Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 58

Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky traveled to Paris this week for a presentation of his book, Nezhelatelny Svidetel (Undesirable Witness). During the presentation, Babitsky put forward his views on the war in Chechnya, which he said amounted to ongoing “genocide.” He said he had no illusions that the war would end anytime soon, “inasmuch as Putin is in power,” adding that the Russian president is certain that the military operation in Chechnya is legal and is defending “the vital interests of the Russian state.” Putin is also convinced that a long war will succeed in breaking the Chechen resistance, Babitsky said. Andrei Babitsky is one of the best-known Russian journalists specializing in issues related to Chechnya. He traveled to the breakaway republic several dozen times during both the 1994-1996 war and the current one, which began in 1999. In January 2000 he was arrested by Russian troops and then supposedly handed over to Chechen rebel forces in exchange for Russian POWs. Babitsky himself believes that the Chechens to whom he was handed over were actually agents of Russia’s special services. Several weeks after the “exchange,” his Chechen captors took him to Dagestan and gave him a false passport, after which he was arrested by local police and charged with using false documents. Many observers were certain that the entire episode was arranged by the Kremlin to punish Babitsky for his reporting from Chechnya. Babitsky remains a kind of a focal point for journalists, both inside and outside Russia, who are critical of the war in the breakaway republic.

Babitsky said during his Paris book presentation that it was “theoretically” possible that there are “links between certain radical Chechen groups… and the Taliban or Islamic fundamentalists.” He added, however, that while he was in Afghanistan he did not find “a single Chechen fighter, dead or alive.” “All the Russian journalists in Afghanistan received instructions to find Chechens, but we inspected all of the jails, asked all of the [Afghan] field commanders–in vain,” the Radio Liberty correspondent said. The allegation that Chechens have fought in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, which has been put forward by the Russian government and denied by the Chechen rebels, continues to be a source of debate. Interestingly, some media earlier this month quoted local residents in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-kot Valley as saying that the Taliban and al-Qaida forces targeted by U.S. and Afghan forces in Operation Anaconda included Chechen fighters (AP, March 4). The U.S. military has said the same thing. While apparently no Chechens were captured or found dead, U.S.-led forces reportedly found notes written in Russian and a Chechen-language Koran among the debris in captured enemy positions.

Asked by French philosopher Andrei Glucksman why the Chechens have not, like the Palestinians, resorted to terrorist acts against the civilian population to counter the “organized murder carried out by the Russian army,” Babitsky said that even the radical groups within the Chechen resistance were still under the influence of the more moderate wing headed by Aslan Maskhadov, who “has still not lost hope for peace talks with Moscow.” According to Babitsky, “the Chechens obey a law that demands revenge against those who committed the crime, and not [against] the state or other abstract entities.” He also said that the leaders of the Chechen resistance are from an older generation for whom “Russia is still not absolutely alien” and who, like many of their ethnic Russian counterparts, have “a nostalgia for the Soviet period” as a kind “Golden Age” (Le Figaro, March 21).

One could take issue to some degree with both Glucksman and Babitsky concerning the Chechen resistance’s attitude toward terrorism. One need only recall how Shamil Basaev and his forces took hostages in the southern Russian city of Budennovsk in June 1995 or the raid on the Dagestani city of Kizlyar by Salman Raduev’s forces in January 1996. More than 200 people were killed in these incidents, many of them civilians. In addition, Chechen rebels carried out several large-scale terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus cities of Mineralnye Vody, Pyatigorsk and Nalchik in 1997. Ten members of the 100-man band Basaev led in the Budennovsk raid are currently on trial in Stavropol Krai on a host of charges, including terrorism, banditry and hostage taking. They face prison sentences of fifteen to twenty-five years if found guilty (, March 21).

In any case, Babitsky said he was concerned by the “new generation” of Chechens, aged 15 to 20, “who see nothing besides hate, murder and violence against those close to them.” Because of this, the journalist expressed a very pessimistic view about the future, saying that a break between the older and younger generations of the Chechen resistance was inevitable (Le Figaro, March 21). Babitsky’s fears in this regard are warranted. Since 1991, when Chechnya’s first separatist leader, Djohar Dudaev, came to power, the schools in the republic have to all intents and purposes ceased to function. By the middle of the 1990s, the Monitor’s correspondent was already coming across Chechen teenagers who were unable to read and write but handled weapons with expertise. It is noteworthy that those involved in the hostage-taking business in Chechnya are mostly young people. Thus it would seem that Chechnya is following the pattern of Afghanistan, where a “war generation” has already been formed. For these people, who do not possess even an elementary understanding of life beyond Afghanistan’s borders, war has become a way of life.