Putin’s War

Putin’s War

There's been scant notice of refugees being brutally driven out of Chechnya.


As Vladimir Putin and George Bush sit down today at Camp David, back in Russia Putin's government is driving women and children who had fled the fighting in Chechnya back into the war zone.

Of the conflict's 220,000 displaced persons, about 11,000 sit conveniently concentrated in tent camps just east of Chechnya. The Kremlin has for years pursued an on-again, off-again policy of trying to herd these refugees "home." It's about sweeping dirt under the rug: Putin insists there's sufficient calm and order in "pacified" Chechnya to hold a presidential election in two weeks. Tent camps filled with refugees shrieking that they won't go back because there's a war under way don't agree with that pretty picture, so the refugees and tent camps must go.

Or something like that.

So while this week's spotlight is on the diplomatic dance between Putin, Bush and the United Nations over Iraq, there's been little notice of desperate refugees being driven out by harassment. The Associated Press reports that a 1,150-person tent camp has suddenly been closed to journalists and rights activists. Residents of the camp have snuck out word that police and government officials have arrived and begun to cut off electricity and gas and to remove latrines–a nice touch, that–and that two desperate women who tried to stop them were beaten severely enough to need hospitalization. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is alarmed, human rights groups have put forward thorough documentation of these crimes against humanity as a long-running Kremlin policy–and now the American President is sitting down across the table from the Russian President.

Moreover, the American President is armed not just with intelligence from the human rights crowd but from his own State Department. In blistering and detailed testimony before Congress last week, Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer asserted that "the daily reality for the people of Chechnya has been bleak and deteriorating." He laid much of this at the door of Chechen terrorist groups. But he also–in a new breath of common sense for Washington–insisted that large portions of the Chechen resistance could not be considered terrorists. And he harshly slammed Russia's conduct of the war.

"Credible human rights organizations" continue to report "atrocities, disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings committed by Russian federal forces…. Chechens picked up in [federal] raids disappear, most often permanently; in some cases corpses are later found…. disappearances continue on virtually a daily basis."

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Republican senator from Colorado, calls this "the picture the Kremlin does not want us to see…a wasteland dotted with mass graves, villages depopulated of men–young and old–and unspeakable crimes committed against civilians."

Unspeakable crimes, Russian federal death squads, "disappearances," civilians herded into a war zone–is this reason enough for the American President to sternly register his displeasure with the Russian President?

Probably not, because the Russian President has a handy reply. When American journalists recently asked Putin about his government's rights abuses in Chechnya, he parried by asking us about Iraq. "Are you sure everything is OK with human rights there?" he said. "Or Afghanistan. Are you sure everything is OK there on human rights?" And what about down in Guantánamo Bay, Putin added, what about human rights there? America is holding children as terrorists in a place called Camp Delta; so from what moral high ground do we speak when we complain that Russia is abusing babushkas in a place called Camp Bella?

"Commentators have begun to urge Bush to chastise Putin for abandoning many of the democratic reforms that Russia so recently adopted. Unfortunately, it looks less and less likely that Bush will do any such thing…[because] increasingly the United States seems to be adopting policies that at an earlier time we would have condemned as antidemocratic," writes Russia expert Marshall Goldman. "[Bush and Putin] may find they have even more in common than they initially assumed. This is unfortunate not only for the Russians, but for those of us in the USA who fear that we are becoming more like what they, rather than what we, used to be."

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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