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Editorial

No Change for Chechnya

Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A20

THE RUSSIAN REPUBLIC of Chechnya got a new president Sunday -- but congratulations to Alu Alkhanov, the career police officer taking over the job, don't really seem to be in order. After all, three of Chechnya's four previous presidents have died violently, including the last one, who perished in a bombing in May. And Mr. Alkhanov's own selection, like that of Akhmad Kadyrov before him, came through an election blatantly rigged by the Russian government. Mr. Alkhanov is promising Chechnya's long-suffering population an economic revival, but the more likely prospect is the grinding continuation of a war that has destroyed the republic, bled and corrupted the occupying Russian army, and contributed to the crumbling of democracy and free speech in Russia itself.

Responsibility for this debacle lies squarely with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the army to invade Chechnya and crush its quasi-independent, democratically elected government five years ago. Mr. Putin used the military campaign to fuel his own ascent from prime minister to president in 2000, but everything else about his war has gone wrong. Despite repeated declarations of victory, Russian troops and their local allies have not been able to eliminate Chechen resistance, which increasingly has become linked to Islamic extremism. Tens of thousands of Chechens still languish in refugee camps; the capital, Grozny, remains in ruins. Russian forces, which have subjected Chechen civilians to systematic abduction, torture and summary execution, suffer their own steady stream of casualties, though news of them is now mostly suppressed. Harder to hide are the large-scale -- and repugnant -- terrorist attacks against Russian civilians. After two days of prevarication, authorities finally acknowledged that two civilian airliners that crashed after takeoff from Moscow last week, killing at least 89, were brought down by explosions probably caused by Chechen suicide bombers.

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For years liberal Russians and Western governments have been trying to tell Mr. Putin that even if he is justified in fighting terrorism, his strategy of subduing Chechnya by force will never succeed. He refuses to listen, or learn. Instead he has silenced the Russian media that sought to report honestly on the situation, exiled foreign observers and aid groups, and tried to force refugees to return home. When the president he installed through a rigged election was killed, he simply nominated another puppet and organized another rigged election. His rejection of the alternative -- a broad dialogue with Chechens, including those of the government he overthrew -- dooms Chechnya to unchanging misery, and his government to an endless quagmire.


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