President’s Putin’s sharp response to a “Le Monde” correspondent at a news conference in Brussels, which caused such a media stir both in Russia and the West, also served as another demonstration that Chechnya remains the most sensitive issue for Russia. So sensitive, in fact, that a normal level of persistence from a journalist drew an essentially neurotic reaction from a state leader (there was nothing sensational about the question – the approach the French media takes to this issue has long been known in Russia). Moreover, this was a state leader whose “core profession” (as Russian papers put it) ensures that he has irreproachable self-control.
The media started guessing what could have happened to the president.
The day after the unfortunate news conference, Vremya Novostei published an article headlined: “Invitation to be Circumcized”.
Vremya Novostei says the president was provoked: “Putin obviously ‘lost control’ at the news conference, but it’s also clear that this was no accidental loss of control.”
It turns out that Denmark was the key to the matter. According to some officials who took part in the talks, “all attempts by Putin, EC President Romano Prodi, and EU foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana to have a substantial discussion of Russia-EU relations were disrupted by Danish Prime Minister Anders-Fog Rasmussen’s pointed, insistent criticism of Moscow’s actions in Chechnya.” According to “informed sources”, voices were raised and “sparks flew”.
One participant in the talks even noted: “The Danish delegation to the EU will be remembered for some time, not only in Moscow, but in Brussels as well.”
According to the Konservator weekly, Putin’s attempts to sort things out with European leaders were more reminiscent of a conversation between the deaf: “The Europeans continue to go on and on about Maskhadov, negotiations, the OSCE; Putin keeps going on and on about terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and internal affairs.”
Moreover, from Russia’s point of view, the Moscow hostage-taking undoubtedly confirmed that the Kremlin was right in decisively rejecting all calls from Europe to negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov: “The face of terrorism is now there for all the world to see. So is the fact that Russia is fighting in self-defense.”
And yet the Danish prime minister, when he spoke about Chechnya at the summit, emphasized that the solution to the problem of Chechnya should probably be sought by political means.
Ule-Stig Andersen, a Dutch public figure acting as press secretary for the World Chechen Congress, was even more outspoken: “The Russian government is profiting, politically and economically, from the war in Chechnya. It cannot distinguish between the legitimately-elected Maskhadov and Barayev or Basayev… Chechnya’s elections in 1997 were monitored by international observers, including OSCE observers.” Konservator concludes that this is the verdict on Russia handed down by public opinion in the European Union.
Vitalii Tretiakov, writing in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, emphasizes that Putin, to all appearances, was not replying to the French journalist alone. The reply was meant for all of Russia’s many Western critics, whose public statements boil down to the following: although the Moscow hostage-taking was a bad thing, of course – “firstly, Russians and Russia as a whole have only themselves to blame, and secondly, they’re worse than the terrorists”.
Basing his opinion partially on his own contacts with Western fellow-journalists, Tretiakov suggests that at the talks in Brussels Putin may have heard something like the following: “You acted correctly in the effort to free the hostages. And of course, unless armed resistance is overcome, you are unable to move on to political means of resolving the Chechnya problem. But we can’t say this publicly – we have public opinion to consider, and the free press, which is convinced that the Chechen terrorists are freedom-fighters, a small, proud people fighting for their independence from the imperialist tyranny of a large and not-very-nice state.” Tretiakov notes that it’s useless to remind people of the need to fight international terrorism, or draw comparisons to the United States, in such cases. For the Europeans, the Americans are a special case – and moreover, “their actions are more orderly, somehow”.
In other words, Putin was replying to “everyone who believes that the integrity and security of Russia can be set aside so that some sort of higher values of humanism and human rights may triumph: Russia is more than ourselves. And it’s large – it will not get any smaller.”
Thus, according to Tretiakov, Putin’s emotional outburst was justified – apart from its final part, which was undoubtedly a glaring deviation from diplomatic etiquette. However, Tretiakov adds: “But any Russian who takes part in such discussions in the West will know the feeling of simply wanting to curse, sometimes.” And Putin refrained from doing so, “although he very much wanted to, apparently”. Thus, says Tretiakov, “through a minor slip in diplomacy, Putin managed to avoid a greater one.”
Izvestia observer Maxim Sokolov confirms that “reading what Western papers say about Russia is capable of sending the mildest person into a frenzy”.
However, according to Sokolov, there was a simple solution to the Brussels challenge – one that was missed by Putin and his team: “Rather than steadfastly ignoring Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen and avoiding encounters with him whenever possible (diplomatic protocol enables this to be done), Putin was pleasant to him, permitting Rasmussen to embrace him – though such embraces didn’t stop the prime minister of a friendly nation from criticizing Russia’s policy in Chechnya.”
Of course, says Sokolov, “it is psychologically difficult to maintain cold scorn toward a person who welcomes you with open arms, even if the price of his embrace was known in advance; but so what if it’s difficult? Being a head of state is always difficult.”
However, Sokolov also points out: “Had Putin avoided both forms of human weakness – both Rasmussen’s embrace and any talk of circumcision – his visit to Brussels would have gained the kind of state dignity which cannot fail to benefit any state.”
It should be noted that Sokolov’s advice to the president is among the mildest of the advice being offered. Many articles have been much harsher about the president’s escapade.
The Novaya Gazeta newspaper commented, “The phrase was great. If a junior referent at an embassy said it, he would be fired with inclusion on the blacklist for insulting national Moslem customs. As it was said by a president, it will become another aphorism.”
In fact, the Kommersant paper promises that the latest presidential phrase is likely to completely overshadow the notorious phrase about “terrorists in the toilet”.
Besides, Novaya Gazeta like many other periodicals remembered the notorious escapade of Nikita Khrushchev in the UN. Some participants of the summit were expecting at times that “Putin would get out a shoe and would start flogging it on the table”. Naturally, it concerns only Russian participants of the negotiations – as it turned out later, simultaneous interpreters did not risk to interpret that phrase. According to Russian papers the west found out about everything from the Russian media.
Vremya Novostei cited an article form the French Liberation newspaper, “Putin’s brakes broke down…. He threatened to defile the French journalist who asked a blasphemous question.” Vremya Novostei notes that the presidential phrase can be interpreted differently, but it is clear that from now on, “The western media will always stress that European and Russian political correctness criteria are very different.” It is hard to disagree with this.
However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted, “It is easy for western experts to be sarcastic – it is not their president. While for Russians, it is a matter of national honor.” It is enough that Boris Yeltsin said at different summits on different occasions. It is time to show to Europe our new political vocabulary and new face expression.
Overall, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says, it should be taken into account that “the issue of speech culture of a political leader is not a language but rather a political issue.” It should not be forgotten that the “ability to keep one’s mouth shut is considered to be a global criterion of competence among the world political elite.” It is no accident that western political leaders make very formal and boring speeches at all official meetings – their only difference form soviet leaders is that they do not read their speeches from paper and smile broadly.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the notorious “freedom air” – the freedom from his professional reserve – had played a practical joke on the Russian president. Having become a public politician after so may years in his “silent organization”, Putin suddenly found out that he was able to “keep the audience”. It turned out that he is listened to with interest, cited, interpreted, and soon the president started to abuse his speechmaking talent.
It happens especially often during foreign press conferences: as a rule, Putin speaks much longer and that his host. “What is worse is that he speaks more interesting, which “the host” cannot liked – no one likes being a secondary character, especially at home.”
Of course, it is impolite to cut a guest short. On the other hand, disrespecting the time limit often flows many unpleasant consequences for the violator. Moreover, a speechmaker who is unable to stop on time can be punished by “some slip of the tongue and people may think something weird….”
Still, the aforementioned discussion on the president’s manners and speech distracted the attention of the press from the most important and burning issue only for a short time. What to do with Chechnya? Politicians and observers are still trying to find a respond.
As famous political scientist Sergei Karaganov said in his interview with the Ogonek magazine, the one who will be able to respond it should receive the Nobel’s Prize.
Karaganov does not claim for the prize. According to him, giving independence to Chechnya is not the salvation for the problem – if remember about the recent Khasavyurt agreement. It has been repeatedly said that after the Khasavyurt peace it did not become calmer or more secure, “On the contrary, Chechnya became a worse breeding ground for criminality. It turned into a paradise for terrorists, salve-sellers, drug-sellers, kidnappers, and was covered with a network of terrorist schools like Afghanistan.” As a result, all ended in guerrillas’ attempts to expand at the expense of Afghanistan and to get an outlet to the Black sea. Things are unlikely to change this time. “Once they receive an independence, Chechens will fly to Arabian states, and to bring from there all they had brought before: weapons and drugs – then, they will convey all this to Russia.”
Karaganov thinks all talks about “settling a peaceful life in Chechnya are senseless: So far, people there are not planning to settle peaceful life and they are hardly likely to be able to live peacefully in the near future. They have a different business.” According to the political scientists, it is true for the majority of the Chechen society, “They have a peculiar mountain culture which considers admissible such activities which are inadmissible in the rest of the world.”
That is why, although few people would object to separating Chechnya, Karagonov says Russia should not follow separatists, “Calls for separatism are 90% calls for blood shedding and armed violence.”
Besides, the principle of “the nation’s right for self-identification, including separation” is judicially illegal, as it is not stipulated by the UN Charter.
Karaganov adds that at present circumstances it is “not only illegal but harmful and criminal: since it leads either to a chain of endless military conflicts or to creation of incapable states.”
Meanwhile, famous expert on Chechen issues Emil Pain says in his interview with the Moskovskie Novosti weekly that comparing the outwardly similar situations in Palestine and Chechnya many people in Russia come the same conclusion, “All Islamic people are similar, they all are hostile to our civilized world, and consequently, it is only possible to fight them.”
It should be noted that such cliches repeat speeches of bin Laden’s supporters “about the eternal fallaciousness of the Judaic and Christian worlds”. Nonetheless, the author thinks these statements should be pushed aside and the political mistakes in both Palestinian and Chechen settlements should be analyzed.
First, it should be noted that both “processes have been a rather profitable political business: three of its participants have earned Nobel’s Prizes, politicians have won elections, and have received honorable positions.” At the same time, none of them was willing to think of the future of the destroyed territories and people “used to the war.”
Having concluded peaceful agreements, politicians in both cases calmed down. “However, if people have developed hatred to their enemies for years it is difficult to expect that they will love their enemies right after a peaceful agreement is signed.” It is also absurd to expect that the leaders of armed opposition who come to power will be interested in developing democracy. “So it is not a surprise that both regions have come to armed separatism and terrorism.” At present it is clear that a peace agreement is not the end. The main question is “How to get gunmen out of their trenches?”
According to the author, the attempt to “Chechenize” the anti-terrorist campaign proves that the authorities realize that it is impossible to act like before. However, the effectiveness of new methods is also doubtful: “With present moods in Chechnya it is unlikely that the majority of the Chechen young people will be sincerely willing to enter the Chechen Special Police Force and support the federal forces”. It is more likely that the military experts are right when they warn that guerrillas will try to use the Chechen police detachments in order to legalize and continue their fight.
Besides, the “Chechenization” of the police is unlikely to reduce the losses among the Russian military for they will continue playing a major role in the “anti-terrorist operation”: they have grounds not to trust the Chechen police.
Overall, Emil Pain says, “Chechenization” seems to be an old strategy in new clothing. He suggests that the new Kremlin’s course should be called transitional, “The federal authorities have realized that it is impossible to resolve the problem with old methods, but they do not yet know new ways.”
However, some people believe they know the right way. In particular, Ruslan Khasbulatov has a prescription for curing the Chechen disease. He says in his interview with the Sobesednik weekly that first and foremost it is necessary to cease the war. After the federal forces are withdrawn, it is “necessary to create a special foundation for carrying out restoration with the help of the international community.”
Russia will be unable to cope with it, “According to economists, the damage from the two wars makes up $120 to $150 billion. It is three or four Russia’s budgets.”
After this, “major life support institutions should be rapidly restored”. According to Khasbulatov, then Chechens will return to their fatherland, “They are very attached to their settlements. At least 90% of Chechens will move from Russia to the Caucasus.”
If the war continues, Russia should prepare for new terrorist acts, “It is inevitable. Currently, people are killed in Chechnya. If so, there will always be foolhardy people who will not feel sorry for themselves. There could be something even worse than the hostage-taking at the Dubrovka theater.”
Khasbulatov stresses that continuation of the war is “nothing but forming terrorists and inviting them to Russia.”
Besides, Khasbulatov says the time for concluding a peace agreement between Russia and Chechnya has been missed: “Now those who are fighting say we do not want peace at any cost – we want peace on certain terms.” From the standpoint of Chechens, the Kremlin’s statements about its rejection of peace negotiations are absurd, “Nothing depends on the Kremlin. If anything depended on it, it would not be leading the war for four years.”
Besides, Khasbulatov stresses, currently, attitudes in Chechnya and the Caucasus overall have become much more radical of late. According to statistics in the region, 60-80% of young men are unemployed.” These young people are looking at the “palaces of the nouveau riches with anger and jealousy, and they see “the good life on TV” – then they boost the ranks of guerrillas and are prepared to blow up their own republic and the whole North Caucasus. Overall, Khasbulatov says, it should be remembered that “the Caucasus is not Russia.” According to his sources, the Chechen guerrillas have not weakened in the least, and are feeling quite comfortable and are supported “not from abroad, but from elsewhere in the North Caucasus”. Very soon, other Caucasus republics are likely to secede from Russia.
This prediction is similar to Sergei Karaganov’s assessment of the situation.
According to Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer with the Vremya MN newspaper, the forecasts of Moscow experts, despite their different views, have one drawback: they all are just showing the direction for the “political process” and have little to do with reality.
Historically, there are two ways out of such traps. The first: mercilessly finishing off the bandit monster (our experience in 1944-54 in the Baltic region and Western Ukraine). The second: withdrawing permanently (what France did in Algeria). However, the Russia-Chechnya situation is much more complicated than Algeria in 1960 or the Baltic region in 1945: after all, the crucial external factor of a global terrorist war is involved, with Chechnya as only one of its battlefronts. Therefore, in order to unravel or cut the Chechen knot, we need some sort of political action which is entirely new.
Undoubtedly, the “nightmare of Chechnya” will “remain part of Russia”. Even if the fighting dies down, and the troops are withdrawn, “peaceful Chechnya” will remain a center of some things in Russia: human trafficking, drug trafficking, the arms trade, and training terrorists for action in Russia and abroad. Clearly, Chechnya will remain a Russian region: “Residents of other parts of Russia will be able to travel there without a visa – but only in tanks; no taxes will be collected in Chechnya, of course; no Russian laws will be observed there.” If Russia decides to draft Chechens for service in the Russian Armed Forces, we ought to consider which branch of the military is most in need of Chechen conscripts – the paratroopers, or perhaps the nuclear missile forces?
So in what sense will Chechnya remain part of the Russian Federation? In the same sense that an inflamed appendix remains part of the body – unless a surgeon is available to save that body.
It seems not only the president is unable avoid surgery with respect to the Chechnya problem. The question is where to direct the scalpel, and not to be too late….
“Le Monde” correspondent Loran Zekkini, who became famous due to his question to Putin, said in his interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he is prepared to come to Russia immediately – perhaps he will cause another sensation!