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Fast ride to hell
How many times this pathetic scenario has to be repeated to realize that wars such as the one in Chechnya are not winnable?

September 17, 2004

The brutal war of attrition in Chechnya in the past 10 years has been mostly observed in North America from a distance. Even after 9/11 when all kinds of unsavory states jumped on the bandwagon of the 'global war on terror' in order to suppress internal insurrections, the savage conflict in Chechnya was registered in the media only when spectacular actions such as the hostage taking at the Moscow theater took place.

The recent school hostage taking in Beslan and its bloody aftermath though has been everywhere on the American media. Personal accounts and interviews with the survivors and countless analyses are splashed on CNN and other networks. The fact that this time children were the main targets and the majority of the victims no doubt has played a role in the intensity of media coverage. But the cynic in me tends to think that election year politics in the US may have played even a bigger role.

The American presidential election is being contested mostly on the security issue and the Beslan school tragedy provides all the elements of a made to order cautionary tale, from the horrible pictures of terrorized semi naked children to the black shrouded, demonic images of seemingly inhuman Moslem terrorists ready to unleash apocalypse.

The message is clear. Do you want this to happen in your backyard? If no, then vote George Bush; vote Vladimir Putin; vote Ariel Sharon; keep the military junta in Algeria in power. The Beslan tragedy has indeed made strange bed fellows of the Russians and the Israelis, traditionally not the best of friends on account of hundreds of years of anti-Semitism and countless pogroms.

But such is the state of the world right now. Fifteen years ago, when the Cold War was still the dominant geopolitical fact of life in the world, the conflict in Chechnya would have been viewed very differently. The same so-called black widows who held the triggers to the bombs in the Belsan school would have been valorized in the Western media as heroines, their personal histories revealed in glossy specials by Christian Amanpour & Co.

But the Chechens have the bad fortune of being on the wrong side of history now - much like the Kurds were 20 years ago - for the Russians do not have any more right to be in Chechnya than they did in Georgia, Lithuania or Ukraine.

The fact that Stalin did not bestow upon the Chechens the status of a distinct soviet republic does not make them any less a nation than Estonia or Latvia. The Chechens are an ethnically distinct group of people with a distinct territory and religion who were occupied and forced into the Russian empire through conquest and oppression.

The real question, the one no one seems to want to ask is this: why doesn't Russia get the hell out of Chechnya? How many times this pathetic scenario has to be repeated to former empires for likes of Putin to realize that wars such as the one in Chechnya or the one his predecessors fought in Afghanistan (as well the one the French fought in Indochina and Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam and increasingly now in Iraq) is not winnable? Unless you're willing to wipe out the entire population or are committed to an ongoing savage war of peace (as are the Israelis)?

On the surface, Putin's tough talking posturing seems to be aiming at a bankrupt country (morally, economically, socially) nostalgic for a time when 'they were great'; a has-been nation now practically run by a ruthless organized crime under a form of gangster capitalism where dog-eat-dog is the national mantra; a country incapable of paying its miners, one whose most impressive export is tall, elegant female tennis players.

But scratch the surface of Putin's demagogic populism and the old mammon may be at play again. Money, in the form of Chechnya's precious oil and mineral deposits and its strategic importance for Russia to control the Caucuses and the access to Caspian Sea oil; specifically, a major oil pipeline which carries oil from fields in Baku on the Caspian Sea and Chechnya toward the Ukraine. Grozny has a major oil refinery along this pipeline.

For Russia it is important that the oil pipelines and routes they take to the Western markets also meet their needs. However, there are various other pipelines in discussion that does not involve Russia. As long as Chechnya remains part of Russia, Moscow will have a role in determining the future of oil in Eurasia. But what price must the poor destitute Russians in Beslan and the brutalized and devastated Chechens in Grozny pay for the riches of Russian oil oligarchy?

None of this is to condone what happened in Beslan, far from it. No doubt the Chechens, much as the Kosovars did before them in former Yugoslavia, have been hitting their heads against the wall in their struggle for independence. The Russian response has been extremely brutal in Chechnya. The accounts of gross violations of human rights by Russian military are a matter of record. When it came to Chechnya the Russians seemed to draw the line. No talk of autonomy or sharing of powers was acceptable, notwithstanding Mr. Putin's recent rhetoric.

Throughout the first years of the Chechyn war the outside world looked on with ambivalence. Moscow pointed fingers at 'external forces' (Western) accusing them of promoting destability of the region, to ensure a split from Russia. Supposedly this would allow the Western powers to benefit from a smaller, weaker nation (if Chechnya is successful) that will also make it easier for the West to ensure the resources they want can be further controlled.

But after 9/11 with Russia claiming to fight its own war on terrorism, it seems as though western leaders, especially Americans, have given tacit support to Putin. This marginalization by the outside world and Russia's unbending approach has no doubt played a role in pushing a certain segment of Chechen population into Islamic militancy and increasingly desperate and brutal tactics against Russian civilians.

But is the Chechen maximalists' dream of a total independence worth the price the population has been asked to pay? Would their precious independent Chechnya justify the atrocities committed against Russian civilians? Have the Chechen militants bothered asking their people if they are willing to be partners in this horrific campaign? Is Chechen independence worth selling its soul to fundamentalism? And what if the Chechens forced the Russia's hand and Mr. Putin blinked first? What would they achieve?

A terrorized population traumatized for decades in a ruined country bereft of any democratic institutions and most likely run by despots and gangsters. So let's shed a tear for the up to 80,000 Chechen civilians killed in the past 10 years along with the innocents in Beslan and hope the parties can put the brakes on their fast ride to hell and find room for compromise.

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Asghar Massombagi


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