The "suicide bombing" by two young women (both apparently Chechens) on July 5, which killed 14 people at an open-air rock festival on the outskirts of Moscow, has proven to be a blow to president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to convince the Russian people that the war is over, and has been won. The end to the conflict – which led to his landslide victory in the presidential poll in 2000 – is now crucial for his re-election next year.
The bombing happened a day after Putin had issued a decree ordering presidential elections in Chechnya on October 5 after a rigged referendum, held last March, calling for the promulgation of a constitution designed to secure the status of the war-torn republic as an indivisible part of the Russian Federation. But Putin’s incredibly offensive and belligerent response to the attack only confirms the conclusion, shared by many analysts, human-rights activists and Russian opposition politicians, that his bogus peace-plan will not resolve the conflict, which has never ceased since it began in 1999, the Kremlin’s claims not withstanding.
Cancelling his planned visits to Malaysia and two former Soviet republics, Putin lashed out at the Chechen fighters in language that even some Russian politicians found unhelpful, vowing to "root out and destroy" them, instead of having talks with them. "With such people it is pointless carrying out preventive measures," he said. "They must be rooted out of the cellars in which they are hiding, and destroyed." The fighters "were not only linked with international terrorist organisations but also have become an integral part of them, perhaps the most dangerous part," he added. "I stress again that not a single government in the world will be pushed around by terrorists," he concluded.
Russian politicians – recalling his election promise four years ago "to rub out Chechen fighters in the shit-house"– dismissed his tirade as part of his campaign to be re-elected in 2004. Boris Nemstov, leader of the Union of Right Forces party, said: "Unfortunately, Russia is in the grip of election season and the president only says what people want to hear, not what would lead to peace in Chechnya. Putin’s popularity ratings are more important at the moment than human lives." He added that the only way to bring peace to Chechnya was by talks between different parties to the conflict, including the government of Aslan Maskhadov, the resistance leader and only legitimately elected president, deposed in the war begun by Putin, then prime minister, in 1999. Maskhadov naturally does not want to negotiate with Akhmad Kadirov, head of Moscow’s puppet administration in Chechnya, whom Putin’s plan it is to install as president.
But it is not only Russia’s opposition politicians who believe that Putin’s campaign will not lead to peace in the Muslim republic. Arseniy Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, a Russian human-rights group, who also condemned the bombings, believes that the only way to stop the violence in Chechnya is to restrain the excesses of the Russian army in the republic. "The only way to stop Chechen terror is by halting the violence of Russian federal forces in Chechnya," he said the day after the bombing. "Russia must show that it is serious about punishing not only Chechen rebels but also its own officers who commit violence." But the Russians were not alone in condemning the suicide bombing; a representative of Aslan Maskhadov also did so. Akhmed Zakaev, who is awaiting extradition proceedings in London, said: "This is another tragedy for the people of Chechnya and Russia. We condemn this action and we express our condolences to the victims."
Zakaev, however, has also said defiantly that the Chechen fighters will never negotiate with Akhmad Kadyrov, Moscow’s quisling, which partly explains Putin’s desperate reaction to the attack. "It would be a crime to negotiate with Kadyrov," he said. "The only way to stop the bloodshed is by bringing in the international community." His strong language and the Chechen fighters’ determination to continue their struggle for independence, unless the Russian army is withdrawn and an internationally monitored peace plan is introduced, support those who argue that Putin’s programme cannot end the conflict. In fact, on July 5, when the suicide-bombing took its toll in the outskirts of Moscow, a remotely detonated car-bomb killed three Chechen police officers working for the Maskhadov government. Several hours later, on the next day, two mines exploded, killing one Russian soldier and wounding four in the capital, Johar-Gala (Grozny); and four Russian soldiers died in a helicopter crash, which the Russian army calls an accident.
There is much doubt that Putin will seek a proper peace in Chechnya. The former KGB chief believes in intrigues and manipulation as a means of conducting public business and an effective way of ending a crisis. Not only have the Russians been suffering dire economic problems since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than a decade ago, but they expect Putin to defeat the Chechen struggle, as he promised. And though they might vote for him next year despite the economic problems, they will not do so if the Chechen fighters continue to inflict losses on Russian troops in the republic. The praise he received from foreign leaders during the recent anniversary celebrations at St Petersburg, and his state visit to Britain, will not endear him to the Russian voters if the Chechens are not vanquished, or at any rate neutralised or controlled. In fact, Putin’s warm reception in London by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, only served to focus international attention on the war crimes committed daily by Russian troops not only in Chechnya but also in neighbouring Ingushetia, where tens of thousands of Chechen refugees fled, only to be harassed there by Russian troops who cross the border to do so.
Critics have pointed out that the improvements achieved by Putin in Russia are outweighed by his excesses in Chechnya. Anna Neistat, the Moscow office director of Human Rights Watch, for instance, set out in detail the human-rights violations against Chechens and criticised Blair for ignoring them. Writing in a London-based daily on June 26, the day Putin began his visit, she concluded: "President Putin can be comfortable in the knowledge that Tony Blair seems determined not to admit the truth – let alone act on it. That failure does a disservice to Chechnya, to Russia and the world."
The same thing could be said of most Muslims, who have ignored the Chechens’ fate, many even cooperating with the so-called international war on terrorism. The Chechens are a brave people and will not be browbeaten. But the fact is that they are paying a heavy price for their resistance, and Muslims worldwide are wrong to desert and forget them.