Monday, May 08, 2017

Terror in Chechnya

Reading Emma Gilligan’s Terror in Chechnya (Princeton University Press, 2010), with its shatteringly vivid yet objective portrayal of the disaster that overcame the small republic of Chechnya in the winter of 1994 and has continued more or less until the present day, one is struck by the realisation that in spite of this comprehensive document, with carefully researched references to military-historical and legal-juridical sources, there has still been no international investigation into the crimes that were committed during the course of the tragic conflict. Indeed, since 2010, the year of the book’s publication, the international community has placed the  issue of Chechnya firmly on the back burner, relegating it to the place it has traditionally occupied in the attention of a West that has been consistently anxious to avoid a confrontation with the Russian state.

Events in Syria have, however, begun to shake that centre of avoidance, with images from Aleppo in Idlib recalling the worst of the aerial assaults on Grozny, Samashki, Serzhen-Yurt, Benoy and elsewhere in the early stages of the Second Chechen War. And books like Terror in Chechnya – though it is almost in a class of its own – have gradually acquired a new relevance, as the world starts to consider once again just what is the nature of the sinister and hybrid regime that took hold of power in Russia so shortly after the demise of Communism, and that appears bent on flouting every norm of international law and jurisprudence. Emma Gilligan has been criticised for allegedly ‘confusing politics and morality’ by Western Russia ‘experts’ who have consistently failed to perceive that the Kremlin’s indifference to a rules-based international order is a threat not only to Russia and Russians, but also to the rest of the world. As a U.K. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee recently noted in its report, “Russian foreign policy aims to undermine the current world order, prevent self-determination and independent decisions by neighbouring countries, which it sees as regime change, and to promote Russia’s world view as a legitimate alternative to western values. The Russian Government’s indifference to human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law underpins its foreign policy challenge to the international order and lies at the root of the collapse in UK-Russia relations.”

The first expression of Russia’s new world view took place in Chechnya from 1994 until 1996 – a state that had formally declared its independence was invaded and subjected to physical destruction in a way that had not been seen since the Second World War. This set the scene for further devastation in the years that followed, for the process of ‘Chechenisation’, achieved through brute force, and for the preliminaries of an extension of the threat to Europe itself, first in Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine (in a military assault that shows no sign of subsiding) and then in Kaliningrad and the Baltics. For the countries of NATO and the West, the lessons of Chechnya have still to be learned – after a lengthy period of relative inaction in which the threat was sidelined and de-prioritised, the security issues raised by a resurgent and nationalistic Russia are now actual as seldom before, and the  details of the ways in which Chechnya was, at least temporarily, subjugated need to be studied.

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