The already poor state of Russian-Chechen relations took a precipitous nosedive last week when the bodies of ten to twelve persons, most of them ethnic Russians, were reported to have been discovered in the Chechen capital of Djohar. During talks held with Lord Frank Judd of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Russian Procurator General, Vladimir Ustinov, underscored that what he called “the mass murder of ethnic Russians” was now being viewed by the Russian government “as genocide” (RIA Novosti, March 22). In similar fashion, the chief prosecutor of the pro-Moscow Chechen government of Akhmad Kadyrov, Vsevolod Chernov, an ethnic Russian, charged the rebels with mass murder, asserting that they “had murdered the civilians as part of a campaign to intimidate residents into jointing the rebellion against Moscow” (Agence France Presse, March 20).
“Judging by everything,” Il’ya Maksakov, a journalist who has repeatedly defended the Russian war effort, observed, “the murders of ethnic Russian residents of Chechnya are not only an act of intimidation but also of extermination” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 21).
The leading Russian state television channel ORT, whose broadcasts reach virtually every hamlet in the country, ratcheted up the rhetoric in its March 22 news broadcast: “From the beginning of March,” it announced, “they [the rebels] have made short work of fourteen elderly women and four men. All of them were ethnic Russians.” ORT then proceeded to remind its listeners of certain events which had occurred several years previously in the village of Chervlennaya in Chechnya. On that occasion a Chechen had killed ten local residents, all of them Russians. “For the first time in the history of Russia,” ORT underlined, “the accused was charged not just with murder but with genocide…. This is the first trial in history on a charge of genocide against the Russian populace. Neither in pre-revolutionary Russia nor in Soviet times was there such a thing (ORT Novosti, March 22).
As this ORT news program showed, the Putin regime–which effectively controls what is broadcast on ORT–has decided, for its own reasons, to play the “race card” against the Chechens, advancing the hot-button charge of genocide. Why the regime has adopted this approach will be discussed later.
First, however, let us examine what happened last week in the Chechen capital of Djohar. On March 21, the daily Kommersant reported that: “The bodies of four women and six men were found over the last three days, basically in the Leninsky District of the city. The majority had died of gunshots to the head, but two had had their throats cut.” Of the ten persons killed, Kommersant noted, all were peaceful residents, “eight Russians and two Chechens.” According to Kommersant, thus, two of the victims were Chechens and not Russians.
On the same day, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported, “The bodies of four women and three men were discovered with gunshot wounds to the head in the Leninsky District of the city, as well as the body of one man who had a knife wound to the neck. Two other men [found]… were killed at least two months ago.” Thus, two of the bodies discovered were two months old. The same newspaper report cited the words of Prosecutor Chernov: “Those killed on the street are basically Russian women–they died of bullet shots to the head–while the victims of reprisals in the apartments, among whom there were also Chechens, were knifed to death.” Again, there is a reference to Chechen as well as Russian victims.
Who committed these indeed heinous murders? On March 21, Prosecutor Chernov reported that police investigating the killings “had hunted down and killed two Chechen rebels.” Two Chechen teenagers, Isa Tobogaev, age 19, and Khasanbek Akhorshaev, age 18, were said to have holed up in a cellar and resisted Russian attacks for six hours before being killed. “It has been established,” Chernov said, “that the youths had links to bandit groups… and were connected with the killing of ethnic Russians in Grozny” (Reuters, March 21). No evidence to support this view was provided.
The following day, it was announced that three other young Chechen men had been taken into custody, “charged with a series of terrorist acts in Grozny.” Prosecutor Chernov predicted that “in the near future there will be revealed a whole series of terrorist acts committed in Grozny” (Russian agencies, March 22).
Asked for his reaction to these charges, the separatist president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, “flatly accused Russian troops of being behind the attacks [on civilians] and demanded a full inquiry into the case” (Agence France Presse, March 20). The former speaker of the Russian parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, also an ethnic Chechen, stated more elliptically: “Behind the murders in Grozny there can stand the most variegated interested parties” (Segodnya, March 21).
To return to the question posed earlier, why would the Russian leadership be interested in further inflaming Russian-Chechen relations by charging young Chechens with genocide? One presumed reason is the flagging support for the war revealed in recent public opinion polls. By raising the incendiary issue of the genocide of Russians, the Putin leadership, one assumes, is seeking once again to rally public support behind the war. The charge of genocide also likely represents an attempt to deflect public criticism of the regime and of the Russian military for recently revealed mass atrocities committed against Chechen civilians, for example, the dumping ground for bodies located adjacent to Khankala military base where more than fifty unburied corpses were discovered. NTV and the prodemocracy Russian media have been highlighting these atrocities. Another related aim of the regime has probably been to dampen criticism of Russia in the West.
Finally, the raising of the red-hot issue of “genocide” may be related to the immensely significant trial of Colonel Yury Budanov–postponed once again last week until April 10–taking place in Rostov-on-Don. Budanov, charged with strangling to death a young Chechen woman, has recently emerged as a national hero for much of the Russian public. Of 113 persons who responded to an invitation by Komsomol’skaya pravda to telephone in with their views on the trial, 89 or 79 percent–demanded that Budanov be acquitted. A telephone poll conducted by Moskovsky Komsomolets yielded “approximately the same result.” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 20). Of course, these were in no sense “scientific” polls, but they did provide a rough sense of the public mood.
One of Colonel Budanov’s official “social defenders” at the trial, Sergei Klyatka, recently fulminated during an interview with the newspaper Segodnya: “How can there be peaceful dwellers in Chechnya?! Let even one Chechen clan state that there is no blood on its hands!… The Chechens have gotten precisely what they deserve. And they have no one to blame but themselves.” And Klyatka continued: “I will say this directly: Our soldiers were sent to Chechnya to kill enemies. That is the basic task of the army. Because it is impossible to introduce order into a bandit lair by any other means. Budanov honestly and professionally carried out his duty” (Segodnya, March 17).
The trial of Budanov has been perceived as hurting President Putin and his administration and as helping the man some political observers in Russia and the West believe is the Russian president’s most serious political rival, retired General Vladimir Shamanov, the elected governor of Ulyanovsk Oblast, who appeared at Budanov’s trial and assailed it as a craven kowtowing to the West. In a sharp attack published on the pages of the far-right weekly Zavtra, entitled “Colonel Putin and Colonel Budanov,” Captain Vladislav Shurygin recently wrote: “People are not only expressing their solidarity and support for Budanov but are openly saying that the presidential administration has betrayed Budanov” (Zavtra, March 7).
The charge of genocide raised against Chechens could thus in part be aimed at neutralizing the combustible effect of the Budanov trial–which is, presumably, now seen by the regime as a political blunder–through demonstrating to the Russian public that the regime, too, has now had it with the quarrelsome Chechens.