Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 9

On March 1, the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Prague, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and several others, including fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, published an open letter in the Mlada Fronta Dnes newspaper criticizing Russia over human rights abuses, particularly in Chechnya. “It is extremely difficult for an honest observer to break through the closed doors that separate Chechnya from the rest of the world,” the open letter stated. “Indeed, no one even knows how many civilian casualties there have been in 10 years of war. According to estimates by non-governmental organizations, the figure is between 100,000 (that is, one civilian out of 10) and 300,000 (one out of four). How many voters participated in the November 2005 elections? Between 60 and 80 percent, according to the Russian authorities; around 20 percent, reckon independent observers. The blackout imposed on Chechnya prevents any precise assessment of the devastating effects of a ruthless conflict.”

The open letter continued: “But censorship cannot completely hide the horror. Under the world’s eyes, a capital—Grozny, with 400,000 inhabitants—was razed for the first time since Hitler’s 1944 punishment of Warsaw. Such inhumanity cannot plausibly be described as ‘anti-terrorism,’ as Russian President Vladimir Putin insists. The Russian military leadership claims to be fighting against a party of 700 to 2,000 combatants. What would be said if the British government had bombed Belfast, or if the Spanish government had bombed Bilbao, on the pretext of quelling the IRA or ETA? And yet the world remains silent in the face of the looting of Grozny and other Chechen towns and villages. Are Chechen women, children, and all Chechen civilians less entitled to respect than the rest of mankind? Are they still considered human? Nothing can excuse the seeming indifference displayed by our worldwide silence. In Chechnya, our basic morality is at stake. Must the world accept the rape of girls who were kidnapped by the occupying forces or their militias? Should we tolerate the murder of children and the abduction of boys to be tortured, broken, and sold back to their families, alive or dead? What about ‘filtration’ camps, or ‘human firewood?’ What about the villages exterminated to set an example? A few NGOs and some brave Russian and Western reporters have witnessed countless crimes. So we cannot say ‘we did not know.'”

The open letter warned that the war in Chechnya is putting the war on terrorism at risk and creating the pretext for the restoration of authoritarian rule in Russia. “Who has not yet realized that the Russian Army is actually behaving like a group of pyromaniac firefighters, fanning the fires of terrorism through its behavior?” it stated. “After 10 years of large-scale repression, the fire, far from going out, is spreading, crossing borders, setting the Northern Caucasus ablaze and making combatants even fiercer. How much longer can we ignore the fact that, in raising the bogeyman of ‘Chechen terrorism,’ the Russian government is suppressing the liberties gained when the Soviet empire collapsed? The Chechen war both masks and motivates the re-establishment of centralized power in Russia—bringing the media back under state control, passing laws against NGOs, and reinforcing the ‘vertical line of power’—leaving no institutions and authorities able to challenge or limit the Kremlin. War, it seems, is hiding a return to autocracy.”

The open letter ended: “It would be tragic if, during the G8 summit scheduled for St. Petersburg, Russia, in June 2006, the Chechen issue were pushed to the side. This dreadful and endless war needs to be discussed openly if it is to end peacefully.”

Along with Havel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the open letter’s signatories included retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984), former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993), former Irish President Mary Robinson, the philanthropist George Soros and the French philosopher Andre Glucksmann.