(A translation of a Le Monde editorial from May 11, 2004)
The war in Chechnya does not exist, at least according to Vladimir Putin. And since the Russian president largely controls the press, and in particular the television media, the Chechnyan war is non-existent—in Moscow at least.
The little Caucasus Republic, a member of the Russian Federation, has been pacified, explains Russian propaganda. A political process is happening. The Russian army is retreating and only specialized units remain. They are not fighting a popular up-rising but a residual, Islamist terror linked to Al-Qaida. Russians are thereby participating in the “global war on terror” launched by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Less than one week ago, during his inauguration speech marking the beginning of his second term as head of state, Putin barely mentioned Chechnya.
Then, three days later on Sunday, May 9th, a terrorist attack struck a stadium in Grozny, the wasteland that is the Chechnyan capital, reminding us amidst the horror that Chechnya is still at war. The pro-Russian “president” of the Caucasus Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, and several others were killed. This massacre also blew apart the so-called war strategy of “Chechnyization” that the Kremlin has pursued for several months. It consists of using Chechnyan militias to combat the guerillas fighting for independence and to cordon off the population. In particular, Putin uses the well-known Kadyrov clan: it spreads terror, pillages, steals and kills with impunity. It is thus similar to the Spetsnav special forces of the Russian army which completes this parade of horribles by systematically using kidnapping for political (as well as other) ends.
Relaunched five years ago by Putin, the dirty war of Chechnya continues. Each morning, the corpses of the tortured victims from the night before are placed at the entrance to a street, to a village, or to a house. This war pits Moscow against the guerillas fighting for independence, and notably against those fighting under the banner of Aslan Maskhadov—a president elected in 1997 under conditions much more legal than any election that the Kremlin has since tried to hold. It is true, though, that the guerillas have tries to radical Islamism and that they use terrorism.
Mr. Putin does not want to negotiate with Mr. Maskhadov. In Putin’s eyes, this would be to signal defeat. He wants to subdue, overwhelm, exhaust Chechnya—the martyr of Russian colonialism for more than a century. Mr. Putin can count on Western, American and European complicity. No special Senate investigation, no military officers facing court martial, no NGO reports (NGO’s can no longer work on site), no photos published in newspapers. The dead number in the thousands; the tortured are no longer counted. But shhhhh! There is no war in Chechnya.