A group of veteran Russian human rights activists who opposed the 1994-1996 Chechen war yesterday called for an end to the current one and for the introduction of international peacekeeping and police forces there to guarantee the safe return of refugees. The group said in a statement that Aslan Maskhadov should remain president until new elections can be held. Among the statement’s signatories were Yelena Bonner, head of the Sakharov Fund; Lev Ponomarev, head of For Human Rights; Lyudmila Alexeeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Protection Fund (Russian agencies, November 9). Bonner, widow of the late Andrei Sakharov, said in testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee that the current Chechen war was needed “to raise the standing in the polls of the current prime minister” and to “divert the public’s attention from corruption and financial scandals to the enemy–in this situation, the Chechens.” Bonner called today’s Russia “a criminal-military state” (Associated Press, November 4).
Another opponent of the last war, Sergei Grigoryants, head of the Glasnost Foundation, put forward a similar critique. He told reporters that the policies of the Putin government and Russian armed forces chief of staff Anatoly Kvashnin were similar to those of Aleksandr Barkashov, head of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity movement, in pushing for a strengthening of the state and the “dismantling of democratic institutions.” Barkashov’s electoral bloc, Spas, was recently registered to run in December’s parliamentary election; Grigoryants said that “while about one-half of human rights and ecological organizations have been closed, Barkashov’s branches have been registered throughout the country” (Russian agencies, November 9).
Other critics of the last war, however, have been more equivocal this time. Yegor Gaidar, former acting prime minister and leader of Russia’s Democratic Choice, said last week that the West was insufficiently aware of the threat which terrorism, including “extremist Islamic terrorism,” posed to Russia, and that this made the current campaign different from the previous one. Gaidar added, however, that the international community’s concern over “the humanitarian aspect of the Chechen problem, and over the necessity to minimize civilian casualties and work more efficiently with refugees, is quite natural and, in a contemporary world, understandable and indisputable” (Russian agencies, November 4).
Gaidar’s party, it should be noted, is part of the recently formed Union of Right-wing Forces, some of whose members, like former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, openly sympathize with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Gaidar and his allies–including United Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais, who brought Putin from St. Petersburg to Moscow several years ago to work in the presidential administration–may be waiting to see how the Chechen operation goes before deciding on whether to endorse Putin’s expected presidential bid.
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