Thursday, April 1, 2010

By: Elise Crane

This week’s subway bombings in Moscow sharply displayed the consequences of ignoring the complexities of conflict. Last April, the Kremlin declared the war in Chechnya officially over and formally ended its counterterrorism campaign in the republic. However, death squads continue to flourish, Ramzan Kadyrov is hardly a competent—nor uncorrupt—leader and, as Monday’s tragedy so glaringly demonstrated, the conflict is far from over.

Moscow’s continued refusal to address the root causes of the Chechen separatist drive virtually ensures that the violence will continue. Although the Chechen movement took an admittedly virulent turn with the injection of radical Islam in the mid-1990s, at its heart, it is fueled by historical grievance and unaddressed trauma.

Due largely to Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Russian media, emblematized by Anna Politkovskaya’s untimely death (which was, ironically, blamed on Chechen terrorists, but the likely culprit presents a much more chilling picture), the Russo-Chechen conflict has been broadly portrayed as a classic “good versus evil” story. This is a dangerous simplification and neglects crucial historical facts that must be acknowledged if we hope to end the devastating conflict.

Twenty years ago, in the post-communist ideological vacuum, Chechens saw an opportunity to attain independence after a legacy of brutal Russian domination. What began as a separatist movement became, with the import of radical Islam as a mobilizing factor, part of the global “war on terror.” This allows Russia to present its atrocities in Chechnya as a legitimate response to the plague of Islamic fundamentalism.

For Chechens, Islam injects a degree of global community and financial support in their quest for independence. Radical Islam places the separatist cause under the aegis of virulent Arab jihadists alien to the Chechen historical experience.
For Russia and its supporters, Islam symbolizes Chechnya’s identification with the “evil” side of the global war on terror. This has been a particularly popular narrative in the wake of September 11 and one that has been profoundly galvanizing for Putin. Monday’s bombings will surely only entrench this view of the conflict and fuel Putin’s probable drive to reclaim the presidency in 2012.

In light of the bombings, it is worth reflecting on the 2004 Beslan school crisis, which killed at least 334 people (including more than 150 children) and solidified Moscow’s demonizing narrative of Chechnya as “evil” and Russia as “defensiveness victim.” Thanks to media framing, undoubtedly spurred by Putin, historic Chechen “wolves” had been transformed into “Islamic terrorists.” Although Beslan was an unspeakable horror, with society’s most innocent among the carnage, this incident alone cannot displace hundreds of years of Chechen subjugation at the hands of Russia.

The Kremlin was all too glad, however, to extrapolate responsibility for Beslan onto the entire Chechen republic and to vastly escalate its demonizing rhetoric against the Chechen population. This serves only to compound Chechen radicalism and completely casts aside ordinary Chechens’ historical trauma, including the 1944 Stalinist deportations, which killed between one-half and one-quarter of the Chechen population. The lingering traumatic effects strongly inform Chechen collective memory and amplify its commitment to independence at any cost.

The first Chechen war in 1994-1996 claimed as many as 100,000 Chechen lives, primarily civilians. The second war, from 1999-2000, was also marked by massive civilian casualties and human rights violations. Pro-Moscow President Kadyrov has been commended for reducing overt violence in Chechnya, but its population is fiercely divided, living conditions are horrendous, bursts of violence continue, and corruption is spiraling out of control.

In a globalized world, we can no longer afford to reduce distant “ancient ethnic hatreds” to an irresolvable “clash of civilizations” narrative and we must not let the North Caucasus fall off our radar. It is high time to abandon the lassitude of “good versus evil” interpretations of the world. Putin promises to “dredge the terrorists from the sewers” and we have no reason to doubt his commitment.

But if the global community has any interest in de-escalating the conflict before it infects the entire North Caucasus region, which is already dreadfully instable, it could encourage Russia acknowledge its historical atrocities in Chechnya and to curb its polarizing rhetoric that places all Chechens firmly in the terrorist camp. By appealing to moderate Chechens disgusted by terrorist tactics and abandoning demonization narratives that only deepen grievances and facilitate terrorist recruitment, Russia could direct the conflict toward a less destructive future.

Elise Crane is a graduate student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she focuses on conflict resolution and international communication. She has lived in Russia and conducted research on instability in the North Caucasus, and is particularly interested in media reporting on conflict and post-conflict environments. 



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