Russia is getting away with murder. The international reaction to the human disaster in Chechnya is mixed and muffled. With news media virtually excluded from the region, governments are free to react to events according to their foreign policy calculations; they need not worry about popular fury stirred by images of war and suffering. In the United States, the administration calculates that–well, who knows what the calculation is. Let’s just report the news.
Statistics make comparison to Kosovo irresistible: Chechnya’s population today is about 200,000, less than 20 percent of what it was ten years ago. Some 900,000 people are gone from their homes, either dead or fled.
European countries have been strongest in their condemnation of Russian behavior. The French foreign minister called Russia’s attack a “massive, indiscriminate… escalation.” His Czech counterpart said the war had “ceased to be an internal affair of the Russian federation” because it is “obviously accompanied by extensive and repeated violation of human rights.” Both France and the Czech Republic deliberately affronted Russia by receiving Ilyas Akhmadov, who holds the title of foreign minister in President Aslan Maskhadov’s government in Chechnya.
Middle Eastern leaders have generally sided with Russia. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said on a Moscow visit that Russia is dealing with a purely internal matter and is in no way taking “an anti-Muslim stance.” Yasser Arafat, also in Moscow, told the press that Chechnya is a Russian internal affair. Arafat denied reports published in Israel that Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad have trained terrorists for operations in Russia. (The U.S. State Department spokesman said last week that Osama bin Laden has ties to the Chechen rebels.) The Russian press quoted Israel’s foreign minister in support of Russian policy: “Russia has no other way out in the North Caucasus today than to fight against terrorism.” On a different note, Iran’s foreign minister, speaking as chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, asked permission to send humanitarian aid to Chechnya. That request will no doubt be repeated when an OIC delegation visits Moscow December 6.
International organizations have confronted Russia to no avail. At the recent summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia agreed to what Western officials described as a “mediating role” for the OSCE in Chechnya. Russian officials now reject any mediation as “interference,” although they have agreed to allow an OSCE mission to visit in mid-December. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on November 29 urged Security Council members to be more willing to intervene around the world wherever governments are committing gross violence against their own peoples. Russian (and Chinese) representatives immediately warned against UN involvement in internal affairs.
The United States has been the gentlest of critics. President Bill Clinton balanced his concern about “substantial civilian casualties” with concern for the Russian state: “[W]e want Russia to overcome the scourge of terrorism and lawlessness. We believe Russia has not only the right, but the obligation, to defend its territorial integrity. We want to see Russia a stable, prosperous, strong democracy with secure borders, strong defenses and a leading voice in world affairs.”
The secretary of state expressed concern about “indiscriminate damage” but pointedly did not suggest that additional lending by the International Monetary Fund should be suspended while the deliberate killing of civilians proceeds. When the Fund in the event decided on December 3 to withhold the next $640 million installment of the current lending program, the Russians knew who to blame. “A cold wind blows from Europe,” said debt negotiator Aleksandr Livshits, “not from the Atlantic.”