The results of last weekend’s elections in Chechnya offer little hope for a solution. To no one’s surprise, former Interior Minister Alkhanov won in a landslide and promised to bring peace to the shattered country. Chechen rebels countered that the new president, like his predecessor, was already marked for death. While there can be no capitulation to the terrorists, the Russian strategy will not work; indeed, it has not worked. The iron fist is not enough; a failure to recognize the need to change course will ensure continuing violence in the Chechen Republic and elsewhere, too.
Chechen rebels have been fighting to establish a separate Islamic state since 1994. Tens of thousands of people were killed in a brutal and savage conflict that virtually flattened the capital of Grozny and was marked by human rights violations on both sides. The Russians withdrew from the republic in 1996, but returned with fury after a series of bombings of apartments in Russia that resulted in some 300 deaths, which the Moscow government blamed on the rebels. The move also helped reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong and forceful leader.
The return to Chechnya was no more successful than the first intervention. The Russians managed to drive Mr. Aslan Maskhadov, who won presidential elections in 1997, from office and install their own leader, but the rebel movement remained a powerful force. Mr. Akhmad Kadyrov won the presidency last fall — in elections widely thought to have been fixed by Moscow — but was assassinated in May at a celebration marking the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
The killing of Mr. Kadyrov, a hard-nosed Russian loyalist, should have awakened the government in Moscow to the realization that its efforts to beat the Chechen rebels were not succeeding. After his assassination, rebel attacks accelerated. There have been several large raids, including one on the capital, Grozny. In another worrisome development, Chechen terrorists are suspected of blowing up two civilian aircraft in Russia last week, killing 89 people. After first denying that terrorists had downed the planes, Russian investigators acknowledged that an explosive, linked to other attacks blamed on Chechen rebels, had been found in the wreckage of both planes. Chechen moderates have denied any involvement in the attacks, while an Islamist group claimed responsibility for the bombings.
Russia looked to last weekend’s elections to restore legitimacy to the Chechen government and give Moscow some breathing room. Mr. Alkhanov, another hardliner who served as Chechen interior minister, was handpicked by Mr. Putin. To no one’s surprise, Mr. Alkhanov won nearly three-quarters of votes cast. After the results were announced, the president-elect said he would work to rebuild Chechnya’s battered economy. He also said talks with the rebels were “impossible.”
That does not bode well for any kind of settlement. Observers have condemned the ballot as tainted. The European Union did not send observers because of security concerns, but the reports from news agencies do not give much reason for confidence. The United States has denounced the weekend elections as “undemocratic.”
The rebels agreed, labeling the election illegitimate, and warned that Mr. Alkhanov would meet the same fate as his predecessor. They did not stop there; they apparently responded to the vote with a suicide bombing in Moscow this week that killed 10 people and injured 51 others. The same group that took credit for the aircraft downings took credit for this attack. It is unclear whether the claim is legitimate, but the attack does have many of the hallmarks of the Chechen guerrillas.
One day after the Moscow bombing, armed militants, believed to be Chechens, took hundreds hostage at a school in Beslan, southern Russia, and a standoff was continuing amid heightened tension on Friday.
The Russian government should not give in to the terrorists. But battling the guerrillas is not enough. Moscow needs a multidimensional strategy to deal with this problem, but there is no evidence that one exists. Mr. Putin is determined to exterminate the rebels, but that strategy will only alienate the Chechen people and breed more terrorists. The destruction that follows will only guarantee more desperation. As in all such conflicts, Russia must win the hearts and minds of the Chechen people, and wean them from the belief that the rebels offer more than Moscow does. Until Russia does that, the bloody conflict in Chechnya will continue to escalate.
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