LIMASSOL, Cyprus — Europeans have a way of knowing what’s best for other peoples’ conflicts but facing their own crises with ineptitude, and there is no better demonstration of this than their attitude to the war in Chechnya.
There is something galling about Gauls lecturing the world on what The New Republic’s Martin Peretz has derisively called “the salvific power of diplomacy.” After all, the Europeans were feckless accomplices to genocidal slaughters within their own continent in the past decade.
Consider the Dutch peacekeepers’ willingness to hand over 7,500 Bosnian young men from a U.N. safe haven, to be executed by Serbian forces. Or Germany’s recitation throughout the 1990s that “force doesn’t solve anything,” particularly in the Balkans. Only when the United States showed leadership was the slaughter of Muslims halted.
Today, Russians have little patience with European criticism about Chechnya. In Russia, as in Israel, a government weary of war gave as much as it felt it could to a people fighting for independence. The result was that Chechens, like Palestinians, launched a renewed war that negated their gains and brought everything crashing down on their heads.
Of course, Russia, unlike Israel, is only a quasi-democracy. The Kremlin has waged a brutal war in which human rights abuses have been widespread. Young men have been rounded up, imprisoned and tortured, and a city of 393,000 was bombed into a ghost town, its population turned out as refugees.
But even Russians who detest the war despair on what to do about Chechnya. Consider the recent history. After a bloody two-year conflict, Chechens won de facto independence in 1996. Russians had seen other areas of what had once been the Soviet homeland secede, and a majority was happy to wash its hands of the region. Elections were held in Chechnya in January of 1997, and Aslan Maskhadov was chosen president.
Russians might be forgiven for expecting Chechnya would make a go of it, having won every concession it could reasonably expect (though Moscow had not gone as far as Israel, which offered Palestinians full independence in 2000). After all, the Tatar Autonomous Republic has prospered within the Russian Federation while flying its own flag, electing its own president and drafting a separate constitution.
But Chechnya became a Lebanon of the north, a cesspool of kidnapping and crime. Terrorists beheaded foreign aid workers. Slavery thrived. Sharia, or Islamic religious law, was instated. In what had once been part of a secular European nation, judges came from the Middle East to sentence adulterers and thieves under a code drafted by medieval Arabian tribesmen (I interviewed one such judge in Jordan last year). Russians in neighboring regions saw their family members kidnapped and held hostage. Ransom payments became a major source of foreign currency
I remember a particular news broadcast on Russian television in the late 1990s: A 5-year-old boy, held by Chechen kidnappers in a dark basement for a year, had been released. There he was on TV, standing, for some reason, in his underpants and T-shirt as his mother hugged and kissed him and told reporters of her joy. He showed no reaction. He stared at the cameras with hollow eyes. One wondered if he would ever recover psychologically.
Even in such a degraded conditions, Chechnya might have festered in isolation for decades. But Russia was hit with a series of apartment bombings that killed more than 300 in 1999. And a band of Chechen guerrillas invaded and attempted to bring Islamic rule to Dagestan, a Muslim Russian region that had no interest in independence.
The international news media (and Russians themselves) speculated that the Kremlin had somehow concocted the bombings as a pretext for striking Chechnya. Russia has a brutal enough history to fuel such accusations. But no hard evidence of Moscow’s involvement has ever been offered, and the Russian Army later seized an explosives factory in Chechnya where it said the apartment bombs were manufactured. In the West, where newspaper columnists were reporting the conspiracy theory as fact, the news about the bomb factory was scarcely reported.
One can believe the Kremlin or not on this matter, but the critics have forgotten that the Chechen invasion of Russia alone was casus belli. The second round of war flared up when Russian troops pursued the invaders who had scurried back for cover in their failed state. The Chechen invasion of Russia is not even mentioned in Time magazine’s Nov. 4 story on the Moscow hostage crisis or an accompanying timeline on recent history of the conflict.
Chechnya has simmered for centuries under Russian and Soviet domination. Still, it is tempting to say that the darkest moment in Chechen history was sparked as much by ancient Caucasian rivalries as by the historic clash with Russia. News reports these days regularly mention that the Soviet Union exiled virtually the entire population of Chechnya to Kazakstan in the 1940s (they were later allowed to return); what isn’t noted is that Joseph Stalin, who ordered the deportation, hailed from the Caucasian republic of Georgia, which borders Chechnya to the south.
The war in Chechnya is deeply unpopular among the Russian public at large. But Chechens have shown a genius for turning the Russian public against its cause, and following the hostage crisis in Moscow this has happened again.
President Vladimir Putin has vowed to subdue Chechnya through force. If that policy fails, as seems to be happening, Russians may someday return to negotiations with Chechnya. But they will do so with bitter hearts, knowing what an independent Chechnya means: a lawless Islamic state whose biggest growth industry is kidnapping for ransom.
In a Europe whose radicalized Muslim population is exploding, this kind of diplomatic solution would surely be no cause for congratulations.