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Chechnya, what is Europe doing?

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Six years after Russian troops brutally crushed a Chechen rebellion, violence, destruction and religious radicalism are growing in Chechnya. This is a humanitarian disaster made worse by European inertia.

“Chechnya is no longer on the agenda”, declared a Russian official this May at the close of a European Union Summit on Russia. Is the situation in this small Caucasus republic really so back to normal, six years after the beginning of the second Chechen war, that it can be considered a negligible issue for Russo-European relations? In reality, Chechnya is still a serious problem which deserves greater attention from the 25 EU member states than it is currently receiving.

Back to normal?

Relative calm has re-established itself in Chechnya and “getting back to normal” is no longer just the optimistic theme of Russian rhetoric. Independent observers have reported positive signs such as increased commercial activity, greater and freer travel and building work. This is significant progress given the great poverty of the Chechen population, and considering just how extraordinary the Chechen situation is in its rebellion against Moscow’s authority.

Over the last ten years Chechnya has been profoundly ravaged by war, occupation and violence. As a result of two periods of open warfare in 1994 and 1999, and the continuing armed struggle between federal forces and Chechen fighters, nearly 100,000 civilians (a tenth of the population) have died; tens of thousands have been injured and displaced; and the land devastated. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that in 2003, 60% of the central and southern population struggled on a daily basis to find enough to eat. Today Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, still lies in ruins.

Justice denied and religion radicalised

As well as suffering military clashes, the country is being occupied by tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and members of the FSB secret service (or, increasingly, pro-Russian Chechen militia) who have committed grave human rights abuses. According to several Amnesty International reports, these include many instances of civilian abductions followed by torture and murder, the sale of kidnap victims or their bodies, and systematic pillage. All these acts go almost unpunished. In this lawless area of arbitrariness and violence, enquiries are seldom begun, let alone concluded. A damning report published in 2002 by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) condemned this “organised system of terror and immunity”.

Moreover, this extraordinarily unbalanced society, torn apart for ten years, is witnessing the rise of radical Islam at the heart of its seriously wounded and impoverished population. The fight against Russian colonialism and the growth of religion are setting different warlords against each other. These factors have dramatically conspired to exacerbate the radicalisation of religion. Young Chechens, in particular, are increasingly sensitive to the Salafi movement that was introduced to the region in the 90s. Although this extremist vein remains in the minority and Sufism (a moderate form of Islam) in the majority, as traditionally has been the case in Chechnya, it is feeding the moves Chechen terrorists are making towards the use of extreme terrorism. This was illustrated by the Beslan hostage taking in September 2004. Recent clashes in Nalchik, the capital of the nearby Kabardino-Balkaria republic, were a reminder of Russia’s desire to impose its military might in conflicts throughout the Northern Caucasus.

Europe and Chechnya

The position of the main European countries regarding the Chechen question is characterised by their discretion. Although in February the European Court of Human Rights condemned Russia for its crimes committed against Chechnya, the 25 EU member states have never applied sanctions on Moscow and have made only feeble protests. Yet the example of Chechnya is a good illustration of the gap between Russia and the principles that the EU defends: respect for human rights, protection of minority groups and democracy. The official justification for this strategic silence is that strong criticism might undermine the necessary maintenance of close dialogue with Moscow. Moreover, there are other, economic, reasons. Russia is a large and growing market and has sought-after raw materials - gas and oil being at the top of the list. Yet Russia’s economic weight and Western Europe’s energy dependency on her remain limited.

Diplomatic motives are influenced considerably by Russia’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council; a trump card in her hand in the game of international diplomacy. Yet not all is gloom and doom. Recently there has been progress in Russian and EU co-operation. In the 2003 EU-Russia summit, four “common spaces” were decided upon. Regular discussion about human rights, notably the Chechen issue, has been enabled by the “freedom and justice” dimension of this agreement. The significant humanitarian aid supplied by the European Commission should also increase the EU’s say over Chechnya.

Translated from Tchétchénie : que fait l'Europe ?