Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 62

A colloquium entitled “Chechnya between Russia and Europe” was held in Paris last weekend. Among those who attended was the press attache of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and the rector of Grozny University, along with economists, representatives from various human rights organizations and actors.

The Chechen representatives were unanimous in declaring that their situation had steadily worsened since September 11 and that the West’s indifference looks more and more like a refusal to help the Chechen people, who are enduring calamities. Thanks to its new status as a “strategic partner” of the United States in the battle against international terrorism led by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, Russia greatly escalated its assault on the separatist republic, they said. “It’s as if Washington has given them carte blanche for mass murder,” said Ilyas Akhmadov, Maskhadov’s foreign minister. Libkhan Bazaev, a member of the Memorial human rights group, said that the “disintegration” of the Russian army in Chechnya had reached a “pinnacle,” with troops even selling corpses and raping both women and men. “Soldiers tell us point blank that they will kill all of our husbands and make us their wives so that we will give birth to Russian babies,” she said. Umar Khanbiev, a surgeon who is health minister in Maskhadov’s separatist government, said he had no doubt that the Kremlin wanted to carry out a “final solution” to the Chechen problem. “The destruction of our people is in full swing: It’s genocide,” Khanbiev said (Le Figaro, March 25).

At the time the Paris meeting was being held, the bodies of three murdered Chechen children, aged nine to thirteen, were discovered in the village of Chrevlenaya in Chechnya’s northern Shelkovsk district. According to local officials, the children had been shot. Another two children were murdered recently in Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, and the village of Kadi-Yurt, in eastern Chechnya’s Gudermes district. Kadi-Yurt residents blocked the local railway line, demanding that those responsible for the murder of the child be brought to justice (Radio Liberty, March 26).

Worth noting in this regard is that a former Russian military officer who defected to the United States recently claimed that fascist members of a Russian military unit encouraged soldiers to murder Chechen civilians (see the Monitor, March 21). While the Russian authorities raised questions about the veracity of his account, the Monitor’s correspondent, who has reported from Chechnya on numerous occasions during both the 1994-1996 military campaign and the present one, can attest to the fact that the number of instances of Russian soldiers deliberately killing Chechen civilians has sharply increased over the course of the current conflict. One of the main reasons for this is that the attitude of the Russian media toward Chechnya has changed significantly since the first campaign. Large-scale hostage-taking by Chechen gunmen during the period between the two wars in Chechnya has meant that, unlike during the first military campaign, most journalists, Russian and foreign alike, now travel to Chechnya only with the Russian military, who “prompt” them on how to cover events.

The absence of criticism in the Russian media over Chechnya has given the Russian military a free hand in the republic. As Britain’s The Times newspaper recently noted, practically the only Russian journalist writing about crimes committed by the Russian army in Chechnya is Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya, who has risked her life in her many trips to the breakaway republic. During her forty trips there she has been arrested, threatened with rape and torture and, late last year, forced to flee Russia for a time after she received word that she might end up in a car “accident.” According to the Times, various old Soviet attributes have returned to Russia, including self-censorship by journalists and official pressure on those who refuse to take the authorities’ lead. Indeed, while Novaya Gazeta comes out only twice a week and has a small circulation, it remains practically the only media outlet giving a real picture of events in Chechnya (see Chechnya Weekly, March 26). It is, furthermore, currently threatened with closure, thanks to US$1.5 million in fines levied against it from two libel suits. Many observers believe that these fines, which are unprecedented in terms of the amounts and which Novaya Gazeta is appealing, are part of a deliberate attempt to shut the newspaper down (The Times, March 22).

For his part, the French philosopher Andrei Glucksman believes that the crimes of the Russian army are a direct threat to Europe’s security. In his view, only a miracle will save Europe from a cataclysmic terrorist attack like those that took place in New York and Washington last September 11. He predicted that the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya would lead to Chechen terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Russia, possibly including nuclear power stations (Radio Liberty, March 23).

The participants in the Paris meeting predicted that there would, sooner or later, be international trials for those who committed war crimes in Chechnya. Memorial activist Andrei Mironov said that mechanisms already exist for bringing such individuals to justice, such as the law in Belgium allowing the prosecution of the citizen of any country for crimes committed either in that person’s country or elsewhere. He also said that both Russian and foreign human rights organizations have collected sufficient evidence to launch criminal proceedings against specific individuals guilty of war crimes in Chechnya, which could prevent such individuals from traveling outside Russia without risking arrest (Radio Liberty, March 23).

France’s ambassador to Russia was called to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to hear the Russian side’s unhappiness over the Paris meeting, which was also expressed by Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s spokesman on issues related to Chechnya. Yastrzhembsky asked rhetorically why the seminar, which had the support of France’s education minister, Jack Lang, hadn’t been called “Corsica between France and Europe” (Liberation, March 26). Yastrzhembsky recently reacted angrily to a hint by Lord Frank Judd of the Council of Europe that there should be international trials for war crimes in Chechnya, saying that Russia would not allow itself to be treated like the former Yugoslavia (, March 21).