Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#6 - JRL 7066
Wall Street Journal
February 18, 2003
The Ghost of Russia's Conscience
The Washington Post

One is a frail old Russian, moving through the West like a ghost whom everyone would rather forget. The other, Russia's defense minister, is ramrod straight and self-confident as he strides purposefully, meeting nothing but deference and respect.

That the ghost speaks the truth and the defense minister the opposite, has no impact on this equation. Or rather, it has everything to do with this equation, but not in the way you might expect. For when it comes to Russia , and particularly Russia's dirty war in Chechnya, audiences in the West, from President George W. Bush down, are as uninterested in the truth as most Russians.

The ghost has a name, Sergei Kovalyev, and an age, 76, and an amazing resilience. His comrade Andrei Sakharov is long dead, and most of his other fellow dissidents from Soviet days have also died or retired or given up the romantic ideas of human rights and speaking truth to power in favor of more practical avenues of business.

Anyone who knew Mr. Kovalyev 10 years ago, hacking and coughing inside a constant fog of cigarette smoke, would have said that he too should be dead by now. But he has, improbably, given up his cigarettes and survived a heart attack, as well as innumerable fearless trips to the Chechnya war zone at Russia's southern edge.

Last week he was in Washington reciting his views of President Vladimir Putin and his war in Chechnya to anyone who would listen, which in the U.S. government was not many people: Sen. Chuck Hagel, and Rep. Chris Smith, and a couple of other members of Congress. Inside the administration, the Russia desk officers at State and Defense and the National Security Council -- the bare minimum necessary to fend off accusations of a total sellout.

"Strange things are happening in the modern world," Mr. Kovalyev tells them in his gentle, bemused voice. "In order to fight international terrorism, people are looking for allies among governments that perpetrate state terrorism."

Russia is deep into its second war, and its second decade of war, against the independence aspirations of the Chechens, a small (fewer than a million people even before the killing began) Muslim nation living where the Russian steppe meets the Caucasus mountains. Russian troops have succeeded in destroying Chechnya's capital, in driving hundreds of thousands of civilians into desperate exile, and now in depopulating many mountain villages with bombing and land mines. They have not succeeded in defeating the Chechen guerrillas or bringing peace to the province, though their leaders in Moscow have many times proclaimed victory and an end to the war.

Though the conflict has not much changed, the vocabulary Russia uses to describe it shifted radically after Sept. 11. "It would be wrong to think that the Russians are fighting the Chechens in Chechnya," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov proclaimed preposterously at a security conference in Munich 10 days ago. "No, it's far from being so. Out in Chechnya, the citizens of the Russian Federation of various nationalities, including the people of Chechnya proper, are waging a war on gunmen and terrorists of a variety of nationalities."

No one in the audience of defense ministers and generals and politicians bothered to challenge this statement. For one thing, there are unsavory terrorists and bandits and kidnappers among the Chechens; if this war ever had good guys, that era is long past. For another, the West, and the U.S. in particular, want Putin on their side in other fights -- Iraq first of all. If the price is silence on Chechnya, so be it. Privately, of course, administration officials deny such a calculation. Privately, they deplore the Russian tactics of indiscriminate roundups and torture and looting. It's just, they say, that Mr. Putin gets so unhappy when Bush brings the subject up. What is to be gained by provoking him? Surely quiet diplomacy will be more effective.

Mr. Kovalyev responds by analogy. "If just two politicians" -- President Bill Clinton and the German chancellor then, Helmut Kohl -- "had taken a different attitude during the first Chechen war, that war would have ended in two months, not two years," he says. "You wouldn't have had to use bombs, god forbid, or embargoes or even withdrawing ambassadors. All that would have been needed was to repeat in every speech: This dirty war has to stop." Mr. Clinton, like Mr. Bush, had his reasons for silence, Mr. Kovalyev acknowledges. Then, it was not the war on terrorism but the conviction that Boris Yeltsin was essential to the survival of Russian democracy. "Of course Clinton and Kohl had a right to their calculations," Mr. Kovalyev says. "But their calculations sacrificed other people's lives -- tens of thousands of lives." Mr. Kovalyev says he would not presume to tell Bush what to do, in the improbable event of an Oval Office meeting. He says only that to close your eyes to the true nature of Putin's war and Putin's regime of "managed democracy" is "not far-sighted."

But Mr. Kovalyev is a ghost in a Washington consumed with hard-headed calculations about Security Council votes and European alliances and intelligence cooperation. He slips in, he slips out, nothing changes.

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