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#15 - JRL 7239
The Times (UK)
June 25, 2003
A war in a faraway land that Putin wants to cover up
By Vanora Bennett

If Slobodan Milosevic had come calling on the Queen while his militias were doing their bloody business in Kosovo, he might have expected a posse of burly police waiting for him at the airport with handcuffs and arrest warrants. Her Majesty is offering a very different kind of hospitality to Vladimir Putin, the Russian President. Yet it is hard to know why the fate of the 3,000 Albanians killed during the Kosovo “ethnic cleansing” of 1999 is any more shocking than the murders of thousands of Chechen civilians whose bodies lie rotting in mass graves. Mr Putin learnt an important lesson from the first Chechen war, conducted by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin: don’t let outsiders in to find out facts for themselves. Under President Yeltsin, the world saw Russian forces destroy Grozny. But a concerted campaign by Mr Putin’s administration since he started the second war in 1999 has pretty much sealed off Chechnya from the outside world.

Journalists are let in only on rare day-trips. They are kept on too tight a rein to talk to even the occasional man on the street. Foreign aid groups are kept out. Human Rights Watch has applied — and been rejected — ten times. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the body that monitored the two modern Chechen wars, was kicked out last December. The Red Cross does some work, with Russian security, but cannot comment.

So no one is in a position to refute the bogus-sounding claims Moscow makes: that the worst of the war is over, and that the Chechens “voted” in a referendum to stay with Russia. Any awkward facts that leak out are almost completely deniable. Offered by lone, brave, outside observers, these disturbing facts tend to get lost in a morass of claim and counter-claim between obscure people with forgettable names.

When Le Monde recently put the number of murdered Chechen civilians found in mass graves in the latest war at 3,000, the pro-Moscow puppet Government in Grozny denied it — though after some hesitation it did admit that there were 49 mass graves, and that 1,500 civilians had gone “missing” since 1999. In April, the Chechen Prime Minister, Anatoly Popov, admitted that Russian soldiers had kidnapped up to 300 civilians over the past year, something he blithely dismissed as “nothing extraordinary”.

Yet it doesn’t take many such awkward facts to convey the hell that is life for a Chechen civilian. The murder rate is 15 times higher than Moscow’s. The local administration’s figures show that rampaging Russian soldiers are responsible for much more of the killing than Chechen gunmen. Russian forces routinely take away young Chechen men who never come back. Some are dropped out of military helicopters. Some bodies turn up in mass graves bearing marks of torture. This is why 15,000 civilians who have escaped the war prefer their grim refugee existence in tent cities west of Chechnya, with Russian tank guns trained on them.

It is easy to turn a blind eye to the horrors in a faraway land of which Mr Putin has made sure we know little. It is even easier to engage with the smiling face of Russia and to hope that engagement will some day encourage Mr Putin into real reform — of the corrupt, chaotic army, or the muzzled press, or the weak judiciary — that will make these abuses impossible.

But Russia won’t examine its shortcomings unless it feels pressure from abroad to become more accountable. Tony Blair should insist that journalists and aid workers be let back into Chechnya. Giving Russian officials tacit permission to pretend the ugliest bits of their reality are not happening will only doom broader relations between Moscow, London and the rest of the West to endless exchanges of meaningless platitudes.

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