Ten years ago tomorrow, the Russian Federation launched its first war with Chechnya, under the rubric of "restoring constitutional order" to the Chechen Republic. After a three-year interlude, from 1996 to 1999, Russia invaded again. We are now in the fifth year of what is commonly called the Second Chechen War. Many thousands of civilians have been killed, Chechnya's infrastructure has been destroyed and terrorism has become a permanent feature of the conflict.
In this second attempt to bring Chechnya under Moscow's control -- unlike the first -- there have been no efforts to hold negotiations. Though initiated by Moscow as a war against terrorism, this campaign has only encouraged the evolution and spread of massive violence. Both sides now speak to each other almost exclusively through terrorism -- Russia on a state level by killing a quarter of the population of 1 million over the past decade, the Chechen side (working at the level of separate units) by attacking subway stations and trains and by taking hostages.
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The Kremlin claims that the Chechen resistance is integrated into a global terrorist network, and it places responsibility for every act of terrorism on al Qaeda. This prevents an informed analysis of the situation and buries any initiative that might lead to a political resolution.
Two things demonstrate that terrorism from the radical wing of the Chechen resistance has local roots and is totally detached from al Qaeda. First, the demand that has accompanied every major Chechen act of terrorism is the same: withdrawal of Russian troops and the start of a negotiation process. There are no other, more general demands, such as the destruction of Russia as a state, or war against Christian civilization (and particularly the United States and Europe), which are the goals of those generally considered part of al Qaeda's global terrorist network.
Second, neither al Qaeda nor any other organization that is part of the global jihad has ever conducted any attacks abroad against Russian officials, official buildings or ordinary Russian citizens, even though these would seem to be soft targets, particularly in the Middle East. In Iraq, rather than targeting Russians, al Qaeda has shown particular consideration to Russian hostages.
The Kremlin employs overwhelming military force and total terror against the Chechen population. It has no political proposal for resolving this conflict, and it refuses to negotiate with President Aslan Maskhadov, despite his many offers. Marginalized in this fashion, Maskhadov simply cannot achieve a political resolution. The result of Moscow's policy of demonizing the Chechen moderate leadership and denying it opportunities to demonstrate political achievements leaves the radicals with limitless space to show their strength. Hence, each new act of terrorism is more cruel and deadly than the last.
This conflict has also metastasized geographically, bringing into its orbit more and more new elements from among the nations of the North Caucasus region. Over the past two years numerous violent conflicts throughout the North Caucasus have left no doubt that the region stands at the precipice of chaos. This is the result of poorly conceived policies in the North Caucasus as a whole, and especially with respect to Chechnya.
Russia's abrogation of political models for the regulation of this conflict, and its choice of allies in Chechnya -- criminal elements that do not have the trust of the population -- does nothing to prevent terrorism. On the contrary, it contributes to the establishment of an industry of terrorism.
This phenomenon is local. The only way for the Kremlin to begin to address it is to enter into constructive dialogue with Maskhadov and his government. Moscow claims that Maskhadov has no control over the disparate units that make up the Chechen resistance. But in the past five years of war the Kremlin has not agreed to even an hour-long cease-fire that would test this assertion and permit Maskhadov to exercise political influence. Instead, the Russian government has put a price on his head; he is being hunted by the military and security forces.
Russia and Chechnya must begin a confidence-building process, a necessary precondition for negotiation, by putting each other to tests as they did during the first Chechen war. Such measures should include cease-fires, safe havens, exchange of prisoners and humanitarian corridors. At this stage, effective and constructive cooperation in resolving questions at the technical level would create the basis of mutual trust upon which talks could be built to resolve political issues that, at present, seem intractable. This includes a genuine, mutual cooperation in the fight against terrorism and its causes. The first and most crucial step must be ceasing military activity by both sides. This would truly test Maskhadov's control over the fighters in the field.
This conflict has produced more violence and cruelty than any in Europe since World War II. The scale of civilian casualties far exceeds the Serbian war against Kosovo and is comparable to the level of killing in Bosnia, yet it is largely ignored by the international community. In the absence of political will to reach a settlement, the Chechen conflict could well rage for another decade, or until the Chechen population is eradicated.
The writer was appointed foreign minister of Chechnya in 1999. He is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.