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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

February 28, 2005

President George W. Bush went to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, last week and delivered a rousing speech to Slovaks about the need for democracy and freedom.

Day earlier, he had openly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for undermining democracy in Russia by relentless concentrating power, muzzling media, and crushing politically ambitious oligarchs. He called on Russia to `renew its commitment to democracy and law.’

Bush and Putin then met in Bratislava for what was, by all accounts, a tense and uncomfortable meeting.

President Bush was right – and long overdue – to criticize Putin. However, doing it so publicly was certainly not the best way to motivate the unsmiling Putin who, like all Russians, is stubborn, hyper-patriotic and irritated by any foreign criticism.

Particularly so when it comes from a holier-than-thou government that launched a war of aggression worthy of the old Soviet Union, muzzled its own media, created Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, secretly jails suspects, and tried to legalize torture. This hardly leadership by good example.

The problem with Bush’s criticism is, most Russians want a tough, efficient ruler far more than they desire democracy. Their limited experience with western-style democracy has been all bad. Russia’s politicians, like many of Pakistan’s, are seen as corrupt, incompetent, or owned by the mob; and elections auctions won by the highest bidders.

Putin and his KGB old boy network now pretty much run things and are doing a good job of putting Russia back onto its feet, rebuilding the economy, and keeping gangsters in check. If the price for this is loss of a feeble parliament, rebellious governors, and a press owned by crooked business oligarchs detested by many ordinary Russians, so be it.

Still, Bush properly advised Russia that if it wants to be a member in good standing of Europe, it must adhere to European political and legal values. Europe has given Turkey the same message.

But, in criticizing Russia’s democratic and legal failings, Bush was very wrong not to address the very worst, Chechnya, where some of the world’s vilest atrocities and violations of human rights are going on in secret.

One cannot demand Russia or other nations follow the rule of law in some cases, but not others. Silence over Chechnya was a disturbing, shameful omission.

Chechnya, a tiny Caucasian mountain Muslim nation of 1.5 million, has fought Russian imperial rule for 300 years. In the 1940’s, Stalin sent almost the entire Chechen people to Central Asian concentration camps in cattle cars in an attempt to exterminate them. Other Soviet Muslims like the Ingush and Dagestanis, also suffered appallingly.

Today, darker-skinned peoples of the Caucasus are the objects of strong discrimination and sometimes violence in Russia’s cities. Russians have a particular hatred for Chechen, who have long been the nation’s most feared gangsters. Their reputation for ferocity is legendary.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechen, like the Baltic peoples, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, proclaimed independence. Moscow refused to free the Chechen and launched two invasions of the Chechen Republic.

In the first, lightly armed Chechen mujahidin defeated the Russian Army in one of modern history’s most remarkable victories. A second Russian invasion destroyed much of the nation and forced lightly armed Chechen mujahidin into scattered attacks and ambushes. Fighting continues. Some estimates put Russia’s troop losses at 20,000 – almost as high as in Afghanistan.

A huge international outcry erupted over the bestial attack last year on a Russian school at Beslan by a band of Chechen that killed 300, including 150 children. An abominable crime committed by a rogue band of fighters demented by rage, drugs and despair. Similar, in fact, to previous high-profile terror attacks in Moscow and southern Russia designed to shock public opinion into ending the occupation of Chechnya.

Since 1994, Russian forces have killed from 125,000 to 200,000 Chechen civilians and fighters, razed cities and villages, and committed wide scale murder, rape, pillage and hostage-taking. The world ignored this toll while weeping for Beslan’s victims.

Chechen are rounded up, tortured, thrown into concentration camps. Russia calls the Chechen resistance `terrorists linked to bin Ladin.’ Outside human rights observers, whom Russia tries to exclude from Chechenya, report horrifying tales of crime committed by Russian troops and security forces.

The world has got to tell Russia to cease its grave violations of human rights in Chechnya, and allow the heirs of Stalin’s genocide and concentration camps to have their own tiny nation. Otherwise, the fierce Chechen will fight to the last man and, in the process, wage across Russia a mounting terror campaign – the sole weapon of the poor and weak. The great poet Pushkin warned Russians to `beware the vengeance of the Chechen.’ Russia is better off without Chechnya. Recent polls show more than half of Russians would be happy to cut Chechnya adrift.

The Chechen’s frightful suffering and valiant struggle has gripped the hearts of the Islamic World. President Bush could have greatly aided America’s cause, and assuaged anti-Americanism among Muslims, by demanding justice and freedom for Chechnya – just as he so rightly did for Ukraine.

President Bush has been lustily preaching freedom and liberty for all. But, apparently, his crusade does not extend to the Chechen, whose freedom must be denied for the sake of relations with Moscow. Bush’s silence about genocide in the Caucasus was shocking. The Bush Administration has completely caved into Moscow by joining the Russians in branding the Chechen freedom fighters `terrorists.’ The craven silence of the Muslim World has been even more shameful. Europe’s occasional bleats of protests have been ignored by Moscow.

The world has turned its eyes away from the agony of the Chechen.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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