President Vladimir Putin Faces Difficult Choices in Chechnya
Nearly four years after Vladimir Putin's 1999
pledge to crush the Chechen independence movement within two weeks,
the ongoing conflict continues to dog the Russian leader. Putin
became acting president in 1999, succeeding the ailing Boris Yeltsin,
and was officially elected to the office in March 2000.
Yeltsin's leadership in the mid-1990s, Russia had fought a war
designed to keep Chechnya from becoming an independent state.
Tensions resurfaced in September 1999, when a deadly series of
apartment building bombings swept through Moscow and other parts
of Russia. Yeltsin's government blamed the attacks on Chechen
then prime minister, responded quickly, sending troops back to
the region and bluntly threatening, "If we catch them in
the toilet, we will rub them out in the outhouse."
After weeks of heavy shelling, Russian troops entered Grozny on February
1, 2000. War has continued since then, drawing international criticism for
its toll on Chechen civilians. In late 2001, talks between the two sides
failed when Putin demanded the surrender of rebel leaders and Chechen officials
insisted on recognition of regional sovereignty.
the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Putin quickly drew
parallels between the war in Chechnya and the United States' war
on terrorism. His government emphasized possible links between
Chechen rebels and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
During a televised speech, Putin urged Chechen fighters to "halt
all contacts with international terrorists."
late September 2001, the Russian parliament's lower house issued
a resolution justifying a stronger crackdown in Chechnya, saying
it recognized the need for Moscow to "take decisive measures
to protect Russian citizens from terrorism and cut off external
support for terrorist groups acting in Chechnya."
By the summer of 2002, Putin had adopted a milder tone, telling a news conference
that he thought Chechen civilians had been unfairly labeled terrorists when
most were the victims of an ineffective Russian state that had allowed rebels
to gain control.
Russia's military state machinery failed," he said. He also
expressed regret for the zachistkas, or mop-up operations,
the Russian army carried out to capture militants. Human rights
groups have criticized these sweeps for allegedly targeting civilians.
But the possible thawing of relations ended in October 2002, when Chechen
militants stormed a Moscow theater and held some 800 members of the audience
hostage. Since the assault, in which at least 130 hostages and all the separatists
died during a rescue effort, Putin has maintained a tough stance and shelved
a plan to reduce troops in the region.
Ivanov, Russia's defense minister, said in November that in response
to intelligence suggesting Chechen fighters were planning further
attacks on Russians, the military had started "a large-scale,
tough but targeted special operation in all the regions of Chechnya."
Putin has refused to negotiate with the separatists or with the Chechen
president, Aslan Maskhadov, whose term ended earlier in 2002 without new
elections being called.
The Chechens, meanwhile, will vote in March on a constitutional referendum
that rules out independence, but would give Chechnya some degree of self-governance
within Russia. The vote is designed to pave the way for a presidential election.
Skeptics, however, argue that the referendum will not be effective unless
it is preceded by peace talks.
is putting the cart before the horse," Tatiana Kasadkina,
executive director of Memorial, a Russian human rights group with
a presence in Chechnya, told the Christian Science Monitor in
December. "First there must be peace talks that include those
who are actually fighting."
Whether or not the referendum successfully restores some peace
and stability to the region, it appears the Russian military will
remain in Chechnya. According to The Guardian, Russian Defense
Minister Sergei Ivanov has said some troops will be stationed
in Chechnya "permanently."