Chechnya Comes Home To America: THE LOVE SONG OF PUTIN AND BUSH

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A month ago, no one would have believed it. It was a proposition totally unthinkable. A month ago, Russia was still the enemy, an impediment to peace and stability, a lumbering giant, which, though wounded, could always land a formidable blow. Its existence was cited as a reason for missile defense shields to be built and for NATO to be expanded. Yet after the events of September 11th, Russia is attaining the robust and revitalized glow of victory – thanks to the crafty watch of Vladimir Putin.

Maybe we should have seen it coming. After all, the Russian president, an ex-KGB agent and clever diplomat, did make his inexperienced American counterpart weak in the knees at their first meeting: through the Russian’s steely eyes, gushed a besotted George, "I could get a sense of his soul." Yet since no one had imagined the enormous destruction of the terrorism in New York and Washington, no one could have figured that a petulant president would soon consummate the relationship. It is clear now, however, that in the aftermath of "Black Tuesday," and the US Army’s advance on Central Asia, a prediction of mine has been fulfilled: US policy has performed a complete about-face regarding Chechnya, and Russia has pulled off a major diplomatic coup. They have been issued, in effect, a carte blanche from the West to end the Chechen threat once and for all.

THE WHITE HOUSE SHOUTS: DON’T PLAY WITH HIM, CHECHNYA! The most recent and significant expression of this new American sentiment towards Russia was the White House’s ultimatum to the Chechens. Like the big kid in a sandbox, the US has always felt no qualms about saying who can play in the sandbox and who can’t. The message was delivered loud and clear by spokesman Ari Fleischer:

"The Chechen leadership, like all responsible political leaders around the world, must immediately and unconditionally cut all contact with international terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization."

According to Fleischer, "there was no question that there was an 'international terrorist presence' in Chechnya with links to bin Laden."

At first, this seems like a simple enough ultimatum. Bin Laden is not cool, so don’t play with him anymore, Chechnya! Yet there is something odd about the wording. Fleischer does not talk about terrorists in the Chechen ranks, but specifically refers to the Chechen "leadership," which should act "like all responsible leaders around the world" by avoiding terrorism. Wait a minute here… isn’t the only country that recognizes a Chechen political state none other than… the Taliban?

A ‘TERRORIST PRESENCE’ DOES NOT A TERRORIST MAKE And so the cautious and subtle White House statement refrains from accusing the Chechens themselves of being terrorists (as Putin would like), but only demands that they stop associating with questionable characters like Mr. bin Laden – as if the Chechens would have needed his help or his directives when they bombed three apartment buildings in Moscow. The US is walking a fine line here, in trying to avoid blaming the Chechens for terrorist acts against Russian citizens. The Chechens are guilty by association – but not too guilty. In short, America seems to be saying, if everyone would just stop associating with that evil genius Osama, terrorism would abruptly end – in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and especially in New York. This is the dubious pulpit logic which calls out for a single trophy victory, a symbolic "bring me his head on a plate" rationalization that would win popular acclaim, but not much else. Unfortunately, it is the kind of wishful thinking that is going to get many, many "allied" troops killed in the near future, as the war against an invisible enemy drags on – one in which the U.S. can neither name nor find its target in the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan.

It also makes one wonder what is meant by the omission. Without the bin Laden-sponsored "terrorist presence" around, will the Chechens again be treated as a legitimate "freedom fighting" army? Or is it possible that as the love affair unfolds, this White House statement might just be seen as a coy invitation, and they’re playing hard to get? Certainly, the reversal of American foreign policy cannot happen overnight – even when the whole country has been turned upside down by a random act of barbaric terrorism. There are signs that the new US recognition of terrorist elements in Chechnya might translate, sooner rather than later, into a more formalized label for the troublemakers of that region, which would greatly please Mr. Putin. After all, the warming of Western-Russian relations has recently been felt in Europe, where Gerhard Schroeder told the German parliament that the European-Russian relationship should be fundamentally changed, and hinted that a "softer line" would be taken on Chechnya.

VLADIMIR THE GALLANT Yet when it comes down to it, the US has still not made the kind of outspoken statement that Russia would so much like to hear. Perhaps, as we said, this is one of Bush’s feminine charms he is holding in reserve for when he really needs it. So far, it seems like they are not really praising Russia, but rather just evading the issue that would expose the fundamental about-face in policy:

"…Bush and Fleischer avoided outright criticism of Russia for human rights violations, even though the latest State Department human rights report describes Russia's record in Chechnya last year as 'poor' and said that 'there were credible reports of serious violations.'"

Nevertheless, Putin has swept onto the scene like a gallant suitor, taking the initiative by giving the go-ahead for Russian-American military cooperation, intelligence sharing, logistical support and preparation. Why stop there, says Putin, when Russia could just join NATO? On his recent three-day trip to Germany, he "…showed some impatience that the alliance was not moving faster to open up to Moscow. 'Everything depends, of course, on what is being offered,' said Mr. Putin. 'There is no reason any more for the West to hold up such talks.'"

Such strong words from an ardent suitor no doubt left Bush a little weak in the knees again. In fact, Putin’s new enthusiasm for NATO left some of the assembled Germans almost fainting, they were so disturbed. Maybe it didn’t help that one of the official functions of Putin’s visit was to lay a wreath on a site commemorating the Soviet "liberators" of Berlin in World War II.

It is unclear whether Putin actually means that Russia should become a member of NATO; surely, this would not be like any NATO that exists now. The alliance would be the same in name only, as Russia was the whole reason why NATO was thought up in the first place. Seizing the initiative right now, while he still has the weight of world opinion on the side of an anti-terrorism campaign, is in Putin’s best interests. As if to silence the grumblers and naysayers, he had a plan (admittedly vague) ready for his hosts:

"Mr. Putin told the German Parliament on Tuesday that security structures had to be overhauled, that the Cold War was over and that instead of superpower competition there should be a strategic triangle linking the US, the European Union and Russia."

Whether or not this "strategic triangle" can fit within the geometrics of the Western world remains to be seen. It would appear, however, that Putin is a little off with his measuring; for the only shape traceable between the US, EU and Russia would be a straight line. Unless, of course, the US happens to occupy some new territories… in Central Asia…

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, JOIN ‘EM, OR, HOW TO CALL OUR BLUFF The cynical view regarding Putin’s overtures to Washington is simply that, in light of an unavoidable US assault on Afghanistan, Russia would have been powerless to prevent American troops from using the CIS Central Asia countries, and trying to do so would have created serious rifts with the Uzbek and Tajik regimes, and with Washington. Therefore, Putin has made the best of a potentially bad situation in adopting the pragmatic approach. By taking the lead and initiative in "inviting" the Americans in, and pushing for a new policy on Chechnya, he avoided isolating Russia further from the West, and he may have won some important diplomatic concessions that will have far-reaching long term effects. Rather than being forced against his will to give up Central Asia and Chechnya, Putin has called the western bluff – offering all sorts of help, and even offering to join the, until now, enemy group – NATO. Putin may not actually be serious about this, of course; by throwing daring proposals out there, however, he is already ahead of Washington in the diplomatic game.

And this not a moment too soon. Putin’s confidence masks the desperation many Russians feel at what is regarded as an unwinnable war. The Chechens killed two generals and several other ranking soldiers last week, and the fighting continues to rage:

"Russian Interior Ministry outposts in Chechnya have been shelled by rebels 10 times over the last 24 hours, and one serviceman was wounded. Russian helicopter gunships have continued to pound suspected rebel hide-outs, and federal troops claimed that 14 rebels had been killed over the past 24 hours."

In light of the fact that Russian morale in Chechnya has been sinking in recent months, to the point where it is now resorting to antagonizing and destabilizing nearby Georgia, Putin’s nonchalance and enthusiasm are especially remarkable; today they are even declaring that the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has been contacted, and that the rebels will soon be brought to their knees – and to the negotiating table. But if now is indeed the time for Putin to "seize the day," even more remarkable is how all the days prior to 11 September were so unpromising and, in fact, so unseizable.

AMERICA’S OLD POLICY ON CHECHNYA, AND BUSH’S FORGOTTEN THREAT FROM THE STUMP America’s old position on Chechnya is recounted ad nauseum in the State Department’s human rights report (February 2001). "Credible reports" are cited here, as in typical government press releases, attesting to Russia’s eternal guilt against heroic Chechen "rebels." International "humanitarian organizations" have also piled on the pressure, with the result that the UN officially condemned Russia in April 2001 – over the vociferous protests of China and Russia itself.

Now, Clinton was no friend of Russia. He specifically supported oil pipeline routes (like Baku-Cehyan) that would bypass Russia. Under his rule, Yeltsin and then Putin were ritually whipped by the State Department and its media proxies over Chechnya. Yet he frustrated many by not taking an even firmer line; many interventionists must have dreamt longingly of a Kosovo-style invasion of Chechnya, to "liberate" the province. Probably, one of Bush’s campaign strategists seized on this shortcoming when he had him declare that he would "cut off aid to Russia until it withdrew from Chechnya." Certainly, he didn’t really mean it – the US pays millions every year to shore up the Russian economy, to prevent Russian society from getting more corrupt than it already is, and to safeguard those rusting Soviet-era nuclear facilities. But statements like these were certainly music to the ears of those interventionists who had justified stuffing Yugoslavia in an economic straightjacket with crippling sanctions ten years before.

And so we return to the interventionists. Every military action of the US government has been supported by a civilian army of advocates, crusaders, and activists representing a number of different "human rights" and "humanitarian" organizations. From Bosnia to Kosovo, from Macedonia to Chechnya, an army of souls shouting "you must" or "you should" to policymakers has had the desired effect of selling war – usually through fist-pumping and sensationalistic journalism. What will be interesting to see is whether they will now be willing to put their money where their mouth is, and stick with their "ideals" – or placate those who are paying their salaries.

QUICK! SOMEBODY TELL HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, THE CHECHENS ARE THE BAD GUYS NOW! And so we have the example of the infamous HRW. For years, this organization has been one of Russia’s loudest critics on the Chechnya issue. They have devoted tremendous efforts to derailing Russian resolve in the North Caucasus. Since 1999, they have published eight anti-Russian "open letters" to UNHCR, the EU leaders, Russian president Putin, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, and the foreign minister of Sweden. That this campaign should conclude with an "open letter" to President Bush, seems quite natural. In the letter of 8 June 2001, no doubt bolstered by Bush’s campaign promises, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia boss Holly Cartner recited a litany of Russian abuses and demanded that "President Bush has to get a firm commitment from President Putin on the critical question of accountability." There is nothing novel about HRW’s pro-government stance. Their lurid condemnation of Macedonia, for example, was based on very questionable evidence and refuted by Macedonians who happened to be on the scene. Now, when we consider who's behind these people, the importance of HRW as a bolster to the official US position is unremarkable. Which is why its so important that someone tell them that Bush is backing Russia now – quick, HRW! It's time to switch sides!

FOR THE MOMENT, IT'S ALL SYSTEMS GO

Last we heard from HRW (24 September), they seemed to be still in the dark about who the new enemy is. The official statement avers:

"Russian forces' methods in Chechnya remain arbitrary and brutal, and the Russian authorities have made no significant progress towards accountability and towards access for certain UN thematic mechanisms."

Another similar and unchanged position is that of the British pro-interventionists, IWPR.

It will be interesting to see what these organizations have to say about all the poor Afghanis who are likely to be slaughtered by indiscriminate US air raids. Or perhaps, war crimes are only really war crimes when they involve sensational torture and mano a mano shows of malice – after all, where's the crime in bombing someone from 30,000 feet, or starving children through sanctions, or unloading depleted uranium and cluster bombs on a civilian population, as has been done in Serbia and Iraq? In any case, whatever "atrocities" are committed, the fact that the US has consistently blocked the creation of an international war crimes court (while at the same time funding one just to target the Serbs) assures that no American soldier will ever be tried for a war crime in Afghanistan – so let the games begin!

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE, OR, THE IRONY IS JUST KILLING ME I want to close with a remarkable quote taken from an eerily prescient report from October 1999, which now seems almost like an indictment of the ignorance and smarmy, disaffected self-righteousness that characterized US foreign policy, until the country was jolted rudely to the awareness that yes, it can be a dangerous world out there. I want to suggest that this passage should inspire America to send a big apology Russia’s way – after all, now we really do feel it’s pain – but should also serve as a sobering reminder. Because the typical American way of seeing terrorism is that it only matters when it happens to Americans. In other words, "Black Tuesday" could have been avoided were we sensitive to the existence of a real danger and real international threat, as experienced by other nations.

"The United States – normally the world’s most vocal opponent of international terrorism – has been curiously silent about recent Islamic violence. Chechnya – home to terrorist gangs, foreign mercenaries and Islamic fundamentalists – recently dispatched guerrillas across the border with a view to taking over Dagestan. What was the US response? Government spokesmen and, of course, the media immediately parroted the line that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov had nothing to do with anything. He had no control over the Chechen-based guerrillas who attacked Dagestan, or over the terrorists who blew up apartment buildings in Moscow.

Confronted by terrorism the likes of which Americans can barely imagine, the Russian government responded with force. Effete little Jamie Rubin was quickly on hand to warn that 'any resumption of general hostilities in Chechnya would damage Russia’s own interests… We are concerned…that the use of force will make…dialogue that much harder.' He went on to admonish the Russians against 'making Chechens or people from the Caucasus second class citizens.' It comes as no surprise that President Maskhadov recently asked NATO to step in and resolve matters in Chechnya 'in line with the norms of international law.'"

When the shoe is on the other foot, and violence is done to America, germane and subdued rhetoric goes out the window. Can we imagine what would happen if a government spokesperson were to say now (in the wake of September 11th), that "the use of force would make dialogue that much harder?" He would be pilloried in the press, accused of not loving his country, and spurned as if infected with a ghastly contagion that left him blind to the need for retribution.

According to the US in 1999 (and up until now), terrorism in Russia had to be not eradicated but sincerely addressed by a loving dialogue. That is, "dreadful sorry, Chechnya, we didn’t mean to hurt you. Will you please forgive us?" Yet dialogue was not and will not be an option for a US government ready to avenge itself at all costs. It’s sadly ironic that Americans have to suffer from terrorism to be able to understand the weakness and rage that other countries regularly experience from the effects of terrorist attacks. In America, Chechnya has finally come home.

Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire – the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.

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