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Chechnya and the theatre of war.

An anti-terrorist state is taking shape in Russia. The gas attack in the Theatre Na Dubrovke set far-reaching political processes in motion. All of the state's activities are now centred around the war on terrorism. Any criticism of the special services therefore becomes an anti-government act. New State Duma legislation restricts the freedom of the press to cover anti-terrorist operations. It is now forbidden to analyse the actions of law enforcement in such operations, much less to criticize them. This allows the repressive organs of our government to violate human fights and even the laws of the Russian Federation with impunity. After special-forces commandos stormed the Theatre Na Dubrovke early Saturday morning, the authorities proclaimed the operation a complete success. They first announced that the enemy had been destroyed with no losses among the hostages or special forces. Then they mentioned thirty dead. By midday on Saturday the death toll had reached sixty-seven people, and in the evening the Health Ministry officially admitted that 'more than ninety people' had died, after which physicians were forbidden from talking to the press. On Sunday, the number of dead reached 117.

The crisis saw an unprecedented government crackdown on the media. The Moskovia television station was taken off the air after broadcasting an interview with a hostage who called for an end to the war in Chechnya. After being warned by the authorities, normally opposition-minded Ekho Moskvy radio toed the official line in its coverage of the hostage crisis. The Chechen web site was taken offline. The authorities did in Moscow what they have been doing for more than three years in Chechnya: they blocked the flow of information; they lied and passed off defeat as victory. But what the federal government gets away with in a distant Caucasus republic did not work in Moscow, with dozens of journalists and thousands of witnesses watching.

The public was told that the raid was launched, only after the gunmen began killing hostages. But even law enforcement officials admitted that the raid had been planned in advance, and that they had intentionally taunted the gunmen with 'leaks' about the upcoming attack in an attempt to keep the gunmen off-balance (and thereby goad them into starting a fight). It appears that the gunmen did open fire on the hostages, but only after the raid was already underway, when people panicked and some probably tried to escape. The gunmen had not begun executing the hostages on Saturday morning: it was the raid on the theatre that led to massive casualties.

So was it really necessary to storm the building? Yes, it was necessary--politically necessary. The authorities needed the raid and all the casualties in order to make it possible for them to continue the war in Chechnya, to contain the growing anti-war mood in society, and to demonstrate Vladimir Putin's decisiveness and strength of will. On the evening before the raid, the gunmen let it be known that they would free the hostages if the government made an unambiguous commitment to negotiations. If that commitment had been made, the people in the theatre could still be alive. But for Putin, such a declaration would have amounted to political suicide. The percentage of Russians supporting the war in Chechnya had been falling monthly, but the push for a peaceful solution had not developed into a popular anti-war movement. The hostage crisis changed this situation. Many people who used to criticize the war in private stepped up and made their views known. Relatives of the hostages formed an anti-war committee. This was not the result of 'Stockholm Syndrome', when victims identify with their captors, or an attempt to please the kidnappers. The morning after the raid, representatives of the anti-war committee affirmed their intention to continue protesting against the war.

The authorities sensed a threat, not from the gunmen, but from society--the first real threat of Putin's presidency. Urgent measures were needed, and they were taken. The crisis made everything clear. The current regime will never agree to peace under any circumstances. While the current president and his team are in power, Russia will be at war.

The War on Chechnya

The background to the hostage crisis in the Theatre Na Dubrovke was an intensifying war in Chechnya, coupled with an increased pressure for peace talks. During August and September the intensity of the military actions had not only increased, but the losses being suffered by the federal Russian forces had become impossible to conceal. First came attacks by Chechen fighters on border posts and positions of the federal forces. Then a transport helicopter was shot down near Khankala, and 118 service personnel were killed--the same number as died on the submarine Kursk. President Putin was forced to declare a period of national mourning, and after a few more days a new communique on the helicopter was issued.

The upsurge of military actions reflects political and technical developments. On the political level, the crucial new element has been the success of the once divided insurgents in again uniting around President Asian Maskhadov. This followed the mysterious death of 'Amir' Khattab, the leader of the radical Islamic forces. Khattab was an Arab who had earlier fought in Afghanistan, and who evidently had links to the Saudi security forces. The secular leaders of the resistance had always regarded him as a serious problem, suspecting him of setting out to divide and manipulate the Chechens. Nevertheless, they would scarcely have decided to deal with him on their own account. If word of such a conspiracy had leaked out, it would have provoked a disastrous internecine conflict within the insurgent ranks. Whoever killed Khattab, the death of the Arab fighter proved extremely timely for President Maskhadov. From now on Maskhadov would have under his control all the armed insurgent units, irrespective of their political orientation. Having settled the question of how their actions were to be co-ordinated, the Chechens started operating much more effectively. Meanwhile, they had managed to acquire substantial quantities of anti-aircraft weapons, which soon made an impact on the course of the campaign.

The same was occurring in Chechnya as happened in Afghanistan fifteen years ago. There, the Soviet forces were incapable of crushing the resistance, but neither could the insurgents gain the upper hand over a regular army, above all because of the latter's superiority in the air. The turning point came when portable anti-aircraft weapons systems arrived on the scene, and helicopters ceased to be invulnerable. The only difference is that in Afghanistan the American anti-aircraft rockets were provided through clandestine channels, while Russian antiaircraft systems are brought to the fighters in Chechnya directly from the stores of the Russian army--that is, provided money is available. The creation of a unified command has allowed the Chechen insurgents to strengthen their finances as well. The result has promptly become apparent on the battlefield.

Simultaneously with the news of the losses, reports reached Moscow of unofficial talks that Russian politicians had held in Liechtenstein with Akhmed Zakaev, the representative of the Chechen president in Western Europe. The Russian delegation included deputies to the State Duma; its highest-placed member was Ivan Rybkin, who represented Russia at the talks that brought an end to the first Chechnya war. The talks in Liechtenstein could mark the beginning of a peace process, or now, in the context of the gas attack in the Theatre Na Dubrovke, could represent yet another inconclusive meeting. The representatives of the Russian side did not have an official mandate. Even if their initiative was co-ordinated 'at the top level', this changed nothing; in formal terms, the Kremlin knew nothing of the meeting, and could reject any plans out of hand. Meanwhile, the Russian leadership continues to call into question the authority of Maskhadov and his representatives.

But if Maskhadov cannot represent the Chechens, who can? For three years the Kremlin has done everything it can to block the activity on Chechen territory of any organs or structures that might democratically represent the interests of the population on the scale of the entire republic. In Nazrani a year ago a Chechen antiwar congress, delegates to which had been democratically elected in all regions of Chechnya, was forcibly dispersed. The delegates managed to adopt a peace declaration that pledged 'unconditional adherence to peace and to the norms of international law as set down in the documents of the United Nations Organisation and the Council of Europe'. Condemning terrorism, the Congress declared that the official organs of the Chechen republic had had nothing to do with the explosions that took place in 1999 in apartment buildings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buynaksk, and expressed the conviction that Chechens in general had played no part in the acts of terrorism that preceded the new war.

The Congress was in no sense a 'pro-Maskhadov' gathering. While expressing their 'belief in the legitimacy of President Asian Maskhadov and of the Parliament of the Chechen Republic', the delegates at the same time condemned Maskhadov's policies, stating that the president had 'failed to ensure respect for the constitutional rights of the citizens of the Chechen Republic'. The active participants in the congress were for the most part Chechens oriented toward Russian culture, and with no wish to sever their links with Russia. Unlike the Islamists and nationalists, this sector of Chechen society fears that if the Republic were to isolate itself from Russia, it would turn into a 'new Afghanistan'. Even among these Chechens, however, the federal forces evoke nothing but hostility. The Congress insisted that a solution to the problems of security and of law and order had to be found within the framework of the Chechen constitution, and in such a way that Chechen society played the decisive role in events. The status of the Republic should be determined by 'a referendum under international supervision'. The road to peace lay through talks between Maskhadov and the Russian authorities, and also through reconciliation between Chechens and the consolidation of the nation.

The problem that continues to be faced by the Russian authorities is that they cannot allow any referendum to take place in Chechnya. The more energetically the federal forces impose their 'constitutional order' in the Republic, the greater the hatred they arouse, and consequently, the less their chances of victory in a referendum. Nevertheless, there is a road to a peaceful resolution. It does not lie in a deal struck between the Russian and Chechen elites, but through democratic procedures. The talks in Liechtenstein represented a new attempt at such an elite agreement. What failed in the years from 1996 to 1999 was not the peace process, but the politics of collusion, of behind-the-scenes talks and of ambiguous agreements between Moscow and Grozny.

What Chechnya needs now is a halt to military operations, but a no less vital need is for the self-organization of society--the only way in which the 'field commanders' can be put in their place. This is obviously impossible under the conditions of military hostilities. Peace in Chechnya, however, is not a short-term matter. Even after a cease-fire the peace process will continue for months, and perhaps years, before a definitive settlement is reached. A whole mountain of problems has accumulated. There is not only the notorious question of the status of the republic (this, moreover, cannot be reduced simply to the approval of a juridical formula by the two sides). The problem is one of security, of the return of refugees (including Russian-speaking ones), of reconstruction, of the economic system, of dealing with corruption, of providing transport and pensions, and so forth. Irrespective of whether we declare the republic independent, whether we leave it within the Russian Federation or find a compromise (moderate Chechens speak of a 'protectorate'), comprehensive solutions must be found to all these problems. The trouble is that attempting to solve these problems without the participation of Chechen society is pointless. No peace settlement will work unless its basic principle is the creation of the conditions for a democratic process in the republic. It is not a matter of replacing the dictatorship of the federal authorities with a 'democracy of the fighters', as existed between 1996 and 1999. What is required is a genuine representation of all the forces that are active in the republic, irrespective of whose side they were on during the conflict. The question is not whether the slaughter in Chechnya will cease, but what sort of republic will emerge from the bloodshed. It is around this that the fundamental struggle will now be acted out. However, with the gas attack in the Theatre Na Dubrovke, the Russian government have made it very clear where they stand.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Kagarlitsky, Boris
Publication:Arena Journal
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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