Putin's Chechen challenge.

Putin's Chechen challenge.

Putin's Chechen challenge.

What the foreign papers are saying.
May 13 2003 10:40 PM

The Chechen Challenge

Monday's apparent suicide bombing of a government compound in northern Chechnya left at least 54 dead and 300 wounded, according to the Russia Journal Daily. The attack, in which a truck stuffed with explosives blew up outside the offices of the Federal Security Service—the agency that currently runs Russia's campaign in Chechnya and is the contemporary incarnation of the KGB—"closely resembled" the MO of a December truck-bombing against a government building in Grozny, which claimed at least 70 lives. The Russia Journal Daily noted, "Unlike Grozny, which suffers nearly daily rebel attacks against Russian troops, Chechen police and civilians, the Nadterechny district [where Monday's bombing occurred] had been considered remarkably stable. It was the first area to come under the control of Russian forces that entered the republic in 1999."

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Russian government officials immediately blamed rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov for the attack, though his spokesman denied responsibility. Moscow's Gazeta reported that President Vladimir Putin linked Monday's attack to the events in Riyadh: "The handwriting of the terrorist acts in Chechnya and Saudi Arabia is absolutely the same. The consequences are absolutely comparable." Russian daily Izvestia offered an alternative explanation for the bombing: The head of the Federal Security Service branch in Nadterechny had taken a tough line on oil and metal smugglers, many of whom operate in the area. According to Izvestia, the attack was an attempt to eliminate the overzealous lawman.

Britain's Independent called Monday's carnage "another reminder that the security situation in Chechnya remains out of control despite the Kremlin's insistence things are improving." In March, Chechen voters overwhelmingly endorsed a constitution that confirmed the region's status as a part of Russia, though international observers criticized the conduct of the poll. The London Times' foreign editor denounced the Russians' claims that life is returning to normal as "nonsense": Although official results claimed 96 percent of voters approved the constitution, "Chechens were conspicuously absent from the polls on the supposed polling day, either out of fear or because of a straightforward refusal to give up their struggle for independence." Still, Putin cannot abandon the conflict that "is costing the lives of about as many Russian soldiers each year as did the disastrous, decade-long foray into Afghanistan." For one thing, he owed his election victory in 2000 to his hard-line policy on the region, and more pertinently, it would "send the wrong signal … to other Caucasian provinces with fraying ties with Russia. More than Chechnya, Moscow cannot afford to lose Dagestan, with 70 per cent of Russia's Caspian Sea coastline and the pipeline carrying oil from Azerbaijan to the outside world. … [I]t might also encourage Georgia and Azerbaijan, already courting Washington, to deepen those westward ties."

Spain's El País said Monday's murders belie Russia's pretensions of order: "The facts show that the situation is out of control in Chechnya, where 80,000 Russian soldiers, committing all manner of abuses of authority, face various secessionist factions and forms of banditry. In this bloody republic, there is no protection for basic human rights and in the judicial system, torture and unbearable prison conditions are the common currency."

The Moscow Times agreed that safety and security were mere "illusions" in Chechnya, and "neither more troops nor more sophisticated weapons" will make the region safer. The paper concluded, "Monday's attack demonstrates a growing and violent schism in Chechen society, where ethnic solidarity and fear of blood vendetta traditionally restrained violence for centuries. Now this Chechen solidarity has fallen victim to Moscow's imperial approach of divide and rule. Putting an end to abuses of civilians by federal and local law enforcers and negotiations with moderate Chechen warlords will help to tame the violence, but it may be already too late to stop it." The Russia Journal Daily's editorial was also pessimistic: "To successfully fight against terrorists … requires not a quick, stunning military campaign, but slow, painstaking work similar to that used in fighting international criminal syndicates. The only way that terrorism will ever cease is if the primary reasons for it—ideology and money—are addressed."

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.