The Independent (UK)
June 6, 2003
For all the blood, the cause of the Chechens is just
By Johann Hari
The Chechen cause is just and righteous. This may seem a terrible thing to say only one day after a Chechen suicide bomber killed herself and at least 17 others (including seven civilians) in an attack in southern Russia. Yet, just as the IRA's slaughter of British civilians did not deprive the Catholic civil rights campaign of legitimacy, so this lethal assault must not distract us from the cries of the Chechen people.
The fate of the Palestinians is now receiving the attention it deserves, for the first time since the collapse of the Oslo peace accords in 2000. However, we still hear very little about the other running sore in the Muslim world - Chechnya. The issue is simple compared to the conflict in Palestine. The Chechens have sought independence from Russia for more than 200 years, and they have had to fight aggressive attempts to assimilate them or even ethnically cleanse them from the land they have inhabited for more than two thousand years.
It is not hard to see why Chechens want nothing to do with Russia. To give just one example of how they have been treated by their neighbours: in 1944, Stalin deported the entire population of Chechnya to Kazakhstan because he thought they had supported the Germans during the war. Half the 400,000-strong group died on the way. This remains one of the most heinous acts of ethnic cleansing in human history.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and several regions declared their autonomy, hopes for Chechen independence were openly expressed once again. Russia's reaction has been so confused and deranged that it is hard to summarise. Thomas de Waal, the Caucasus editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, has summed it up best. He says - after taking a deep breath: "Since 6 Sept 1991, when the last Communist administration was overthrown in Grozny, Moscow has tried the following tactics, in this order: support the new regime; threaten it; land troops; retreat; negotiate and blockade; arm the opposition; bomb; declare victory; negotiate; surrender; support the new regime; ignore it; threaten it; bomb; proclaim victory." Got that?
In this turbulent, incoherent decade, incredible though it may seem, 200,000 Chechens - a third of the population - have been killed and 150,000 people have become refugees. At first, it seems hard to see why the Russians under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin have fought so hard to keep hold of Chechnya. Partly it is fear of a "domino effect", where successive regions would try to break away; but, for once, that mind-numbing cliche of the hard left - "it's all about oil" - is mostly true.
Chechens have the misfortune to live on top of massive oil reserves, and critical pipelines linking the oil-rich republics of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to the Russian port of Novorossiysk run through the region. Russia's leaders are loath to give these up to what they see as a bunch of backward peasants.
Britain is complicit in this. Only last week, Tony Blair endorsed Putin's Chechnya policy by praising a sham "referendum" Russia held in the region in March without proper electoral monitoring and against the backdrop of horrifying acts by Russian soldiers. The ballot offered the Chechens a choice to accept or reject Russia's peace plan, which meant in practice a choice between Putin's way (very limited autonomy under Russian rule) and more bombings and butchery. Our Prime Minister called this "a good step forward". There has clearly been a terrible strategic choice in Downing Street that courting the Russian leader is more important than trying to bring about change in Chechnya.
But Blair - who has a good human rights record in many ways - is mistaken if he thinks that Chechnya is a remote issue with no impact upon Britain. Driven to the brink of madness, the Chechen people are increasingly ditching their once-moderate faith for an extremist strain of Islam. Jihadists across the world now see Chechnya as one of their great struggles, and Osama bin Laden uses Russian abuses as a recruiting tool. Right now, a generation of Chechen children is growing up with a fanatical hatred of the West and a strong commitment to a bloody international jihad.
Putin claims that his attacks are justified as a "war on terror", thus making a mockery of the vitally important battle against al-Qa'ida. The Chechens are only turning to Islamofascism now because every other route has failed; by ignoring every other attempt to achieve freedom, Putin has created a breeding ground for fanatical Islam. The only solution is to offer the Chechens independence, and thus drain the Bin Ladenist swamp in one more region.
This might seem a remote goal, but so was a peaceful Ireland or a Palestinian state only a decade ago. Pressuring Putin for this is not only the moral thing to do, it is necessary for the long-term safety of British people. Nobody thought that the massing of resistance fighters in Afghanistan in the late 1970s would spawn activists who are prepared to kill us in our thousands. Chechnya is well on its way to becoming the new Afghanistan. We need to offer support for Chechen independence now, before its exponents become even more radicalised and begin - quite understandably - to despise us too.