Russia's Chechen War Deemed Human Rights Violation

Article excerpt

Matthew Evangelista, who lectured Jan. 6 at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC, posed the question: Is the Chechen war an anti-terrorist operation or a human rights violation?

The Cornell University professor of government, an expert on Russian history and politics and the author of numerous books and articles, stated that, in the last 10 years, Russia has fought two wars in Chechnya. In the process, he continued, the Russian army has committed torture, looting, and forced "disappearances," carried out abusive "sweep operations," invaded civilian homes-ostensibly to detain suspected fighters-and created a Chechen refugee population numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Yet the perpetrators of these crimes benefit from a system that does not hold them accountable for their actions. As a result of its atrocious methods, said Evangelista, Russia has broken international laws and agreements on human rights standards. "If we define terrorism as the use of violence against a civilian population," he declared, "Russia is guilty."

When prompted for a justification, according to Evangelista, Moscow misconstrues the situation depending on the mood of the international community.

He proceeded to give an historical account of the conflict. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, he said, in 1991 Chechnya sought a greater degree of autonomy, as did many of Russia's national republics. Moscow negotiated with the others, granting sufficient concessions to convince each to remain as part of the Russian Federation. With Chechnya alone, Evangelista explained, did former Russian President Boris Yeltsin seek war, insisting that allowing the territory to secede could lead to the breakup of the entire Federation. In the Cornell professor's view, Moscow falsely exaggerated this threat in hope of soliciting sympathy from the international community.

The domino theory of secession, Evangelista argued, while a plausible expectation during the initial phases of the first Chechen War (1994-1996), "was rendered unlikely by the fact that Russia intervened so heavy-- handedly." After witnessing Russia's response to the Chechen uprising, no province was likely to follow suit, he noted. Nevertheless, Yeltsin and later President Vladimir Putin continued to advance the domino theory as justification for employing such harsh methods against the Chechens.

Despite Moscow's attempted justifications, held Evangelista, historically there has been strong criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya. Human rights groups have spoken out against the Russian army's abuses, he noted, and European institutions have called on Moscow to end the war. However, he added, international reaction "has been a series of ups and downs, with little effect on Russian behavior. …