Putin should defuse the Chechnya time-bomb

By Rajan Menon and Peter Reddaway

Financial Times

Published: May 12 2005

In their talks in Moscow with Vladimir Putin during Monday's 60th anniversary celebration of the Nazi defeat, George W. Bush, the US president, and his western colleagues avoided an issue Mr Putin is disturbingly loath to address -Russia's war in Chechnya. Chechnya is a small place far from Moscow, and the visitors presumably had other matters on their minds, particularly Russia's creeping authoritarianism and its harassment of its neighbours.

Yet the Chechnya war has contributed much to the erosion of Russia's democracy and Mr Putin is nowhere near either a military victory or a political solution. The Kremlin would have us believe otherwise. On March 8 Russian troops killed Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, and Mr Putin hailed the event as a milestone on the road to victory. In fact, Maskhadov's death will make ending the war much harder. Many Russians believe that Kremlin hardliners disposed of Maskhadov to torpedo a chance for negotiations. His killing came soon after his London representative met the committee of soldiers' mothers, a Russian civic group dedicated to peace in Chechnya. Shortly before his death, Maskhadov reiterated his call for a ceasefire and talks with Mr Putin aimed at achieving autonomy for Chechnya within the Russian Federation. This challenged Moscow's refrain that the Chechen resistance lacks voices of reason and contains only terrorists intent on complete independence.

With Maskhadov gone, this claim could prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maskhadov was the leading voice for compromise. With his killing, the balance of power may shift to Chechen Islamists committed to continued war, foremost among them Shamil Basayev.

Moscow needs to change course. Western experts have claimed that the Kremlin's plan for parliamentary elections in Chechnya is the best hope for progress. But these commentators usually ignore the increasingly chaotic north Caucasian context, of which the war is only a part, and the radical makeover of Kremlin policy that is required if a political settlement is to be attained. Mr Putin portrays the war as a fight against Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism. In reality it stems from Chechen nationalism, a force with deep historical roots.

Ever since Chechnya's growing chaos prompted the Kremlin in 1999 to relaunch the war that it began in 1994, Chechnya has again been a scene of destruction, "disappearances", hostage takings and "cleansing operations". These frequently target Chechens who are not involved in the fighting and are often conducted by Moscow's vicious Chechen puppets. Unsurprisingly, vows of vengeance abound in Chechnya. Terrorists do not lack recruits.

In such circumstances, Maskhadov's killing has made it harder than ever to draw moderate oppositionists into the peace process. Moreover, Chechnya remains an economic wasteland from which over 100,000 Chechen refugees have fled to live in squalor elsewhere. Meaningful elections are impossible unless their demolished or damaged homes are rebuilt, and until they can eke out a living - conditions impossible amid a war which, as a leading Moscow newspaper noted recently, has turned Grozny, Chechnya's capital, into "the Stalingrad of our times". Nor will Chechen resistance groups participate in a vote without guarantees of their leaders' safety.

Russia is not winning the war; nor can it transfer power to a local, pro-Moscow government capable of surviving without Russian bayonets. Only a peace process including Chechen resistance groups can end the fighting.

The violence of Chechnya is spreading across the north Caucasus, where extremists of other ethnic groups are using terrorist tactics to pursue their own agendas. The problems of new terrorist networks and threats to Caspian oil pipelines are set to intensify. Globalisation will ensure that Russia's turmoil travels.

Thus, the Kremlin must launch bold, difficult, long-term initiatives before it can hold fair elections in Chechnya and stabilise its increasingly shaky south. Mr Putin needs to

rebuild Chechnya's society and economy; restore effective government in the north Caucasus; counter the xenophobic trends in Russia's society and state; and seek the assistance of other governments and international organisations for rebuilding Chechnya. Moscow must rethink its entire strategy. World leaders should impress this fact on Mr Putin without delay. It is in the west's interest as well as Russia's.

Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Peter Reddaway is professor emeritus of political science at George Washington University and former director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies