Is Chechnya Part of the War Against Terrorism?

Is Chechnya Really Part of the War Against Terrorism?

By Reese Erlich for the Russia Project

Nazran, Ingushetia, Russia—"Will America bomb us now?" asked Aza, a 41-year-old Chechen refugee. She knows that Presidents Bush and Putin have allied to fight terrorism and worries that the United States will aid Russia's war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Assured that the United States has no plans to militarily support the Russians, Aza is nonetheless concerned about the shift in US policy.

For years President Putin has claimed that Osama bin Laden financed and trained fighters in Chechnya, but never produced specific proof. Since September 11, President Putin has received a much more favorable response from both the Bush administration and other Western leaders. They now publicly call Chechnya part of the war against terrorism and no longer criticize Russian human rights abuses there.

"I think Americans understand a little bit more about the complexity of terrorists, and that the Russians are not so evil," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, former deputy chair of a Duma committee on Chechnya, who now heads the Polity Foundation think tank in Moscow.

But Chechens say bin Laden has no control over events in their republic and that they are waging a war of independence against a brutal occupying army.

"It's stupid to link the rebels with bin Laden," said Aza.

Indeed, the war in Chechnya is far more complicated than politicians in Moscow or Washington publicly admit.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechen leaders declared independence. Russia rejected the claim and in 1994 launched a brutal war against rebels and civilians alike. By 1996 Russia was militarily humbled. President Boris Yeltsin was forced to withdraw Russian troops and sign a peace treaty giving Chechnya de facto independence.

However, Chechnya quickly descended into near anarchy with criminal gangs and warlords operating freely. Supporters of a strict Islamic state, known generically as wahhabis, began to emerge as a political force.

Shamil Basayev, a wahhabi warlord, invaded the Russian province of Dagestan in August 1999 and briefly declared an Islamic state before he was driven back into Chechnya by Russian troops.

Then terrorists exploded bombs that killed 300 people in apartment buildings in Russian cities far from Chechnya. The Russian government blamed Chechen rebels.

But in September 1999, troops from Russia's internal security bureau were caught planting a bomb in an apartment basement in the town of Ryazan. The troops later claimed they were carrying out a training exercise. Critics say at least some of the apartment bombings were government provocations aimed at creating outrage that would translate into civilian support for a renewed military campaign in Chechnya.

Later in 1999, Russia sent troops into Chechnya once again. In the past two years, the Russian military claims to have killed 11,000 rebels while suffering only a few thousand casualties. But groups organized by mothers of Russian soldiers estimate that as many as 10,000 Russian military have been killed.

At the beginning of the current war, an estimated 16,000-20,000 rebel fighters took up arms against the Russian military. Many thousands are still fighting today. The rebels fall into three general categories:

Rebels of all stripes enjoy some popular support because of what critics say are the corrupt and brutal tactics of the Russian military. Refugees complain of indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks that have killed thousands of civilians.

"Soldiers can approach any food market and take everything," said Sasita Muradova, a lawyer for the Russian human rights group Memorial. Chechen civilians frequently must bribe soldiers to get people out of jail or even to get the corpses of slain relatives. This "trading and selling of people is awful," said Muradova.

Former Duma Deputy Nikonov admits that Russian troops violate human rights but, echoing similar justifications by US authorities regarding Afghanistan, says such tactics are sometimes necessary in the fight against terrorism.

"I've never heard of a bloodless operation where human lives aren't lost and civil rights were observed," said Nikonov.

But such operations look quite different to the victims. Tiempieva Hasan was caught in a Russian bombing raid in her hometown.

"My jaw was injured, and I lost my teeth in the explosion," she said. "I am only 39 years old, and I don't have one tooth."

Hasan later fled to refugee camps in the neighboring Russian province of Ingushetia, along with 150,000 other Chechens. They and the 165,000 others displaced inside Chechnya and nearby Dagestan would like to return home.

In November representatives of President Putin and Aslan Maskhadov met in Moscow to hold talks. But so far serious peace negotiations have not yet begun. For refugees, such as Hasan, the peace process can't start soon enough.

"If we were guaranteed that there would be no more bombing, today, with my entire family, I would walk to Chechnya," said Hasan. "I would not have spent a night here otherwise."