much air time or editorial space.

Last week Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that Russia would stage a winter offensive to smash resistance in Chechnya.

Meantime, the story here was how the West and Russia were forming "a new relationship," creating a joint council to take action in "areas of common interest," such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism and arms control.

It is ironic.

When the Chechnya conflict broke out in 1994, the West was a vocal critic of Russia's tactics. It noted that Chechnya quickly became a very dirty war, replete with atrocities committed by combatants on either side.

Russia, however, equated Chechen separatists with bandits and terrorists. In fact, it defined the entire Chechen campaign as a war on terrorism.

Indeed, Ivanov repeated the contention recently. "This winter we will seek to finish off the remaining bandit groups and capture or destroy their ringleaders. This I promise you," Ivanov said in remarks reported by Reuter.

Some Chechens are terrorists and bandits. Many others, however, are fighting what they perceive as an occupying Russian force that has subjugated their nation for hundreds of years.

Throughout this campaign, Russia has secured agreements from Western politicians that terrorism cannot be allowed to flourish. When those agreements came, the Kremlin always used them to justify its Chechnya campaign.

However, Russia's record is not so noble.

International agencies report that there are many unresolved mass killings, cases of people who have "disappeared" and with winter approaching 170,000 refugees languishing in horrid camps. Now, Russia is poised to start a new offensive in Chechnya.

The difference between now and 1994 is that Russia is fully engaged in another war on terrorism one led by the Americans.

Did Russia join the U.S. campaign partly to stifle criticism of its Chechnya strategy once and for all? It is an intriguing question. We may never know the answer, but it is interesting to note the Western silence about Chechnya these days.

Where Chechnya is, indeed, a real fight against terrorism, this war is justifiable.

The danger, however, is in neglecting the evidence that this is also a fight, littered with human rights abuses and multiple atrocities, by a fading colonial power.

As a result, the downtrodden Chechen people are in danger of being victimized once again. This time, it isn't just through atrocities and colonialism, it is through Western neglect, blindness and expediency.

If the West is to have any sense of morality, it must hold Russia accountable for its actions in Chechnya, even as both the West and Russia legitimately fight terrorism. Otherwise, our high-minded principles of justice and humanity are hollow shells.

The innocents of Chechnya and, indeed, everywhere demand it.

It is a test that the West cannot afford to fail.

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