French Journalist Examines The Chechen Tragedy

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 16

The distinguished French journalist Sophie Shihab has written regularly about Chechnya for Le Monde and other periodicals since well before the outbreak of the first Chechen war a decade ago. To this day she continues to bypass the Russian authorities’ information blockade by visiting Chechnya clandestinely, disguised as a Chechen woman. She shared her latest impressions of the conflict in an interview with Phillipe Mangeot published in the April issue of the French monthly Vacarme (website Some excerpts follow, translated from the French original by Chechnya Weekly.

On the 1996 peace treaty between Russia and Chechnya: “It was a decoy. As soon as it was signed the Kremlin was already beginning to organize its revanche. At the beginning of the second war in 1999, even General Lebed himself was able to say that while signing the peace accord with one hand, he had been preparing for war with the other…”

On the epidemic of kidnappings within Chechnya during the period between the two wars: “From all appearances, these kidnappings and other outrages were instigated and financed either by the Russian secret services or by [Boris] Berezovsky, that oligarch so close to Yeltsin…known for his connections with the most radical Chechens such as [Shamil] Basaev.”

On Berezovsky’s responsibility for the outbreak of the second war: “It has never been proved, but it has also never been disproved – and the evidence for it is considerable…The offensive [of Basaev’s forces into Dagestan] provided the pretext for renewing the war. Very soon the rumor circulated that Basaev was financed by the Russian warmongers, headed by Berezovsky….There is a whole pile of evidence suggesting the common responsibility of Berezovsky and the FSB…for the attacks in Russia in August and September of 1999, which precipitated the war and the election of Putin. Thus were created bonds between them, but also hatred. Their lines [i.e., Putin’s and Berezovsky’s] diverged in December 1999, when Berezovsky, conscious that the generals around Putin had taken the initiative away from him, announced that he favored negotiations with the most radical Chechens. But even in exile Berezovsky has kept major financial interests, and thus political power, within Russia. And his impunity on the subject of Chechnya, like Putin’s, remains complete.”

On Chechnya’s rigged presidential election of October 2003: “Some believed that the Kremlin wanted to replace him [Kadyrov] before he became too powerful. Nevertheless, the two serious candidates — Dzhabrailov and Saidullaev, supported respectively by the Russian army’s chief of staff and by the head of Putin’s information service — withdrew, leaving only obscure men of straw to oppose Kadyrov…”

On relations between the most militant Chechens and the rest of the populace: “There is no sharp break between them….I made the acquaintance of my three young women [militant Chechen widows whom she interviewed] through an intermediary, a family which is cultured, democratic and hostile to the Islamists. When the young women expressed their sympathy for martyr commandos, the others tried to reason with them — but they did not condemn them. Many people try to distance themselves from the armed resistance, saying that it ‘serves no purpose’ and ‘decimates the people’; but this is in vain. These same people take it for granted that it has become impossible ‘to live with the Russians’ after what they have done; what is new, I believe, is the willingness to express that view so readily and so unanimously.”

On the terrorist attack on Moscow’s Dubrovka theater in October 2002: “…There are too many implausible things in that story. Movsar Baraev would not have been the choice to lead such an operation. Six months earlier, the Russian army had announced his arrest; it later released him. He was under surveillance. His uncle, Arbi, a specialist in terrorist methods and in hostage taking, had maintained contact with the FSB….Also, how can one explain, other than by a wish to eliminate all witnesses, that all the members of the commando unit were killed even after they had been neutralized? Basaev has the ability to launch operations from his hiding places, but not to control everything.”

On peace initiatives: “There have been attempts, such as those conducted in liaison with [the Maskhadov government’s foreign minister] Akhmadov by Andrei Mironov, a veteran Russian dissident who works for Memorial… He organized a series of meetings, in Switzerland and then in Luxemburg. But his attempts ended up being exploited by Berezovsky, who uses the Chechnya issue from his base in London in order to give himself legitimacy as an opposition leader. Mironov’s skull was fractured by a thug last June on his return from Chechnya. The persistent refusal of the authorities to open an investigation shows that this thug was operating under their orders, or at least under their protection. Eight months later, Mironov is still seriously injured. The KGB’s old methods are returning.”

On the relative indifference of French public opinion to Chechnya: “In western public opinion, only anti-globalist movements are currently capable of arousing mass mobilizations. For these movements, the principal enemy is America… I have even heard certain French diplomats hint that it is the Americans who are financing the Chechen Islamist fighters, in order to hurt the Russians! Sometimes it seems to me that only a direct intervention by the Americans against Maskhadov, on Chechen soil, would provoke a mass mobilization [in his favor].”

On public opinion within Russia: “Most Russians are now divided among those who are indifferent, those who feel vaguely guilty and those who feel a desire for revenge. The majority simply do not want to hear any more about the Chechens. Over dinner tables in Moscow, it is not unusual to hear even the most sophisticated, ‘comme il faut’ Russians say in a bantering tone that one atom bomb would let them be done with the problem.”