Saturday, February 14, 2004

As the media remains fixated on Iraq and the next outlandish comment to come out of the mouth of Howard Dean, there is a major news story receiving very little attention: the slow, creeping genocide in Chechnya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin insists his troops are conducting a military campaign aimed at wiping out “Islamic international terrorism” from the war-torn southern province. Using the global war on terrorism as a pretext to consolidate Moscow’s iron grip over the breakaway republic, the Russian army has been waging a war of extermination against the Chechen people.

Yet the West has been silent in the face of Russia’s genocidal campaign. Instead of demanding the Kremlin withdraw its forces and negotiate a peace settlement with Chechen leaders, the Bush administration continues its shameful policy of neglect.

President Bush is convinced that, after looking into “the soul” of Mr. Putin, the former KGB apparatchik is an important ally in the war on terrorism. Washington has accepted Moscow’s line that the issue of Chechnya is a Russian “internal matter.” Mr. Bush would be better served if he looked at Mr. Putin’s actions.

Before the conflict began nearly a decade ago, there were approximately 1 million Chechens in the small mountainous republic in the Caucusus. Since then, human-rights activists estimate hundreds of thousands have been displaced, thousands more have simply “disappeared” and more than one-fourth of the population is believed to have died.

A report last year by the Council of Europe documented extensive human-rights violations by Russian forces, including widespread torture of Chechens.

Also, the Russian army has launched a scorched-earth campaign, seeking not only to cripple the Chechen nation, but its economy and physical environment as well. Its capital, Grozny, is in ruins. Most of Chechnya’s land has been devastated by defoliants. The remainder of the population is slowly dying through a combination of war, disease and sky-rocketing suicide.

Sadly, Chechnya’s plight is not new. In terms of proportionate losses and victims of genocide, three peoples suffered the most during the 20th century: Jews, Gypsies and Chechens. In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported most of the Chechen nation to the icy far east to punish them for their staunch opposition to communism. More than half of all Chechens died during the murderous operation, many of them freezing to death or simply butchered by Red Army troops.

Following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, the surviving Chechens returned to their native land. From 1994 until 1996, they fought a courageous war for independence against Russian imperial rule. An intense guerrilla campaign by Chechen tribal clans forced Russian troops to retreat.

But in 1999 Moscow sought to reassert its authority in another invasion. The conflict continues to this day, with Chechen civilians the primary victims (about 5,000 Russian soldiers also have died).

Moscow’s brutal occupation has convinced most Chechens to abandon their dreams of national sovereignty; many now would gladly accept some form of autonomy. Yet Mr. Putin refuses to even consider the idea. He demands world leaders accept the notion every Chechen leader is a terrorist. Therefore, Russia’s hawks argue peaceful compromise is impossible, and the only viable solution is all-out military victory — regardless of the humanitarian consequences.

The Kremlin’s line is not completely without merit. During the past several years, Chechnya has attracted international Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other Arab states. The goal of the militants is to forge a fundamentalist Muslim republic. However, most of the Chechen rebels are not Islamic extremists, but romantic nationalists seeking to defend Chechen rights against an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

The savage war in Chechnya is simply one component in Russia’s evolution from a fledgling democracy into a repressive corporate state. Rather than a pro-European Westernizer, Mr. Putin has shown himself to be a Russian Francisco Franco or Augusto Pinochet: a right-wing strongman who champions social order and market-driven economic growth. Under his leadership, Moscow has begun flexing its muscles against neighboring countries, leading dissidents such as tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky have been arrested on trumped-up charges and basic press freedoms and civil rights have come under assault.

The West’s appeasement of Russia risks emboldening the Kremlin to continue its anti-democratic and expansionist policies.

Moreover, failure to condemn Mr. Putin’s genocidal rampage in Chechnya threatens to open Western governments to charges of hypocrisy. Although it took decisive action to stop the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia, the West refuses to lift a finger to help prevent the tragedy unfolding in the Russian province.

Yet unlike the discovery of the Nazi death camps after the Second World War, this time the civilized world cannot claim the excuse of lacking knowledge of the horrors occurring in Chechnya. We know. We just don’t care.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a historian and contributing writer for The Washington Times.

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