EDITORIAL: Hostages to Putin's rigid policy

Daily Times, Pakistan
Sept 5 2004

The gory images and footage coming out of the Middle School 1
in Beslan, North Ossetia, are deeply disturbing. They compel the
international community, especially the powerful countries of the
West, to look at where Russia might be headed under President Vladimir
Putin. Consider.

There is trouble all round in the Caucasus. While the conflict
was initially confined to Chechnya, it has now spilled over into
Ingushetia, parts of Daghestan and North Ossetia. The epicentre
of this trouble lies in the policies pursued by the Kremlin under
Mr Putin. Under Mr Boris Yeltsin Russia tried to extricate itself
from Chechnya in August 1996 through a deal clinched by Alexander
Lebed, Russia's former security chief. However, after the Russian
withdrawal from Chechnya, no sustained effort was made by Moscow to
pursue the issue politically. The situation was further complicated by
violent events like the Moscow apartment bombings which the Kremlin
laid at the door of Chechen separatists. Mr Putin himself rode to
power on an agenda that, among other things, promised an end to the
Chechen problem in favour of the Russian Federation. In other words,
Mr Putin told his Russian voters that he would effectively put down
the separatists and bring Chechnya to heel.

This approach since early 2000 has guided Moscow's Chechnya policy.
Mr Putin unleashed his army once again on the Chechens. In the last
four years Russian troops have committed hair-raising atrocities in
the region by attempting to kill off all able-bodied Chechen males.
While the West feebly objected to these violations initially, after
the events of September 11, 2001 Mr Putin got a virtual carte blanche
to put down the Chechens on the basis of his fallacious argument that
they were all linked with the international Islamist movement. The
Russian outrages have been well recorded by Amnesty International
and Human Rights Watch, among other organisations, as well as by
independent analysts within Russia. The frequency with which Chechen
widows have been mounting attacks on Russian targets also testifies
to the male genocide in the region by the Russian army and the level
of despondency felt by the Chechens.

The irony is that while Mr Putin tells the international community
that his fight against the Chechens is part of the world's war on
terror and seeks international understanding for his actions there,
he, nonetheless, does not want the international community to mediate
the conflict because he considers it to be Russia's "internal"
problem. The recent incident in Ossetia is essentially linked to
Chechnya. Mr Putin's policies have caused such despair and sense
of outrage in the region that there appears nothing left for the
Chechens and Ingushetians except to give their own lives in order to
take Russian lives. On both sides, innocent people continue to die.
This is shameful and it has to come to an end.

Mr Putin has generally shown himself to be carrying the mantle of the
Tsars. Further south, he has picked up a row with Georgia in South
Ossetia because the Russian population in that region wants to break
away from Georgia and join North Ossetia. Mr Putin has also tried his
best since the mid-1990s to bring the Central Asia republics back into
a security arrangement with Moscow. He has supported Armenia against
Azerbaijan and has generally shown himself to be a tough, impassive
leader whose training as a KGB agent gives him a steely resolve to deal
with difficult issues with determination. But this misguided toughness
without the ability to make political compromises has now increasingly
resulted in tragedies, both in Russia and Chechnya. Russia's Chechnya
problem requires immediate international response and mediation,
preferably under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The world cannot
allow children, whether Chechen or Russian, to be held hostage to
the violence that has resulted from Moscow's foolish policies. *