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Chechnya - Putins’s dirty war

The Russian government of ex-KGB boss, now president, Vladimir Putin – a close friend of Blair – is waging its own version of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ in the Republic of Chechnya. Part of the secret deal for supporting the United Sates in Afghanistan is a green light for Putin to step up a war which, says a leading Russian journalist, has turned the country into a ‘living hell’. Kate McCabe reports.

The Russian government is in daily breach of every single international law and treaty on the conduct of war and the treatment of refugees. It has caused untold suffering and destruction and the deaths of tens of thousands of Chechens.

Living in the ruins - Grosny today

This is Putin’s very own war. He has built his meteoric rise from obscure head of the Federal Security Bureau (the old KGB) to Russian President, on the rubble of Chechen towns and villages.

The first Chechen war began in 1994 when Russian troops were sent to the republic to repress the independence movement, which had declared a separate state and set up a provisional government. The pro-capitalist, IMF-backed Russian government of Boris Yeltsin was determined not to lose control of this oil rich state which is part of the route of the main oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea.

In spite of superior numbers and firepower, the Russians faced a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Chechen independence fighters. There was consistent opposition to the war inside Russia itself, not least from the mothers of the young conscripts sent to perform national service in a country where they were a hated occupying power. These troops were untrained, badly led and facing death for reasons they neither understood nor supported.

The Russian army succeeded in inflicting terrible damage on the Chechen people, reducing the capital Grozny to rubble and leaving many of its civilian population heaped into mass graves or eking out a miserable existence in the ruins or in refugee camps. Civil society was destroyed.

By 1996 the Russians had had enough, but the Chechens had been unable to win an outright victory. Finally in August an agreement was reached whereby Russian federal troops withdrew and a five-year moratorium was imposed on any discussion of independence.

The journalist Anna Politkovskaya began writing for the news magazine Novaya Gazeta in 1999 as Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin were plotting the second Russian adventure in Chechnya. In that year there was an outbreak of fighting in Daghestan, the republic adjoining Chechnya. A group of Chechen rebels crossed the border declaring Daghestan and Chechnya one independent state, a declaration that had little support in Daghestan.

These events were accompanied by a series of terrorist bombings of housing estates in Russian cities. Some said these sinster events, which seemed to come out of the blue, were carried out by Chechen rebels. Others believed that the Federal Security Service or their agents operating within the Chechen movement, were responsible, the aim being to whip up Russian public opinion in favour of a new assault on Chechnya. Indeed there were suggestions that the whole Daghestan adventure was orchestrated by the Kremlin to justify the subsequent military response.

A recently published collection of Anna Politkovskaya’s articles* exposes the brutality of Russia’s second intervention in Chechnya, where war is being made almost exclusively on the civilian population.

Politkovskaya shows great courage in continuing to expose the horrors behind the bland statements of Putin’s ministers. Journalists in Russia who expose corruption of the state or its friends in industry and finance (also known as the Russian Mafia) are frequently threatened and sometimes killed. In July 2000 Igor Domnikov, her colleague on Novaya Gazeta, died from injuries sustained in a beating which was probably ordered by someone he had exposed or offended.

As the second Chechen war began, thousands of civilians fled to refugee camps over the border in Ingushetia and Politkovskaya reports on their fate, shivering and starving through the winter of 1999. She describes the Putin government’s decision to place the notorious State Directorate for Penitentiaries in control of the borders and refugee camps. As the department responsible for containing one million prisoners in the appalling conditions of Russia’s jails, the main qualities it instils in its employees are racist hatred and the ability to brutally suppress outbreaks of dissent or rioting. Chechen women and children must now negotiate their escape and their lives in the camps with these monsters.

The role of the private sector in newly-capitalist Russia is explored with an article about Military Commemoration Ltd, an Orwellian business venture set up to identify the bodies of solders and civilians killed in the Chechen wars. Formed in 1997, it has received almost $4m to carry out this work on behalf of the armed forces ministry. Whilst it spends wholesale on up-to-date equipment, much of it unrelated to the task, every operation is dragged out for months – not surprising when the very corpses of the dead have been turned into commodities.

Politkovskaya also reports on the fate of the Russian soldiers, brutalised by their experiences and by the terrible conditions in which they live. She met doped up soldiers who spoke of rape and murder with sadistic pleasure. They paid for the dope and alcohol that fuel their psychosis with boxes of ammunition, which are then sold on to the enemy to use against them.

She also reports on the rich oil and gas industries of Chechnya, all now illegally owned and operated by various criminal gangs protected by both the Chechen police force and the federal army. The Russian official who is the head of the state oil company has never actually visited Chechnya and the company controls nothing.

She explains there are two types of oil wells – those that work and those that burn. Those that work belong to wealthy gangs who can afford their own security forces. Those that burn are set on fire by their owners, who are unable to keep hold of them by force but want to deter others from moving on to their patch.

When a fire is put out – a costly and difficult enterprise – local people know the weak baron has succumbed and one of the big boys has moved in and taken over. The environment, the waste, the poisonous fumes destroying the health of those living nearby do not feature in this war of primitive accumulation of capital. All economic activity, from market stall to billion-dollar gas business, functions only through the payment of substantial bribes to members of various branches of the federal and local government who are using the occupation to enrich themselves.

In December 2000, Politkovskaya wrote from the capital: “As the second winter siege sets in, Grozny today is a living hell. It is another world, some dreadful Hades... there are no signs of civilisation among the ruins apart from the people themselves.” Children starve and lose limbs from landmines buried amongst the rubble. Old people in rags live in dark basements.

In January 2001, President Putin took control of the occupation out of the hands of the Defence Ministry and put it directly in the hands of the FSB. The decisive military victory has been won, he claims, and what remains now is a war against “international terrorism” which is more appropriately carried out by FSB officers and troops.

The Council of Europe, which had removed Russia’s voting rights over its actions in Chechnya, cynically took this as a promising sign and brought them back into the fold.

But Politkovskaya found out what it really means when in February 2001 she travelled to the southern area of Chechnya in response to a cry for help from 90 families in Vedeno district who had demanded to be resettled outside their home republic. They were so desperate to escape the torture, murder and repression being carried out against them in an area controlled by the FSB they were prepared to leave their homes forever. When she arrived, she too was arrested and faced abuse and threats of rape or worse. She told a television station after her release: “After seeing how they treated me, a journalist, I am convinced that all the complaints of local residents are true.”

Some Western leaders have been critical of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, but not so British Prime Minister Blair, who has made a close ally of President Putin. On his recent visit to Russia to strengthen the “war on terrorism”, Blair ate a hearty stew with Putin at his country dacha and the two talked through the night and into the early hours of the morning, it was reported. It is not likely that the daily terror faced by the families of Vedeno was high on the agenda, however, or the fate of hundreds of thousands of Chechens now suffering as a result of Putin’s dirty war.

* A Dirty War, a Russian reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya, The Harvill Press £12.00
This article first appeared in Socialist Future

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