Bombings Aren’t the Whole Story

Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

This weekend’s carnage in Moscow -- where two Chechen women laden with explosives blew themselves up at a music festival, killing 16 and wounding 50 -- is further evidence that the Chechen resistance (itself a fragmented and fractious gaggle with varying political orientations) contains an extremist wing that hews to a militant version of Islam and which has embraced suicide bombings to further its cause.

Last October, extremists took hostages in a Moscow theater, an episode that ended with the deaths of 129 captives and 41 Chechen commandos, most of them killed by a gas that Russian security forces piped into the building to incapacitate the guerrillas. There have also been four other suicide bombings in Chechnya and the neighboring republic of North Ossetia and a spate of assassinations of local officials in Chechnya.

Chechens in one form or another have been fighting the Russian state ever since they were defeated and annexed to the empire in the 19th century. The current struggle between Chechen separatists and Russia dates to the last days of the Soviet Union.


Much of what the outside world knows about Chechnya today comes from the Russian authorities. They have shaped the story line successfully by portraying the struggle as a war against terrorists and Islamic fanatics, and by linking the militants with Al Qaeda. This has played particularly well in Washington since 9/11: Criticism of Russia’s brutal war has all but ended, and President Vladimir Putin has been feted as an ally in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

Not that the Kremlin’s version of Chechnya is entirely false. Has a segment of the Chechen resistance engaged in terrorism? Undeniably; there’s no other way to describe suicide bombings that kill and maim civilians. Are the planners and perpetrators of such horrors motivated by a radical variant of Islam? Yes, by their own admission. Is Al Qaeda operating in Chechnya? Quite possibly, but we can’t know for sure given the tightness with which the Russians control access to Chechnya.

In addition to shutting out reporters, the Kremlin’s increasing control of Russian radio and television under Putin has resulted in sanitized stories from the front that emphasize military victories and progress toward a political solution. Recently, Russia terminated the Chechen mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it continues to throw up obstacles to keep U.N. observers out. Western human rights organizations are denied permission to operate in Chechnya.

Consequently, the Kremlin’s portrayal of the Chechen issue as a straightforward case of terrorism has gradually stuck. This is a distortion. Chechnya has certainly come to resemble hell, but the nature of Russia’s campaign, which features arbitrary detentions, late-night abductions, torture, executions, rape, theft and bribery, is a major reason why. The Russian judicial system has discredited itself with its abysmal record of bringing to justice the soldiers involved in such brutality.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 60 Chechens (mostly young men) are abducted each month. Russian officials blame Chechen extremists, but the contention that bands of masked men drive unhindered through territory controlled by Russian forces to carry out late-night kidnappings is absurd. Those swept up rarely return. Forty-nine mass graves containing a total of 3,000 bodies have been discovered.

Meanwhile, Chechnya is in ruin. A generation of Chechen children is growing up knowing nothing but fear, displacement and poverty. Not a few are orphans. Some 200,000 Chechens -- out of a total population of roughly 1 million -- are dirt-poor refugees, mainly in neighboring Ingushetia.

Because the Kremlin is eager to show that normalcy is returning, the refugees in Ingushetia face various obstacles -- the denial of registration for residency and the withholding of social services --to returning to their homeland, which remains mired in war. Chechens living in Moscow are routinely attacked by thugs, swept up in police dragnets and denied housing.

None of these injustices justifies suicide bombings, but they do reveal a side of Chechnya’s saga unfamiliar to most Westerners.

By waging a war that has brutalized civilians, the Russian government has cultivated an endless supply of cold-eyed individuals capable of suicide bombings; it is ensuring that reasonable Chechens with whom negotiations are possible are marginalized (if not eliminated) and that the much-vaunted signs of progress in Chechnya (such as the March referendum on Chechnya’s autonomy) are meaningless. What’s required is a federal treaty that gives substantial power to the Chechen Republic, leaving only defense and foreign policy in Moscow’s hands.

Chechnya validates the observation that ethnic conflicts are rarely solved, only managed. Innocent Chechens and Russians are caught in a pitiless war waged on both sides by people for whom moderation and compromise are dirty words -- and truth an expendable luxury. This bodes ill for Russia’s economic and democratic prospects, not to mention for the thousands of Chechens languishing in refugee camps. Amid all the uncertainty about Chechnya, just about the only certainty is that Saturday’s massacre in Moscow will not be the last of its kind.