As Russia enters the sixth week of a campaign to dislodge Chechen rebels, the Russian government has stepped up its massive air strikes on Chechen towns. The bombing campaign -- reminiscent of NATO's devastation of Serbia earlier this year -- coupled with the behavior of Russian troops on the ground, has led Sergei Kovalyov, a human rights activist in the Russian Duma, to remark, "In Chechnya, Russia is using NATO's methods to achieve [Slobodan] Milosevic's ends," as quoted by the Independent on November 3.
Nearly one third of Chechnya's one million people have been forced from their homes by the Russian offensive and some 200,000 have already crossed over into the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. With winter coming and food scarce, the Red Cross has warned of a humanitarian disaster.
The Russian attack on Chechnya, which Russian Defence Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev admitted on November 3 was aimed at recapturing the whole of the republic lost during the 1994-1996 war, is clearly one of the most serious crises to face the international community this year. On location in Ingushetia and writing for the Independent on November 3, Patrick Cockburn said, " What is happening is a tragedy equal to anything witnessed in Kosovo and East Timor earlier in the year."
Western governments have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of Russia's handling of the Chechen situation. U.S. President Bill Clinton voiced such concerns to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a recent meeting in Oslo, Norway, in calling for a negotiated settlement with the Chechens. But as is evident in a November 4 Independent report by Rupert Cornwell, the United States and European governments have done little more than make pleas to the Russians to be more humane.
Russia cannot be expected to easily back down from its assault and enter into negotiations. The Russian government has, since its army's defeat by the Chechens in 1996, consistently refused to negotiate with the Chechens. Russia remains opposed to negotiations with the Chechens for a number of reasons. Chechnya is a principal player in the Caspian Sea energy game, and a pipeline to Russia from Caspian oil reserves passes through Chechnya. Russia no doubt views anything less than Russian supremacy in the republic a liability for its oil interests in the region.
Aside from the economic reasons, the Chechen dilemma is closely linked to Russia's national pride and thus with domestic politics. The Russian army was undoubtedly humiliated by its 1996 withdrawal and to finally enter into talks with the Chechens, especially now that international attention is focused on the region, would be an admission of defeat. Such an admission would be intolerable for Boris Yelstin's beleaguered government, as his popular rating suffered terribly in 1996 when the Russian people discovered the extent to which Moscow was bungling the war. In this regard, many analysts have concluded that the Chechen offensive, provided that it succors a quick victory with a minimum of Russian casualties, will serve as a source of popular support for Yelstin's government. While Yelstin has promised to step down in next year's elections, he has reportedly ceded all authority in the Chechen campaign to Prime Minister Valdimir Putin in an obvious attempt to support Putin's chances for election as Yelstin's primary ally.
Cornwell's Independent report observes that Western governments are unable to pressure Russia into accepting negotiations. The West cannot use military means to pressure a former world super-power that still possesses large amounts of nuclear weapons. Economic isolation would be somewhat futile in the short term because Russia has already received its IMF loan for this year and because its economy has picked up in recent months following a rise in oil prices. On the moral front, NATO-member countries are hamstrung by their relentless bombing of Serbia, while the United States continues to bomb Iraq.
According to Cornwell, the only available method would be to refuse to renegotiate a massive Russian debt owed to Western nations. But such a move would completely undermine the current Russian government. Despite whatever criticism Yelstin's government has recently incurred, it continues to receive Western backing simply because Western officials fear the alternative. Cornwell quotes an international financial official as saying, "The Russians say, 'We're so weak, you have to be careful with us. If you pull the rug from under this government, a much worse one could follow.'" So Western countries are reluctant to appear overbearing on Moscow. Cornwell writes, "Forcing Russia to accept policies that it does not like only cuts the ground from under the market-oriented modernizers on whom Russia's integration into the world community is ultimately held to depend."
But the recent behavior of the Russian government should alert Western nations that the worst fears concerning government in Russia have come to fruition. Even if Moscow gives lip service to the democratic, free-market ideology, the reality is that Yelstin's regime enjoys little popular legitimacy. Recent reports indicate high level Russian officials may be involved in substantial embezzlement. While Yelstin's unpredictability will not likely be missed, Putin himself has questionable democratic credentials. He gained notoriety for his long career in the KGB and the post-communist FSB. The BBC's Tom de Waal, writing on November 3, quotes an unofficial Chechen diplomat as saying, "Right now the current Russian government, Putin's government, has nothing to do with democracy, nothing to do with the problems of the Russian people."
The relationship between Western nations -- particularly the United States -- and Russia raises contradictions inherent in American and Western foreign policy. Namely, what is more important for a country to qualify for U.S.-backing: a free market economy or respect for human rights? America's and the West's unwillingness to force Russian compliance on one of the biggest humanitarian crises of this year is an indication that so long as Moscow continues to tout free-market ideals, it can be assured of Western patronage even if Western officials appear concerned over Chechnya's current plight. However far removed from democracy and human rights Moscow may be, the West is unwilling to admit that such a valuable free-market ally as the Yelstin government is really guilty of a long-term genocidal campaign against the Chechen people.
Zakariya Wright is a regular contributor to iviews.com