President Vladimir Putin is now even more determined to resist the Chechen people’s fight for independence, as he faces parliamentary elections this year and a presidential poll next year. Anxious to give the impression that the pledge he was elected on–to end the Chechens’ struggle for independence–has in fact been carried out, he has unveiled yet another gimmick designed to show that the war is over and that Chechnya is happy to be in the Russian Federation. This time he is using an amnesty advertised as an offer to the Chechen mujahideen, although it is being variously dismissed as a cynical ploy to pre-empt the prosecution of Russian troops for war crimes committed in Chechnya, and as an attempt to create the impression that the Kremlin has regained the political initiative as a result of the rigged constitutional referendum in March. Two devastating "suicide attacks", on May 12 and 14, led to the deaths of at least 78 people, destroying any impression of stability in, or government control of, the region that might have been created by the referendum.
The amnesty proposal came on May 15 in a letter from Putin to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, which is controlled by Putin’s political allies. Putin proposed that an amnesty be granted to "Chechen separatists" who agree to lay down their arms by August 1, although the offer would exclude anyone accused of murder, rape, kidnap and so on. He described the offer as a "humanitarian gesture" that "is aimed in the first place at creating additional conditions for normal life in the Chechen Republic". The Duma gave initial approval to the proposal on May 21, even as Russian newsagencies and officials reported 12 more killings in Chechnya.
But a spokesman for the Chechen mujahideen dismissed the offer as a "publicity stunt to please the West", saying that it could not bring peace to a region in the grip of renewed violence. The offer can hardly be expected to bring peace when it does not apply to the leaders and activists of the pro-independence movement, who were not invited to negotiate the conditions of Putin’s proposal in the first place. According to officials and MPs quoted by Russian newsagencies, amnesty would definitely not be granted to Aslan Maskhadov, who is accused of organising an armed rebellion, or to any commanders suspected of organising "suicide bombings" or "other terrorist acts".
But even before the attacks, there was plenty of evidence to show that the referendum had failed, with the Chechens actually intensifying their operations as a result, and Russian troops and local police stepping up their kidnaps and murders of young Chechens suspected of being actual or potential supporters of the independence movement. In an interview on April 14, for instance, Oleg Orlov, a senior official of Memorial, a well-known Russian human-rights group, said that his organisation had seen a crime report, compiled by the pro-Moscow government of Ahmad Kadyrov; its data, though accurate enough as far as they went, failed to take into account other crimes documented by human-rights groups during the same period. But when taken together, he said, the reports "describe a region where there is a guerrilla war in full swing, with all the accompanying horrors" Orlov and his organisation cannot be accused of being sympathetic to Chechen mujahideen, whom they hold jointly responsible with the government for the atrocities. Nor is Memorial the only organisation commenting on or reacting to the escalating violence that Putin is so keen to camouflage as peace. Less than a fortnight before Orlov’s interview, the Council of Europe demanded that a Hague-style war-crimes tribunal be set up to prosecute Russian and Chechen leaders as war-criminals. Coming only hours before the explosion on a passenger-bus in the centre of Johar-Gala (Grozny), the capital of Chechnya, which killed at least six people and injured many others, the resolution warned that Chechnya could become "truly ungovernable" as a result of the violence. The war and subsequent "anti-terrorism operation in Chechnya has left a climate of impunity... which denies justice to the thousands of victims, embittering the population to a point where the Chechen republic could become ungovernable," it said.
One newspaper comment on the resolution pointed out that president Putin, as commander-in-chief of the Russian army, "could also come under scrutiny–or even face trial–by such a tribunal". Those who accuse him of introducing the amnesty to ensure that Russian troops escape prosecution for war crimes are lent credibility by the resolution calling for the establishment of the tribunal "on behalf of Russia", but they can now add that he was also thinking of what might happen to him as commander-in-chief of the war criminals, who are after all obeying his orders and implementing his policies.
Of course this is not the first time Moscow has offered an amnesty to the Chechens. When the Chechens defeated the Russians in the first war and the Russian army withdrew, the negotiations in 1996 ending that war included the discussion of an amnesty. Moscow also offered an amnesty when Putin launched the second war in 1999. This year, in an attempt to persuade the Chechens to vote for the new constitution in March, Russian officials made vague references to an amnesty, but no formal offer was made. The Chechens did not vote for the constitution, and they are not likely to be impressed by the current offer either. In fact there is growing evidence that the Chechen mujahideen are intensifying their operations as a result. They are certainly not afraid of Moscow’s threats, nor impressed by the organisations, like Memorial, that hold them equally responsible for the violence and crimes committed by the invaders of their country.
One reason that the Chechens neither fear nor trust the Russians is that throughout their association with them they have been at the receiving end of Russian brutality. In 1944, for instance, Stalin deported them en masse to Central Asia, and the deportation affected virtually every Chechen family. The anger and distrust still exist, fed by Russia’s unbending determination to subdue the Chechens. Even in northern districts close to the border with Russia, which were considered by Moscow to be friendly, the Chechens are now rearing to fight. The first of the two deadly attacks on May 12, for instance, occurred in the northwestern district of Znamenskoye. Putin will certainly need more than brute force or enticements such as constitutions and amnesties.
If he really wants peace, he should pull out his troops and begin real talks with the pro-independence movement, which he has hitherto fought but otherwise ignored.