Who’s Afraid of Vladimir Putin?
By Anna Neistat *  
September 26, 2003

Presidential elections in Chechnya will take place on the heels of President George W. Bush’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For President Putin, the Oct. 5 elections are meant to symbolize the final stage of stabilization in the war-torn republic. President Bush shouldn’t indulge him in this illusion.  Putin clearly wants to turn the page on a war that has taken thousands of lives. Never mind that the Chechen conflict drags on, and that the elections will take place against a backdrop of violence. Never mind that every real competitor of the Kremlin’s favored candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, withdrew from the race, making the outcome predictable but hardly legitimate. Never mind—as long as Putin’s international counterparts are willing to play along.  During his election campaign, Bush called Russia’s operation in Chechnya “not acceptable” and threatened to cut off foreign aid. Now he does not dare even to mention it.  Like other leaders, President Bush parrots Russia’s unconvincing mantra about stabilization in Chechnya, and likewise he overlooks last summer’s escalation of violence, egregious human rights abuses by both sides, and the spread of the conflict into the neighboring regions of the North Caucasus. Like other leaders, Bush turns a blind eye to the impact the conflict is having on Russian society.  World leaders dare not say anything that might upset President Putin. It’s a phenomenon I cannot understand.  In Russia, where I witness the continual violence in Chechnya and now in neighboring Ingushetia too, I struggle to understand how this could possibly be called “normalization,” or how America’s leader can say that promoting democracy and human rights abroad is a priority, and yet completely ignore this bloodshed.  In Washington, I meet with officials responsible for defining U.S. policy toward Russia. They must know why their powerful country, so resolute in dealing with human rights abusers all over the world, becomes so timid and indecisive when it comes to its relationship with Russia.  U.S. officials are well-informed about the developments in Chechnya and mildly skeptical about Russia’s assurances of normalization. But they are unwilling to make a morally clear statement, let alone to take action. It’s better to wait and see, they say. My question remains unanswered: What exactly they are waiting for, and how many more civilians need to be killed or “disappeared” in order for Washington to raise the issue unequivocally with the Russian president? But it’s not that they are scared, of course—it’s just political expediency, expressed in three main policy arguments.  First, they say, the United States has to be patient with Russia because both countries face the common threat of terrorism and Russia’s operation in Chechnya is a contribution to the U.S.-led global war on terror. Wrong. Russia’s abusive campaign only radicalizes originally moderate Chechens and thus fosters the spread of terrorism, rather than the fight against it. Moreover, Washington’s tolerance of this policy hampers alliances with moderate Muslims across the world, which is crucial for the fight against the radicals.  The second argument is that raising the issue of Chechnya in public with President Putin only enrages him, while private conversations might eventually make things better. Wrong again. Over the last years, private messages—if there were any—have not prompted any improvements in Chechnya. Or maybe these messages were not taken seriously. As for provoking Putin’s fury by mentioning Chechnya, the Russian president himself was hardly tactful when he excoriated America’s proposed invasion of Iraq, and yet the relationship survived. Maybe President Bush should give it a try.  The final argument is straightforward and artless: the United States cannot afford to be tough on Chechnya when Russia’s support is needed on other policy issues. Wrong and unscrupulous. If President Bush wants to demonstrate consistency in his foreign policy, Chechnya should become a precondition, not an obstacle, for a constructive alliance with Russia. Needless to say, Russia has many reasons to be interested in this alliance, no fewer than the United States does.  All that’s left, then, is a transcendent fear of a mysterious and unpredictable Russian soul. The problem is, however, that there are more important things to be fearful about. Russia is gradually backsliding on democracy. Developments around Chechnya should not be regarded as a secondary problem in the country’s backyard, but rather recognized as symptoms of alarming trends in Russia—limitations on freedom of the press and freedom of movement, boundless corruption, decay of the military, arbitrariness and brutality in law enforcement, the ascendancy of security forces, and overall neglect of human rights. The less Russian authorities are called to account for these problems in Chechnya, the less they will be likely to care when such abuses happen in other parts of Russia.  In this sense, neglecting Chechnya is not just immoral; it’s short-sighted and counterproductive. If the United States wants to build a long-term strategic alliance with Russia, it should see beyond assurances and symbols, and it must clearly state that Russia’s tactics in Chechnya are unacceptable.  Constructive criticism is part of any civilized relationship, especially when an allegedly common enemy is being fought. The U.S. president must be able to freely express his concerns about Russia’s problems. Bush shouldn’t fear that Putin may bang his shoe on the podium, instead he should fear the consequences of remaining silent.

* Anna Neistat is the director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch

Related Material Russia:
Displaced Chechens in Ingushetia Face Abuses  - http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/09/russia092203.htm
HRW Press Release, September 22, 2003
Spreading Despair: Russian Abuses in Ingushetia - http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/russia0903
HRW Report, September 22, 2003
Human Rights Situation in Chechnya  - http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/chechnya/index.htm
HRW Briefing Paper to the 59th Session of the Commission on Human Rights, April 7, 2003