“De-contextualising” Chechnya

5 September 2004

“De-contextualising” Chechnya

By Gwynne Dyer

What would we do without Richard Perle, everybody’s favourite neo-conservative? It was he who came up some years ago with the notion that we must “de-contextualise terrorism:” that is, we must stop trying to understand the reasons that some groups turn to terrorism, and simply condemn and kill them. No grievance, no injury, no cause is great enough to justify the use of terrorism.

This would be an excellent principle if only we could apply it to all uses of violence for political ends — including the violence that is carried out by legal governments using far more lethal weapons than terrorists have access to, causing far more deaths. I’d be quite happy, for instance, to “de-contextualise” nuclear weapons, agreeing that there are no circumstances that could possibly justify their use, and if you want to start de-contextualising things like cluster bombs and napalm, that would be all right with me, too. But that was not what Perle meant at all.

Perle was speaking specifically about Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel, and the point of “de-contextualising” them was to make it unacceptable for people to point out that there is a connection between Palestinian terrorism and the fact that the Palestinians have lived under Israeli military occupation for the past 37 years and lost almost half their land to Jewish settlements.

Since the Palestinians have no regular armed forces, if we all agree that any resort by them to irregular violence is completely unpardonable and without justification, then there is absolutely nothing they can legitimately do to oppose overwhelming Israeli military force. “De-contextualising terrorism” would neatly solve Israel’s problem with the Palestinians — and it would also solve Russia’s problem with the Chechen resistance, which is why Russian President Vladimir Putin was so quick to describe the rash of terrorist attacks in recent weeks, and above all the school massacre in Beslan last Friday, as “a direct intervention against Russia by international terrorism.”

NOT by Chechen terrorism, because that would focus attention on Russian behaviour in Chechnya, where Russia’s main human rights organisation, Memorial, estimates that 3,000 innocent people have been “disappeared” by the Russian occupation forces since 1999. No, this was an act of international terrorism (by crazy, fanatical Muslims who just hate everybody else), and nothing to do with Russian policies in Chechnya. Indeed, the Russian security services let it be known that ten of the twenty militants killed in the school siege in Beslan were “citizens of the Arab world” and that the attack was the work of al-Qaeda.

And how did they know this, since it’s unlikely that the dead attackers were carrying genuine identity documents on them? It turns out that Federal Security Service “experts” surmised it from the “facial structure” of the dead terrorists. (You know, that unique facial structure that always lets you pick out the Arabs in a crowd.) But that was where Putin wanted the finger to point.

Ever since 9/11, countries like Russia and Israel that face serous challenges from Muslim peoples living under their rule have been trying to re-brand their local struggles as part of the “global war on terrorism.” For those that succeed, the rewards can be great: a flood of money and weapons from Washington, plus an end to Western criticism over the methods they use to suppress their Muslim rebels. Without 9/11, Israel would never have got away with building its “security fence” so deep inside Palestinian territory, and Russia would face constant Western criticism over the atrocities committed by its troops in Chechnya.

Chechnya was a thorn in Russia’s side — and the Russians were an almost unlimited curse for the Chechens — long before anybody had heard of Osama bin Laden. The Chechens, less than a million strong even today, were the last of the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus to be conquered by the Russian empire in the 19th century, holding out for an entire generation, and they never accepted that they had a duty of loyalty to the Russian state.

When German troops neared the Caucasus in 1943, Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to camps in Central Asia, fearing they would collaborate with the invaders — and half the Chechens died there before they were allowed to return home after the war. When the old Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Chechnya immediately declared independence, and successfully fought off a Russian attempt to reconquer it in 1994-96, though the fighting left tens of thousands dead and Grozny, the capital, in ruins.

That should have been the end of it, but Vladimir Putin launched a second war against Chechnya in 1999, just after Boris Yeltsin chose him as his successor. (The deal was that Putin could be Russia’s president if he promised to protect Yeltsin from corruption charges after his retirement.) But the practically unknown Putin still had to persuade the Russians to vote for him in a more or less honest election, so he re-started the war in Chechnya in order to build his image as a strong man with Russian voters.

Five years later, Chechnya is a war-torn landscape patrolled by about a hundred thousand Russian soldiers, many thousands are dead, and the Chechen resistance is carrying out terrorist attacks in Russians cities. There may be a few foreign volunteers from other Muslim countries involved in the struggle, but this is not part of some international terrorist conspiracy. It is not even a Russian-Chechen war, really. It is Putin’s war, and you can’t “de-contextualise” that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“This…all”; and “Ever…Chechnya”)