ON a typically freezing day in early February, a bunch of folk from the Chechen town of Achkoi-Martan climbed into a rickety coach and set out on a garlic-picking expedition. Their destination was a wooded area between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and their presence in that zone had been authorized by the local administration.
The party was unarmed, but that fact offered little protection when some of them were spotted by Russian commandos near the Ingush village of Arshaty. It is not unusual, more or less anywhere in the world, for troops engaged in “counter-insurgency operations” to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. The Russians opened fire without warning.
Shortly afterwards, four of the garlic-pickers lay dead in the snow. Three of them were teenagers. According to Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization, at least two of the youngsters were captured after being wounded, then summarily executed. The third teenager’s bullet-ridden corpse bore evidence also of knife wounds to the spine and groin.
The families of the dead are reported to have received compensation from the authorities in Chechnya as well as Ingushetia, and the latter’s president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov publicly acknowledged the death of innocent civilians while claiming that the February operation also accounted for the lives of 18 rebels and was therefore a success.
By the standards of Russia’s restive Northern Caucasus region, the fate of the garlic-pickers wasn’t extraordinary. Such incidents are no longer an everyday occurrence, but when they do take place, they do not attract a great deal of attention even within Russia, let alone internationally. It is unlikely this particular outrage would have received more than perfunctory media coverage but for rebel chieftain Doku Umarov’s claim that last week’s Moscow metro massacres were a response to what happened in the woods on that fateful day in February.
Umarov needn’t be taken at his word: there may well be no direct causal link between the two atrocities. After all, didn’t Umarov six months ago declare his intention of taking his campaign of violence to Russia’s heartland, shortly before a bomb on the Nevsky Express between Moscow and St Petersburg killed 27 commuters last November? And even if it were possible to establish such a connection, the brutal deaths of four innocents on the Chechen-Ingush border could hardly mitigate the loss of ten times as many innocent lives in Moscow.
At the same time, can anyone seriously doubt that mindless military operations that terrorize entire populations tend to fuel precisely the sort of activities and entrench the mindsets that ostensibly are intended to be stamped out? And that applies not just in the North Caucasus but also in northern Pakistan, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the occupied Palestinian territories and in various other parts of the world.
Of course, it works the other way around as well. After all, following the galling atrocities in Moscow, not many Russians will be inclined to question whatever form of revenge is deemed appropriate by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At least Medvedev, in calling for terrorism to be fought “without hesitation, to the end”, paid lip service to the concept of respect for human rights. Putin, not uncharacteristally, called for those responsible to be “scraped from the sewers”.
Putin was the driving force behind the second Chechen war, which was launched in 1999. He wasn’t the first Russian leader to mishandle Chechnya: that credit belongs to Boris Yeltsin, who reacted to the Chechen yearning for independence in the wake of the Soviet Union’s disintegration by exercising the military option. At the time, Chechen nationalism was essentially secular, and it is quite possible that a substantial quantum of meaningful autonomy would have persuaded Chechnya’s leaders – notably the former Soviet Air Force general Dzhokar Dudayev – to remain a part of the Russian Federation.
Dudayev was eliminated in the mid-1990s by a missile based on stolen American technology, but his successors proved equally unacceptable to Moscow and the leadership of the separatist cause eventually fell into Islamist hands. Like Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bosnia before it, Chechnya consequently became something of a cause celebre for jihadists from the Middle East, handing Moscow something of a propaganda coup. It was claimed that some of the worst atrocities, such as the Beslan massacre, involved Arab input.
To whatever extent that may have been true, it’s unlikely the Chechen situation would have come to such a pass had it been handled more intelligently from the outset. Before Putin opted for “Chechenisation” of the conflict, undocumented deaths, disappearances, rape and torture were endemic. Russian forces routinely laid siege to villages and picked victims more or less at random: all men of a certain age were automatically suspects, and their relatives were fair game. It’s a familiar pattern. And it would probably be impossible to calculate the extent to which such practices provided recruits for the cause of Islamist militancy.
Chechnya has been relatively quiet under Putin’s handpicked potentate, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is credited with rebuilding large parts of Grozny and persuading many rebels to abandon their cause. But recalcitrants bear the brunt of his infamous cruelty, and those who fall out with him are hunted down wherever they seek refuge, be it Moscow, Vienna or Dubai. Furthermore, the relatively few rebels that remain have been driven out into neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan – territories that were not covered in Medvedev’s announcement last April about the cessation of Russian military operations in Chechnya.
The suicide bombers who murdered 40 commuters at the Park Kultury and Lyubyanka underground stations in Moscow on March 29 were evidently young widows. It’s been six years since “black widows” from Chechnya targeted the Moscow metro and two Russian flights, with predictably devastating consequences. It is profoundly unfair and deeply tragic, but not entirely surprising, that Muscovites – as well as Dagestanis, a dozen of whom died in two suicide bombings last week – should continue to pay the price for the rebels’ disregard for human life as well as the Kremlin’s inability to make a distinction between combating the symptoms and tackling the causes of a supremely unnecessary conflict.