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GIVE THE CHECHENS A LAND OF THEIR OWN
by Richard Pipes
New York Times
September 9, 2004

The terrorist attack in Beslan in Russia's North Caucasus was not only bloody but viciously sadistic: the children taken hostage by pro-Chechen terrorists were denied food and drink and even forbidden to go to the bathroom, then massacred when the siege was broken. It is proper for the civilized world to express outrage and feel solidarity with the Russian people. But to say this is not necessarily to agree with those - including President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia - who would equate the massacre with the 9/11 attacks and Islamic terrorism in general.

In his post-Beslan speech, Mr. Putin all but linked the attack to global Islam: "We have to admit that we have failed to recognize the complexity and dangerous nature of the processes taking place in our own country and the world in general." Reports that some of the terrorists were Arabs reinforce that line of thinking. But the fact is, the Chechen cause and that of Al Qaeda are quite different, and demand very different approaches in combating them.

Terrorism is a means to an end: it can be employed for limited ends as well as for unlimited destructiveness. The terrorists who blew up the train station in Madrid just before the Spanish election this year had a specific goal in mind: to compel the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. The Chechen case is, in some respects, analogous. A small group of Muslim people, the Chechens have been battling their Russian conquerors for centuries.

At the close of World War II, Stalin had the entire Chechen nation exiled to Kazakhstan for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Khrushchev allowed them to return to their homeland but they continued to chafe under Russian rule. Because Chechnya, unlike the Ukraine or Georgia, had never enjoyed the status of a nominally independent republic under the Communists, the Chechens were denied the right to secede from the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so they eventually resorted to terrorism for the limited objective of independence.

A clever arrangement secured by the Russian security chief, Gen. Alexander Lebed, in 1996 granted the Chechens de facto sovereignty while officially they remained Russian citizens. Peace ensued. It was broken by several terrorist attacks on Russian soil, which the authorities blamed on the Chechens (although many skeptics attributed them to Russian security agencies eager to create a pretext to bring Chechnya back into the fold). A second Chechen war began in 1999, of which there seems no end in sight.

This history makes clear how the events in Russia differ from 9/11. The attacks on New York and the Pentagon were unprovoked and had no specific objective. Rather, they were part of a general assault of Islamic extremists bent on destroying non-Islamic civilizations. As such, America's war with Al Qaeda is non-negotiable. But the Chechens do not seek to destroy Russia - thus there is always an opportunity for compromise.

Unfortunately, Russia's leaders, and to some extent the populace, are loath to grant them independence - in part because of a patrimonial mentality that inhibits them from surrendering any territory that was ever part of the Russian homeland, and in part because they fear that granting the Chechens sovereignty would lead to a greater unraveling of their federation. The Kremlin also does not want to lose face by capitulating to force.

The Russians ought to learn from the French. France, too, was once involved in a bloody colonial war in which thousands fell victim of terrorist violence. The Algerian war began in 1954 and dragged on without an end in sight, until Charles de Gaulle courageously solved the conflict by granting Algeria independence in 1962. This decision may have been even harder than the choice confronting President Putin, because Algeria was much larger and contributed more to the French economy than Chechnya does to Russia's, and hundreds of thousands of French citizens lived there.

Until and unless Moscow follows the French example, the terrorist menace will not be alleviated. It is as impossible to track Chechens scattered throughout Russia as it is to intimidate the suicidal fanatics among them. Worse, the continuation of Chechen terrorism threatens to undermine the authority of Mr. Putin, whose landslide victory in last spring's presidential election was in good measure due to the voters' belief that he could contain the Chechen threat. Russians respect strong authority, and there are new signs that Mr. Putin's inability to wield it over Chechnya makes them wonder whether he is fit to rule them. After the school siege, there was much muttering in the streets that under Stalin such atrocities would not have occurred.

Unfortunately, he seems determined not to yield an inch. "We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon," he said on Saturday. This may seem like a truism to Russians, but in this case it is wrong. Russia, the largest country on earth, can surely afford to let go of a tiny colonial dependency, and ought to do so without delay.

Richard Pipes is an emeritus professor of history at Harvard and the author of "A Concise History of the Russian Revolution" and, most recently, of "Vixi: The Memoirs of a Non-Belonger."

 

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