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Washington Post
June 27, 2003
'Palestinizing' Chechnya
By Masha Lipman

A suicide attack early this month killed at least 19 people on a bus taking servicemen and civilians to work at a Russian military airport that Russian forces use to deliver airstrikes on Chechen fighters.

Suicide attacks are a new, highly alarming tactic in the Chechen crisis. This bombing was the fourth in five months and the first to occur outside Chechnya. Some in Russia are talking about the "Palestinization" of the Chechen crisis.

In 1999, when Vladimir Putin began Russia's second (his first) Chechen war, he seemed to believe in a military solution. But the war gradually evolved into guerrilla action, and the Russian army was stuck in Chechnya, much as it had been in the mid-'90s. A vicious circle of guerrilla attacks followed by punitive action has resulted in increased violence and dehumanization of both warring sides. A long stay in hostile territory has demoralized the Russian soldiers and led to widespread corruption. The Russian military presence may be large in Chechnya (about 80,000 troops), but passage through checkpoints can be bought easily and cheaply.

After a while the Kremlin realized the need for a change of policy. Rumors of secret meetings between Russian envoys and Chechen representatives began to surface. Yet, whether for fear of antagonizing military leaders, who regarded any talks as an attempt to steal the (unattainable) victory from them, or for other reasons, Putin and his aides would never openly discuss solutions involving direct contact with the warring Chechen leadership. Instead, this year the Kremlin opted for a series of largely cosmetic steps intended to create the appearance of a peace process.

A constitutional referendum was held in Chechnya in March. The draft constitution on the ballot defined Chechnya as a constituent part of Russia. The official results -- 89.5 percent turnout and a pro-Russia vote exceeding 95 percent -- are largely believed to have been rigged. But independent pollster Sergei Khaikin, who recently undertook surveys in Chechnya, points out that while the turnout was falsified, the majority of Chechens who came to the polls did vote in favor of being part of Russia. (According to Khaikin's poll, 62 percent participated in the referendum and, of these, 91 percent voted for Chechnya to remain within Russia.) Apparently, the brief period of Chechnya's de facto independence between the two wars was not an encouraging experience.

Unfortunately, the Chechen fighters don't care about referendum results. Clashes between the fighters and the federal troops continue to be routine, and three major suicide attacks, in which nearly 100 people were killed, have been carried out since the referendum.

The next Kremlin initiative was an amnesty for Chechen fighters not involved in serious crimes. But the amnesty and its accompanying disarmament are a unilateral offer by Russia's legislators based on no agreement with the side that would disarm and backed by no guarantees of their safety. The Moscow representative of Aslan Maskhadov -- elected Chechen president in 1997 and now one of the leaders of the armed opposition to Moscow -- has explained why there is no genuine incentive for disarmament: When an amnesty was announced in 1999, of the 500 fighters who laid down their weapons, about 450 were later arrested, went missing or were killed. The roster of those who had turned in their arms was likely used as a "wanted" list.

The next scheduled phase of the "political process" will be the Chechen presidential elections. The current Moscow-appointed head of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, is feared and hated by many Chechens. He has strengthened his power and built a force of armed supporters who appear to be no less prone to violence, looting and extortion than the Russian soldiers. The Kremlin does not seem to fully trust his loyalty or his integrity, but because he is in charge of distributing the budget money from Moscow, he is the favorite in the forthcoming election. And if he is elected, he will continue to be backed by the Russian military (a pullout of the Russian troops is not an option, as it would surely be followed by a civil war between pro-Moscow forces and Chechen fighters). Which means that the circle of violence will go on in much the same fashion as before the "political process" began.

A real political solution would require rebuilding basic infrastructure in Chechnya and prosecuting soldiers engaged in unlawful violence and corruption (which would undoubtedly antagonize the military). Disarmament can be based only on agreement between the warring sides; otherwise, it will be meaningless.

Most important is to win back the trust of the Chechen people, embittered by years of violence and destruction and by the horrible memories of relatives killed before their eyes by Russian soldiers. According to Khaikin's survey, this last element is not so hopeless: Maskhadov is even less popular among Chechens than Putin. (Compare this with the relative popularity of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon in the Israeli-occupied territories.) A shared Soviet past gives at least some Chechen civilians an affinity for Russian-language education, culture, secular law, etc.

But to use this opportunity with the slimmest chance of success would take a long and painstaking effort.

The current Russian government will not undertake it. Instead it pursues a hypocritical and cynical policy of keeping the bloody and explosive status quo, under the guise of a political process. This way the only fragile opportunity in Chechnya will likely be lost over time, and then "Palestinization" may become total.

Masha Lipman, a Russian journalist, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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