March 25, 2005

The Guardian

Europe is risking silence to end its longest war
Western leaders now refuse to condemn Russia's abuses in Chechnya

Jonathan Steele

The boredom factor in world politics can never be under-rated. If a conflict goes on long enough, foreign leaders and the media lose interest. The spotlight switches and the international caravan moves on. Pick your metaphor, but the shameful reality is the same.

So it is with Chechnya, Europe's longest-running but least visible war. When Vladimir Putin, its architect, met the leaders of France, Germany and Spain in Paris last week, the subject was not discussed. Silence was also the order of the day when George Bush got together with the Russian president during his European foray a fortnight earlier. He mentioned his concerns about democracy and the rule of law in Russia, but saw no need to bring up Chechnya.

On the battlefield Putin also seems to have won a breathing space. Aslan Maskhadov, the titular leader of the Chechen resistance and the republic's last freely elected president, was surrounded and killed by Russian special forces in a house not far from the capital, Grozny. Whether it was a brilliant military coup, as the official Russian media claim, or the result of a tip-off by a traitor in the Chechen ranks is in dispute. Maskhadov's international representative, Akhmed Zakayev, puts it down to unguarded use of a mobile phone that gave away his leader's position.

Either way, Maskhadov's death does nothing to serve the cause of peace. With no justification, other than cruelty, the Russian authorities are refusing to hand the body to his widow. They brand Maskhadov a terrorist, although the record shows he favoured talks with the Russians and attempted, with diminishing success, to restrain the extremists from atrocities such as the Beslan school siege and the Moscow theatre seizure.

With Maskhadov gone, the risks of polarisation and new bloodshed have grown. The radicals in the Chechen resistance are moving the struggle outside Chechnya and have started to hit targets in several republics of the north Caucasus. On the government side, Putin's strategy of handing more authority to Chechens, in an effort to suggest that Russia is beginning to wind down its own involvement, is creating similar divisions between radicals and moderates.

Alu Alkhanov, the handpicked pro-Moscow president, presents himself as a legitimate leader (based on flawed elections last year), but barbarities in Chechnya are on the rise, as a report by Human Rights Watch makes clear, and he seems unable or unwilling to stop them.

Abductions and killings by Russian and Chechen security forces far exceed the number of victims taken by Chechen radicals at Beslan and in the Moscow theatre. And among the atrocities on Moscow's side, most crimes are committed by their Chechen puppets. Between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians have "disappeared" in the region since Putin launched the second war in 1999 (in addition to at least 80,000 killed by bombing and in crossfire).

Human Rights Watch point the finger at gunmen loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of a former president, who terrorise villagers and detain men of military age. Many never return, and the authorities claim no knowledge of their whereabouts. The researchers have visited Chechnya regularly in the past four years and report that fewer people now dare to complain to the authorities for fear of reprisals.

Faced with this horror, many outsiders, as well as Russian liberals, resort to cynicism. Some say the war is fuelled by greed more than politics, and will never end. Russian generals make money from it, as do Russian and Chechen officials. Millions of roubles earmarked for resettling refugees and rebuilding Grozny never reach their destination but are siphoned off into private pockets. With no TV coverage of these scandals or the war's brutality, there is no pressure for change.

The more hopeful response is to create openings for dialogue. In spite of the silence of western leaders and Putin's apparent success in killing Maskhadov, who could have been a peace partner, ripples of change have started. The committee of soldiers' mothers, one of Russia's biggest NGOs, signed a statement with Zakayev last month, saying a peace process was indispensable and urging the EU to support it. For relatives of belligerents to meet their supposed enemies was a step of unusual courage.

Almost equally unpublicised was a meeting at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg this week. Alkhanov and other pro-Moscow Chechens met the Russian soldiers' mothers and several independent Chechen human rights activists, as well as European politicians. They agreed to continue a triangular discussion in which, at a later stage, Zakayev's representatives may also take part.

It is too early to say if these "talks about talks" can lead to a peace conference. But it is progress to have Chechens of different positions sitting together to explore the war's causes and discuss solutions. Because the talks have no major official Russian presence, Putin can pretend he is not accepting international mediation, let alone talking to people associated with the resistance, even though it is clear Alkhanov would not accept such encounters independently of the Kremlin.

Separately, despite Gerhard Schröder's silence on the war, senior MPs from Germany's Social Democratic party have held two meetings with Putin's representative for the north Caucasus. They propose a programme of European reconstruction aid that would go beyond the food and humanitarian relief the EU gives people in Grozny.

Britain has offered around £11m for skills training for school leavers in the north Caucasus, and the European commission is planning a needs assessment in Grozny. None of these offers is conditioned on reaching peace. They are "loss leaders" that give the EU a basis for talking to the Kremlin about a settlement and exploring whether Moscow is ready to change its excessively narrow and military approach.

In short, Europe is replacing its old policy of publicly denouncing Russia over Chechnya. At the current session of the UN Human Rights Commission, the EU has not proposed a resolution this year. But, diplomats argue, the silence is not motivated by cynicism or "condemnation fatigue", let alone agreement with Moscow that Chechnya is a front in the war on international terror. It is part of a new policy of constructive engagement.

The hope is that low-key offers of help by European governments, and support at the Council of Europe for Chechnya's political forces to start a dialogue, could have a better chance of success. The policy is worth trying, but the risks are enormous. If it turns out that Russia is merely coopting the EU behind its brutal tactics of "Chechenisation", the new strategy must be dropped.

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