A political analysis of Russia’s recent involvement in Chechnya and the reaction of West, written on 27th March 2000
“there are terrorists who kidnap innocent people by the hundreds and keep them in cellars, torture and execute them… Bandits of this kind — are they any better than Nazi criminals?”
—- Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
“Russian forces went on a killing spree in the Aldi district of Grozny, shooting at least sixty-two and possibly many more civilians who were waiting in the street and their yards for soldiers to check their documents. These were entirely preventable deaths, not unavoidable casualties of war. They were acts of murder, plain and simple…And most disturbing of all, there is no evidence that the killing spree has stopped.”
—- Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher
Russia’s presidential elections are over. With most of the vote counted, Vladimir Putin has so far accumulated more than the 50% needed to clinch the Presidency of Russia. Many Western leaders are treating this news with relief. A News Analysis piece in today’s New York Times by correspondent Michael R. Gordon is entitled, “Washington Bites its Nails as Russian Votes are Tallied.” Writing from Russia, Gordon explains why he thinks “The Clinton Administration has a lot riding on a Putin victory.” For one thing, “Mr. Putin and his top aides have talked about overhauling the tax code, protecting the rights of shareholders, phasing out subsidies to money-losing enterprises and tackling politically dicey issues such as establishing the right to own land.” Such talk of economic reforms has so impressed US officials that “Clinton administration officials are already discusing” ways to reward Putin’s efforts to help out foreign investors. Suggestions include, “expanding assistance by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, rescheduling Russian debt and having the United States Export-Import Bank step up its efforts to encourage investment in Russia.”
Unfortunately, things are not entirely rosy for US policy makers, because, “There is also Chechnya.” Putin’s war is making it difficult for administration officials to wholeheartedly embrace him in public. What of Chechnya? In Gordon’s words, “The brutal war has been temporarily pushed out of the news by the Russian election, but it is still raging.”
Extensive investigations by Human Rights Watch continue to reveal a pattern of brutal terror in Chechnya, including war crimes, carried out by the Russian forces. Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher, made it clear that the targets of Russia’s Chechnya campaign were not simply the rebels. In March 1 testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bouckaert called attention to the Russian forces, who “indiscriminately and disproportionately bombed and shelled civilian objects, causing heavy civilian casualties,” in violation of the Geneva Convention which limits attacks to combatants. “The bombing campaign has turned many parts of Chechnya to a wasteland: even the most experienced war reporters I have spoken to told me they have never seen anything in their careers like the destruction of the capital Grozny.” Human Rights watch has documented at least three large-scale massacres by Russian forces in Chechen villages. And there is a tremendous refugee crisis. More than 200,000 Chechens have fled the fighting into neighboring Ingushetia, which has a population of only 300,000.
Bouckaert concluded his testimony by urging the US to call for a suspension of World Bank and International Monetary Fund loan payments pending to Russia. He proposed that “the creation of a Commission of Inquiry should be a prominent item for discussion at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting, and the U.S. must insist on a discussion of the Chechen conflict at the U.N. Security Council, because the conflict in Chechnya has major implications for international peace and security.” (See the Human Rights Watch web site for more information; http://www.hrw.org/hrw/campaigns/russia/chechnya/).
The Senate was shocked by Boukaert’s testimony. Jesse Helms said, “I am ashamed of our government and its comments made in defense of Russia.” But the US has done practically nothing to stop the assault. To some, criticism of Putin’s campaign in Chechnya is considered “skepticism” (“Some Skeptics See Iron Hand in Putin’s Glove”, NYT, 2 Mar 2000).
The US State Department seems to share this point of view. “Instead of using its relationship with Russia to bring an end to the abuses in Chechnya, the Clinton administration has focused on cementing its relationship with acting President Putin, the prime architect of the abusive campaign in Chechnya,” Bouckaert lamented. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Russia for a conference on the Middle East in early February, and was “encouraged” by her long talk with Putin (“A 3-Hour Talk With Putin Leaves Albright Encouraged”, NYT, 3 Feb 2000). She may have warned Putin, but not of loan suspensions or the formation of a Commission of Inquiry. “We did not mince words, either of us, on Chechnya…I said to him…that he’s riding a tiger.” These are not words of anger, excoriating a war criminal. Rather, Albright was warning Putin, for his own sake, to be careful of the political consequences of his war. She also appeared frustrated that the US was powerless to stop the war, “I do not think we are any closer to a political solution in Chechnya.” Today’s New York Times news analysis of the Russian vote reiterates this seeming frustration: “The West has denounced the indiscriminate attacks against civilians [in Chechnya] but has been careful not to link the issue with the question of assistance from the monetary fund or other policy objectives.”
This is strange, since last year Albright did make strong statements regarding foreign aid to Russia after allegations in August that over $4.2 billion had been laundered out of Russia by organized crime. “We have made clear that we will not support further multilateral assistance to Russia unless fully adequate safeguards are in place. President Yeltsin’s Government needs at last to make fighting corruption a priority.” (“Albright Warns the Russians to Battle Corruption, Or Else”, NYT, 17 Sep 1999). Why is the US suddenly careful about making “Or Else” statements to Russia when it comes to the army’s conduct in Chechnya?
Albright’s stance mirrors that of major business interests in the West, which says that so long as Russia’s climate for foreign investment is “transparent” and stable, other issues, such as human rights, are of negligible importance. In a speech to the US-Russia Business Council in April 1998, Michael Camdessus, then Managing Director of the IMF, enunciated the importance of investors. He stressed the need for economic growth in Russia to “gain strength without financial disruption caused by loss of investor confidence,” which requires “firm resolution, commitment, and implementation on the government side, which has not always been there in the past.”
The Clinton administration considers Vladimir Putin “a man we can do business with.” Perhaps it believes that Putin has the “firm resolution” and “commitment” necessary to enact policies which will restore “investor confidence.” “Mr. Putin has regularly argued that foreign investment is essential to economic growth…Western business interests praise his recognition…of the importance of free trade and open markets” (NYT, 22 Mar 2000). His 1997 dissertation from the Mining Institute of St Petersburg was entitled, “Strategic Planning of the Renewal of the Minerals – Raw Materials Base of the Region in Conditions of the Formation of Market Relations.” The title may be obscure, but those who have read the thesis, such as Professor Mikhail Mednikov of St. Petersburg Technical University, one of Putin’s examiners, recognize that “It’s a paper written by a market-oriented person.” (Incidentally, the Mining Institute refuses to allow reporters to view the manuscript, therefore few people outside Putin’s examining committee have read it.) Putin has many times shown himself to be on the side of foreign investors, and not just in words. He worked for six years as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of Moscow, where his job was to attract foreign investment to the port city of St. Petersburg. By 1993, Putin managed to create 6,000 joint ventures with foreign companies, half of Russia’s total at the time.
In an interview with Ted Koppel which aired last Friday night, Putin made clear his continued support for investors. He proclaimed the first priorities of his goverment, if elected. “First, we will focus on guaranteeing the full rights of owners and investors. The right of ownership must become a priority in Russia. We will strive to make the position of the state crystal clear in its legislation. We will need to make the state strong enough to guarantee implementation of these rights. And finally, we will do our best to ensure equal opportunity for all the participants of the market.”
It would seem that Secretary Albright’s threat to Boris Yeltsin’s government was taken to heart when Yeltsin picked Putin as his acting successor. Many criticize Putin’s history as a KGB agent, his apologetics for the Stalin era purges, his defense of the KGB, and his continued glossing over of the Russian assault of Chechnya. But it is likely that, so long as he promotes the interests of business, Putin’s “authoritarian streak” will not be questioned by Western leaders. Indeed, it may come to their aid — Putin said he will use friends from his days as a KGB agent, and as director of its successor agency the FSB, to help root out corruption and money laundering, which to him is only “a passing phase” (NYT, 24 March 2000).
On February 5, three days after Madeleine Albright left Moscow, the Aldi district of Grozny saw a glimpse of Putin’s authoritarianism. At least sixty-two civilians waiting in the streets to have their papers checked were shot down by Russian security forces. So far no threats to withold foreign aid have been forthcoming. Instead, Washington “bites its nails” waiting for Putin to be elected, as “the Russian longing for a strong hand” is used in the media as a metaphor for Washington’s own longing for the same.