The Chechen conflict "cannot be solved by force." That is the message that some leaders of the beleaguered northern Caucasus delivered to Vladimir V. Putin, Russia's newly elected president, in appealing for negotiations on a peaceful settlement. He should listen. The war is not only reducing Chechnya's population, it is causing a massive displacement of civilians and destabilizing the region by attracting the most violent elements of Islamic fundamentalism into the conflict.
Putin must take a stand and crack down on widespread human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya and allow independent investigations of alleged atrocities.
The Chechnya conflict has helped enhance Putin's image as a tough leader, but it will become an albatross around his neck as he embarks on his program to lift Russia's economy from its doldrums.
Ruthless bombing of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and other civilian targets drove hundreds of thousands of Chechens out of their homes, mainly to the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, but did not end the war. It has merely pushed Chechen partisans into the mountains. If the fighters cross into Georgia, and some may have done so already, the war could engulf the entire region of the Caucasus.
Russian generals, scanning the ruins of Chechen towns, claim they have all but won the war, but they haven't. They have merely changed its character into guerrilla warfare. Ruslan Aushev, the president of Ingushetia and Moscow's trusted ally, made this point clear in appealing to Putin to "find ways of negotiating" with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Although not in full control of the fighters, Maskhadov represents the only legitimately elected authority in Chechnya.
Putin should be commended for ordering the arrest of a Russian commander on charges of rape and murder, both war crimes under the Geneva Convention. Col. Yuri Budanov allegedly raped and strangled an 18-year-old Chechen girl. Human Rights Watch believes hundreds of war crimes such as this have been committed by Russian soldiers in Chechnya.
Moscow no doubt is reacting to pressure from the West, especially from the Council of Europe, which is considering suspending Russia for its abuses. This would be hugely embarrassing for Putin at a time when he hopes to make Russia a player on the world scene. The council, meeting this week in Strasbourg, France, should keep the pressure on until Putin agrees to allow its human rights commission to go to Chechnya and investigate reports of atrocities.
The problems of chaotic Chechnya will not be solved easily or soon. But they will not be solved at all unless the new Russian leader seeks a peaceful solution and holds the military accountable for human rights abuses.