Putin's iron fist fails to subdue Chechnya

Although I have been many times to the Caucasus, only once did I almost end up in Chechnya. I was heading an election monitoring team in next door Georgia and we wished to meet supporters of the former president Gamsakhurdia - the first elected president of former Soviet Georgia, who eventually refused to leave office and had to be extracted from his state apartments by force. With good reason they were very wary of appearing in public but eventually agreed to talk to four of us and we had to meet by the statue, next to the theatre at the end of Rustaveli Avenue. We arrived at the appointed hour and four cars arrived to take one observer in each vehicle to a secure house in the suburbs of Tbilisi.

It was important, they said, that we meet Gamsakhurdia himself. Where was he? In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Were we prepared to go to Grozny? In principle, yes. When I returned to the electoral commission's office, I asked the commission's chairman whether it was OK to go to Grozny. "Fine," he replied, "No problem - as long as you don't want to come back!" Even then, in 1994, it was bandit country. We did not venture out of Georgia!

Two years later I was based in Moscow, once again heading an election observation team, this time for the Yeltsin presidential election. No international observers could be deployed in Chechnya but, being well aware of the devastation the ongoing civil war had caused, I was suspicious of the high turnout of voters recorded there, and of the bizarrely high votes for Yeltsin. I heard that the Communist party had a dossier on the voting in Chechnya and I went to see the candidate, Zyuganov and his officials. With some reluctance they passed on copies of the various reports from Chechnya for me to check out.

My personal assistant then spent two weeks investigating the situation. Among other things he discovered that one polling station, at which an 80% turnout was recorded, purported to be in an area which no longer existed, having been bombed out of existence. Also, an observer for Mikhail Gorbachev had disappeared permanently before he could report back on the situation.

Even more than usual an awareness of the history of Chechnya is important to an understanding of the current situation. That history is characterised by repression and revolt. At the time of the Russian revolution in 1917 the Chechnyan people declared an independent state and were promptly occupied by the Bolsheviks. In the 1930s it became an "autonomous republic" within the Soviet Union, which meant very little in practice. So great was the Chechnyan hatred of the Russians that they collaborated with the Germans in the war - an action hardly designed to please Stalin who deported thousands of them to Central Asia and to Siberia forthwith. Many died prematurely in exile but, after 1956 the survivors were repatriated to Chechnya.

As the Soviet Union imploded, the Chechens grasped the opportunity in 1991 to declare their independence. Boris Yeltsin tried to subdue his recalcitrant province but by 1997 he had clearly decided that it was impossible and signed a peace agreement with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov under which Chechnya was allowed to run its own affairs. The local regime was unable to impose effective control and Chechen bandits spread into Moscow and other cities. Hostilities broke out again in 1999 and eventually Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president on a "strong man" platform, dedicated to dealing firmly with Chechnya. This policy has been disastrous. The number of inhabitants has fallen from 1.2 million in 1994 to an estimated 450,000 today. Around 100,000 Chechens, some 10% of the original population - have died in the conflict. The city of Grozny is in ruins and the Chechens are still far from subdued. The fact that the oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea runs through Chechnya, and that in more peaceful times there was an oil refinery in Grozny, adds a strategic dimension and encourages those of a cynical disposition to see ulterior motives in Russian strategy.

Chechens are mainly Sunni Muslims and their plight has made the more radically minded vulnerable to pressure from radical Islamic elements, with the monstrous consequence of mass hostage taking. There are no easy ways of dealing with such challenges but there must be alternatives to any action by the military that results in the deaths of 119 hostages in the Moscow theatre siege and an incredible 353 in the school in North Ossetia As the Beslan school siege reached its cataclysmic conclusion I was reminded of the Aberfan disaster in which 140 children and their teachers died when a colliery spoil heap slipped and engulfed their school. The searing effect of the concentration of chidren's deaths in a small community is overwhelming and is permanently irreparable.

Russia can subdue Chechnya only in the physical sense of reducing the region to rubble. It cannot defeat the Chechen diaspora which will continue to organise terrorist attacks. There comes a point when leaders have to accept failure and Putin is no exception. It took the iconic nationalist figure of de Gaulle to recognise that France could not retain Algeria by force and it will fall to Putin sooner or later to follow de Gaulle's example. The problem is exacerbated by the destruction of Chechnya's structures - physical, political and social - and their rebuilding under any new dispensation will take time.

The obvious body to broker a deal and to oversee a transition is the Vienna based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE abandoned its previous initiatives in Chechnya at the end of 2002 but it is time for it to return. It needs to take a look at the Caucasus region as a whole and to examine formal and informal structures that can build confidence and encourage stability. There are many common concerns in the region even though there are divisive issues of ethnicity and of religion. And I would very much like to look forward to making my long postponed visit to Grozny.<

10 September 2004