The Republic of Chechnya is poised to explode, and the reverberations are likely to send shock waves throughout the world. Washington has chosen to do nothing about this, to the detriment of the United States and the globe.
The level of violence in Chechnya arguably exceeds that of any other conflict on earth today, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. The danger of continued violence in the Northern Caucasus also threatens Western interests more than any other strategic situation on the planet.
Why, then, is the Bush administration doing nothing? The short answer is that it does not want to lose potential Russian support in the United Nations for its upcoming war on Iraq, and the ongoing "war on terrorism." Nor does it want to threaten the oil resources of the Northern Caucasus region, which are themselves key to accessing the vast trans-Caspian oil fields of Central Asia.
Three actions toward the end of the year show the gathering storm clouds, in addition to the terrible theater hostage tragedy in Moscow on October 23. During the Christmas holidays, a number of violent attacks occurred, including a suicide truck bombing of the Chechen government headquarters on Dec. 27, which killed 83 people. Following this was the astonishing acquittal of Russian Colonel Vladimir Budanov for the murder of a Chechen civilian woman on New Year's Eve.
Finally, a key organization that was making progress on peace in Chechnya was dissolved. The mandate for the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe's monitoring group in Chechnya expired on New Year's Day -- and President Putin will not renew it.
Of the three events, the last is the most ominous. The OSCE has been the principal source of stability and reconciliation in Chechnya since 1995, brokering cease-fires at least twice and working to curb human rights abuses despite criticisms from both Chechens and Russians. The United States claims that it has worked to maintain the OSCE in Chechnya, but it has exerted little or no pressure on President Putin to renew the mandate. This essentially takes the lid off of potential violence by Chechen rebels, and removes any effective monitoring of excesses by Russian troops -- a deadly combination.
President Putin prefers a "referendum" that, if passed, would change the Chechen constitution, binding it inextricably to Moscow. Few Chechens believe that this Moscow-sponsored poll will be fairly conducted. Violent protest in reaction to Kremlin-engineered vote manipulation is almost guaranteed.
Washington has pussy-footed around dealing with the Chechnya problem for several reasons. First, President Putin was an early supporter of Washington's mandate for the global war on terrorism. A kind of bargain was struck after the Sept. 11 tragedy: The United States would be allowed to operate unchallenged to pursue terrorists throughout the world, as long as it left Chechnya and other rebel enclaves in Russia under Moscow's purview. The United States further needed Russia's vote in the United Nations to support its potential military intervention in Iraq.
Thus far, both Washington and Moscow have kept their devil's bargain.
Second, the United States realizes that stability in Chechnya at whatever price is the key to oil transport through the Caucasus. Besides having considerable oil reserves of its own, Chechnya sits astride a critical pipeline that links the oil-rich republics of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (on the landlocked Caspian Sea) with the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.
The oil market is a global market. The United States is as concerned about Russian oil supplies as those of the Gulf region. Moreover, since oil is one of the few economic resources helping Russia to stay afloat, Washington sees protection of those economic interests as crucial to maintaining stability in the region-even at the price of human rights and civilian repression by the Russian Army.
According to Washington and Moscow, "stability" is not about stopping a brutal war, but rather assuring Russian sovereignty in the region.
Chechnya would probably do far better on its own. Since it was invaded by Russia in the mid-19th Century, it has never been successfully incorporated into the Russian Federation. It was briefly independent in 1918, but later re-annexed by the Soviet Union. Rebellion was so common under Stalin that he ordered the entire population deported to Siberia. They were only allowed to return in 1957 under Khruschev's regime. Many of its intellectuals and political leaders still live in exile in Turkey or Europe.
Chechnya's economic resources would easily sustain it as a nation. It enjoys good relations with its immediate non-Russian neighbor, Georgia. The problem from Moscow's perspective is a possible domino effect created by Chechen independence. Other Islamic Republics in the region might also want to break away. Of particular concern is Dagestan, which borders on the Caspian Sea and is crucial for oil transport.
Washington's failure to engage with President Putin on this issue is astonishingly short-sighted. A full-scale civil war in Chechnya could endanger the region, and eventually the world, and this is certainly going to happen if America sits on its hands.
PNS contributor William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University, where he is director of Middle East Studies. He has conducted research in the Middle East for over 30 years.
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