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The Russia Journal
June 24, 2003
New themes for a changing Chechnya
By Robert Bruce Ware

Western media coverage of any significant story tends toward tidy themes that can be rewritten with slight variations for months, even years, at a time. It has not been surprising to find a simple theme running throughout most of the stories about Western policies toward Chechnya throughout much of the last two years. The theme has been that Western governments have turned a "blind eye toward Chechnya" in exchange for Russian cooperation with the war on terrorism, or, more recently, in the hope of Russian support for the war in Iraq.

But, of course, if a "quid pro quo" were behind American policy toward Chechnya, then it was not very successful because Russia did not support the United States in Iraq. Still the gathering of world leaders in St. Petersburg went smoothly, and the strength of Russian-American relations appear largely undiminished. In St. Petersburg, there was broad support for Russian policies (as distinguished from the abuse of those policies) in Chechnya.

Hence, there was a palpable sense of loss and frustration among the writers who attempted to rehearse the "blind eye" theme in the last few weeks. Le Monde (A. Glucksmann, "Russia: The Coronation of the Godfather," May 31, 2003) resorted to a bitter retrospective of the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1848, but others simply sputtered the tired rhetoric of the last three years. Perhaps it is time to consider a new theme, involving two basic reasons for Western support of Russia's current policies in Chechnya.

The first reason is that after Sept. 11, many Western leaders came to the tragically belated realization that the Cold War was over, that a new war had taken its place, and that the front-line of that war stretched from Manhattan to the Caucasus and beyond. Many were finally prepared to recognize that the current conflict in Chechnya is not primarily a separatist conflict, as was the preceding war. Instead of a separatist conflict, Russia is fighting to protect its citizens in the Caucasus from the massive human rights abuses that overwhelmed the region from 1996 to 1999 in the interwar period. Russia is fighting to protect its Muslim citizens in the region from the hostile imposition of a quasi-medieval Islamist state, a state to which most of those citizens are bitterly opposed, and a state that had already become a haven for international terrorism by 1999.

Russia has made many mistakes in Chechnya, but the only mistake that has received inadequate attention in the media is this: Russia has failed to explain (perhaps because it has sometimes failed to realize) that it is not fighting against the Muslims of the North Caucasus; it is fighting for them. That truth becomes very clear to anyone who spends time in Dagestan. It is unfortunate that Russian leaders failed to communicate this truth to their military, to their citizens, and to the world. Had they explained it to their military, there might have been a little less abuse of Chechen civilians. Had they explained it to the Russian population there might have been a little less prejudice against Caucasian peoples. Had they explained it to the world there might have been a little less prejudice against Russia.

The second reason why Western leaders support Russia's current policies in Chechnya is that those policies appear to be basically workable, when nothing else in Chechnya has appeared to be workable at all. Still further scrutiny is required.

Allegations of electoral fraud in the Chechen constitutional referendum of March 23 are probably correct, if largely irrelevant. They are probably correct because voter turnout and support for the new constitution were suspiciously high in some districts. An opportunity for electoral fraud arose after the October census, which clearly over-counted residents of the republic. In October 2002, the Russian census found 1,088,000 residents of Chechnya. This appears to be an unrealistic enumeration of Chechen residents, though it may come closer to approximating the total number of Chechen nationals in all locations. Census procedures permitted one member of a family to record the names of all family members, including those at a distance. Realistically, the number of Chechen residents should be less than 650,000 and perhaps closer to 550,000. Hence, the size of the current electorate inside Chechnya probably falls between 250,000 and 350,000. However, the voter lists for the referendum anticipated an electorate of approximately 540,000 people. It appears that there may have an opportunity to include thousands of falsified ballots. Together with ballots cast by Russian troops, and ballots cast by genuine supporters of the constitution, these tactics would have assured a victory, yet might have been difficult for election monitors to detect.

On the one hand, speculation of this sort is irrelevant not only because the referendum is over and done, but also because most ordinary Chechens are deeply exhausted after more than a decade of conflict and chaos and are likely to support any realistic plan for the stabilization of their daily lives. The outcome of the referendum appears to be roughly consistent with widely held sentiments, though it should not be allowed to disguise an ominous and enduring ambivalence.

Nevertheless there should be great concern that subsequent elections of the Chechen president and the Chechen parliament may be subject to fraud. It is crucial that these elected officials should represent the genuine views of the Chechen people, as, in any case those officials are sure to have a difficult struggle for legitimacy. Their illegitimate election would add to the desperate alienation that already exists. Since it seems likely that there will be electoral manipulation by various parties it is important that all interested observers should now begin to take steps to provide the closest possible scrutiny of those contests before, during, and after the votes.

Critics have condemned the proposed amnesty of Chechen militants for its conditionality, but realistically some militants have committed terrorist acts that cannot be amnestied (this goes as well for Russian servicemen guilty of human-rights abuses). Americans might consider their response to a hypothetical unconditional amnesty for members of Al-Qaida. Unconditional amnesty in Russia is unthinkable for many of the same reasons. Still, Russian officials would be well-advised to interpret those conditions as broadly as possible. Moreover, political and religious leaders from other North Caucasian republics should be encouraged to contact individual Chechen commanders in order to negotiate separate deals, which in some cases might involve incentives beyond amnesty. Amnestied leaders should have opportunities to stand in the upcoming elections. One of the more helpful tasks that human rights organizations might perform in coming years is to ensure that amnestied fighters find genuine opportunities for peaceful lives.

The embezzlement of reconstruction funds is inevitable, but can be anticipated and reduced. To some extent, any patterns of economic flow through the new Chechen administration will be helpful in so far as they help to consolidate new elites. As soon as possible after the elections, it would be helpful to launch high-profile public service projects in the republic, such as the construction of clinics and the restoration of schools.

Terrorist acts are signs of desperation, and as militants become increasingly isolated and desperate there will be more terrorist acts. Unfortunately, these acts are also inevitable and should not be regarded as a threat to the political process. In time, they too will become irrelevant and will fade away.

(Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who conducts field work in the Caucasus.)

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