The Chechen War: Anti-Terrorist Operation or Human Rights Disaster?
In a recent lecture at the Kennan Institute, Matthew Evangelista discussed the recent changes in Western opinion regarding the Chechen conflict. Evangelista began by explaining that the Russian military campaigns in the Chechen conflict have entailed "massive indiscriminate bombings of cities and villages with high civilian casualties, sweep operations, and herding of people into so-called filtration camps, with evidence of extra-judicial killings, torture, and disappearances." Evangelista noted that throughout the 1990s, many European organizations and governments called attention to the human rights violations by the Russian army. However, following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the Chechen conflict is now seen in a different light. According to Evangelista, Russian officials have attempted to portray the Chechen conflict as part of the international war against terrorism, rather than as a civil conflict.
Evangelista contended that the international reaction to the Chechen situation has been a series of ups and downs with little apparent effect on Russia's behavior. He cited examples of how Europe has reinforced its demands on Moscow to pursue negotiations to end the war with stronger, albeit largely symbolic, measures. Evangelista noted that the European Union delayed implementation of the 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement until 1997, after the first Chechen war had ended. In April 2000, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended the Russian delegation's voting rights for a time and threatened to expel Russia from the body if it did not pursue negotiations with "a cross section of the Chechen people." He explained that Russia failed to comply with these demands, yet its voting rights were restored anyhow.
Evangelista stated that while the events of September 11th changed a great deal in international politics, the links between Chechnya and terrorism long predate the attacks on the World Trade Center. He explained that many of the actions of both the Russian armed forces and the Chechen rebels could qualify as terrorist acts. According to Evangelista, Chechen terrorist acts during the first conflict, "led to a deeper demoralization of the Russian population over the war." However, he explained, recent terrorist plots such as the theater hostage crisis and the recent bombing of the headquarters of the pro-Moscow government in Grozny have resulted in "a bolstering of support for the Russian government and a very hostile attitude towards Chechens in general."
In Evangelista's opinion, Russia's handling of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has been puzzling. He explained that following President Vladimir Putin's call to President Bush, Moscow did not seem interested in exerting the leverage it held regarding the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. According to Evangelista, the prospect of a U.S.-led war against international terrorism "led to a serious rethinking of Russia's understanding of its own security to include an acceptance of U.S. military involvement along Russia's periphery as a valuable contribution to the war against terrorism."
Evangelista noted that Putin has recently attempted to use the hostage crisis as part of a larger policy of shifting the focus of the Chechen conflict, what was initially viewed as a move for greater autonomy, to part of the international war against terrorism. He warned that Western leaders must remember that militants inspired by Islam make up only a small portion of the Chechen resistance, and Chechnya has no tradition of suicide bombers or martyrdom. Evangelista concluded by stating that while he does not have a solution to the conflict in Chechnya, he believes that the Russian government's solution of classifying the war against Chechens as an anti-terrorist operation is very unlikely to succeed.