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MICHAEL MCFAUL: One needs to realize that a peaceful solution in Chechnya should be part of our strategy for fighting worldwide terrorism.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, Russia’s quagmire in Chechnya and life in the former Soviet states 10 years after the collapse.
FIONA HILL: Although the overall picture seems somewhat gloomy, when you actually get down to the grassroots level, there’s actually some amazing things that are taking place.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. When the Soviet empire collapsed many would-be nations tried to make a clean break from Russia. Today, we’ll hear about the fate of some which succeeded in gaining independence and one that failed.
PORTER: On the southern edge of Russia a serious independence movement arose in Chechnya and the Russian military has intervened twice to keep Chechnya firmly in the Russian Federation. But there has been a high price to pay. The war in Chechnya is often referred to as a quagmire or “Russia’s Vietnam.” For background on the Chechnyan war and the Chechnyan future, I spoke with Michael McFaul, a regional expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: At base it was an attempt by the government and the leadership of Chechnya to break away from Russia and to use the collapse of the Soviet Union as a moment to get out of the Russian Federation. After all, the Georgians did it, the Uzbeks did it; the Chechnyans thought, “We should be able to as well.” The problem was that Chechnya was not part of the Soviet Union; it was part of the Russian Federation. And so they did it for a time. It was allowed to fester and finally the Russians came in the first Chechnyan war to destroy that movement of independence. And then in the second war, after a period of peace and movement towards some kind of confederation, more independence for Russia, the precipitating moment for was when Chechnyan soldiers went into Dagestan, a part of Russia, of the Russian Federation, to liberate them from Russia. That was followed up by bombings in Moscow, terrorist attacks not unlike our own recently-and also in September, by the way, of 1999. And so the Russian government not surprisingly responded with military force. That’s where Chechnya is today.
PORTER: Why has the Russian military had such a difficult time since this war restarted in 1999?
MCFAUL: Well, the Russian military has had such a difficult time because there’s an asymmetry of motivations going on in this war. The Chechnyans are fighting for their homeland; they’re fighting for their families; they’re fighting for the cause of Chechnyan independence. The Russian soldiers are fighting for an abstract concept called “territorial integrity.” Now, in the initial stages they fought differently. They fought in terms of reaction to the terrorist attack that they deemed was, came from Chechnya. And that had a very visceral response and there was some very brave fighting. But that was two years ago. And as the war lingers on their motivation for fighting the war is very different. Add to that, that the Chechnyan fighters, like most liberation struggles-or most terrorists, depending on your definition of the situation-use guerrilla tactics, live among the people, whereas the Russians are more well-equipped for fighting a conventional war. And that’s why you have this prolonged struggle.
PORTER: Among the political leadership in Russia, why do they view Chechnya as so important?
MCFAUL: Well, Mr. Putin, the president, and who was prime minister at the time, initially saw the war as important for restoring security. And I think it’s important for Americans to remember that the initial causes of the second war was apartment bombs going off in Moscow and other cities-300 civilians were killed-and an invasion of their borders. And so his initial response was security. “We’ve been attacked, we have to respond.” The second part is territorial integrity. They still believe that if Chechnya goes then other ethnic republics within Russia will want to go. Although it’s important to point out that the survey data that I myself have done, actually, and conducted in Russia, shows that Russian society is very split on that question. As many people in Russia want to fight to keep Chechnya at whatever cost; it’s about 30 percent of the population-as many also as that number would like to see Chechnya go. “Let’s rid ourselves of this colony that does us no good. Let them be independent.” And that will be interesting if those numbers change and more people begin to think that way, whether you’ll have peace in Chechnya.
PORTER: I don’t want to spend too much time on this one point, but those apartment bombings in Moscow, where does this, the investigation into that stand? Do we really know who did it?
MCFAUL: We don’t really know who did it. And we don’t have definitive evidence one way or the other. Moscow, of course, is filled with conspiracy theories that it was the KGB-the FSB as they’re now called-who did it. But I can tell you at the highest levels in our own government we, we have never been able to confirm or disconfirm that. It’s a question mark. But it’s important for Americans to understand that among the Russian population the perception of it, there’s no question mark. They believe unequivocally that it was done by the Chechnyans and there’s no, there’s no debating that. It’s beyond their imagination that their own government would blow up their own people. And so the way that they define it is pretty clear.
PORTER: You know so much about this and I’m wondering if you can distill down for us something that might make sense of the groups inside of Chechnya. We know that there are splits. There are the Wahhabis, there are people who are pro-Moscow, there are people who are pro, merely pro-Chechnyan independence. Who are these groups and who are the major players that we should pay attention to?
MCFAUL: Chechnya is a complex place. I, I think to oversimplify, it’s important to remember that Mr. Maskhadov, the president-elect, who was elected president in Chechnya at the conclusion of the first Chechnyan War, ran a weak and rather ineffective government that allowed warlords throughout Chechnya to set up their own fiefdoms and, and do their own thing. And you basically had a very anarchic situation within Chechnya before the Russians came back in. In that anarchy-not unlike Afghanistan today-terrorists, Islamic extremists, came in to ally with certain members of those warlords. Right? The most famous of which is Mr. Khattab, also from Saudi Arabia, allegedly a close confidant of Osama bin Laden’s, who now fights on behalf of the Chechnyans. That was the moment before Russia invaded. Anarchic, different groups: Shamil Basayev another one of the radical Chechnyan leaders. He was the one that led the attack into the Russian territory in the summer of 1999. But very disparate and split, right? Between the government, these guys, the outsiders that came in. However, once the Russians invaded and came into the territory of Chechnya, that was the precipitating moment that united them all again. And that, that is where they are at today.
PORTER: You say it again. That was the precipitating, yeah…
MCFAUL: Yeah, let me say it again. However, when the Russians came in to Chechnya again, that was the moment, the precipitating moment, that united them all again against this common enemy. And so now, where, whereas they don’t have firm similar views as to what they want to do after the war, they all agree that their first and primary objective is to get the Russians out of Chechnya.
PORTER: We know that so much changed in the world on September 11, 2001. Prior to September 11 was the United States and the West giving President Putin a green light to do whatever he wanted in Chechnya. Why weren’t we speaking out more, I should say, on what was happening, the human rights abuses we knew were happening in Chechnya.
MCFAUL: President Bush and his advisors did not make Chechnya a top priority. They focused more on state-to-state relations. They do not like the world “nation-building,” and in their opinion the Clinton administration got too involved in nation-building around the world, including within Russia. And they wanted to have more focus on state-to-state relations and in particular on national missile defense and getting the Russians to acquiesce to our ideas about missile defense. Therefore Chechnya was not a top priority before September 11. After September 11 I think it’s become a priority, but in a very different way. Emphasizing as the President’s spokesman did just a few days ago, that we want the Chechnyan fighters who have relations with terrorists to sever them immediately. And this was music to President Putin’s ears. I can tell you, just having spoken to several people close to him about it that they finally, they are now saying, “Finally, the Americans understand that we have a common enemy called terrorism and we need to be united to fight it.”
I think they’re right at some basic level. I think those affiliated with bin Laden in Chechnya are our enemies. But they are not the majority of all Chechnya-of all Chechnyans. And just as we would make a terrible mistake to think that all of the people, all of the governments, even government people in Afghanistan espouse bin Laden’s ideology, we would be making the same mistake in Russia calling all Chechnyans terrorists and, and American and Russian enemies. That’s just not true.
PORTER: Give us some scope of the human rights abuses that have occurred or have allegedly occurred inside of Chechnya, and I understand there’s blame on both sides here.
MCFAUL: Well, I think it’s best summed up by a Human Rights Watch report on this called “Welcome To Hell,” that they published last year. It begins with the methods of the war where they used air power to really just obliterate the capital of Grozny with no respect to the civilians there. And let’s remember, these civilians are Russian citizens. They are not an alien force. There are many Russian-not any more, but there used to be even ethnic Russians who lived in the capital of Grozny. Secondly, the list just goes on and on about violations of the Geneva conventions in the way that they treat prisoners of war, rape, pillage-it’s a pretty nasty picture.
PORTER: If the West wasn’t very vocal in speaking out against that before September 11 there’s really not much chance they’re going to be more vocal now is there?
MCFAUL: Well, I don’t think so, no. But there’s an optimistic note to this as well. Which is, ironically-and let’s not make too much of this just yet-but ironically, there is now some movement within Chechnya in terms of beginning a process of negotiation again. That’s very encouraging to me. That’s the first time-that just happened just two days ago-that’s the first time it’s happened in, since the beginning of the second Chechnyan War. And in the long run Russians and Americans need to realize that Russia can only consolidate a democracy and move forward by resolving this, this war. There’s just no doubt about it. And history has proven this time and time again.
In the long run I think we also have to realize that the way that the Russians fought their “war against terrorism” in Chechnya has not made Russia more secure and has actually inflamed terrorists. It, Chechnya became like Afghanistan-a haven for terrorists, a haven for those fighting this jihad against America to come and fight on behalf of their Islamic brothers. So I think it, one needs to realize that a peaceful solution in Chechnya should be part of our strategy for fighting worldwide terrorism.
PORTER: That’s exactly where I was going to try to leave this, I guess-is the way the war is being fought in Chechnya, does it have the potential to stoke the fires of hatred even greater?
MCFAUL: Well, absolutely. And you just have to ask any American on the street how they feel about the fact that some enemy out there attacked our innocent civilians in New York and Washington and know our visceral reaction to that. We don’t care about whether their aims are just or not. We don’t even care who they are. We are inflamed by that and outraged. I most certainly am. That’s exactly the way Chechnyan civilians felt when the Russians started to carpet bomb Grozny. And so I think there’s an important lesson to be learned there, that this is not the way to fight terrorism.
PORTER: You said that there was an optimistic note: that perhaps some negotiations could start. The last question is to you is, are you hopeful? I mean, do you think that there is a way for a peaceful solution to finally come out in Chechnya?
MCFAUL: Yes. I actually am. I know this is a minority view among experts on Russia and especially experts on the Caucasus. But there are two things that I find heartening. One is that Putin, after much hemming and hawing about whether he wanted to be closer to the West or go back to kind of Soviet-style geostrategic thinking, I think the events of September 11 has forced him in a pro-Western and pro-American direction. Still too early to tell the long-term implications of that but it creates an opportunity for change and it creates an opportunity to talk about being fully democratic. And that means ending this war in Chechnya. And secondly, I already see some results of that on the ground in Chechnya. There is now talk of emergency rule in Chechnya, so that the civilians get more control over what the military is doing. That’s come as a direct response to thinking more about being part of the West. I know for a fact that the war in Chechnya will someday end in negotiation. These wars always have to end in some sort of negotiation. I think the very rational response is, “Wouldn’t it be better if it started today than 20 years from now?” And I hope the people of Chechnya and Russia share that view.
PORTER: That is Michael McFaul, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
MCHUGH: The other post-Soviet states, next on Common Ground.
FIONA HILL: When I traveled to Uzbekistan last year people were saying, “Well, my god, you know, we’re so much better off here than they are in Turkmenistan,” because they pick up Turkmen TV and they see this as a kind of perverse Disney World.
MCHUGH: Although Chechnya failed to gain independence from Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart, over a dozen other independent nations were created when the empire ended ten years ago.
PORTER: Some of these newly free states have done well and others have struggled. Some even find themselves still under communist rule. For an overview of these post-Soviet states I spoke with Fiona Hill, an author and expert from the Brookings Institution.
FIONA HILL: Some post-Soviets fared a lot better than others. I mean, if you kind of look across from-you know, let’s start with the states closest to Western Europe down to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Moldava, to the west, has done very badly. In fact, they’ve been beset by a series of not just political and economic disasters but also natural disasters. They had a horrific storm last winter that wiped out a third of their electricity grid, for example. And the country is so impoverished now that it’s very unlikely that they’re going to be able to restore, restore that. And just illustrative of the kind of economic pain that the average Moldavan is feeling, is they just reelected a communist government. Obviously this is not because they have any ideological preference for communism, but because there’s a great kind of nostalgia for at least the security of the past, in which, you know, there was at least a bare minimum of subsistence that was guaranteed for people, which was relatively comfortable.
PORTER: Of these post-Soviet states, would you say Moldava is the one that has fared the worst?
HILL: In the West, yes. But not in terms of the whole spectrum. Because in the Caucasus and Central Asia it’s also a very mixed picture. And in some places is particularly grim, in fact. If you look across the Caucasus states, Azerbaijan has had something of a revival but again in pockets centered around the oil industry. There’s actually-if you travel to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan now, there’s a kind of a sense of a bit of a boom going on because of the large-scale investment by international oil companies. This has not trickled down to the whole of the country, however. And Azerbaijan has suffered greatly from the long-term conflict with Armenia up in Nagorno Karabakh, there’s still large numbers of refugees living in terrible conditions in Azerbaijan, many in railway cars or in dugouts in refugee camps scattered around the country.
Now, if you look at Armenia and Georgia, you also have a very grim picture. And you’ve had a massive hemorrhaging of the population from both of these countries. People have fled into Russia, fleeing economic deprivation as much as conflicts in the Caucasus region. A similar phenomenon in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, which like Azerbaijan has substantial energy resources, is doing relatively well. And I say relatively. You know, obviously, the Kazakh economy has a long way to go before it can sustain long-term growth, and the development has tended to be in the energy sector. And again, there hasn’t really been a trickle down of resources from the elite who have been involved in the energy industry down to the kind of basic level. There’s been a great decline in rural areas in Kazakhstan, but at the same time there’s also been a flourishing of small business and the Kazakhs have actually been fairly farsighted in terms of promoting small business and allowing the private sector to flourish.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, the government didn’t manage to make an effective transition. It doesn’t have the same kind of energy resources that Kazakhstan does. Uzbekistan’s economy was dependent on cotton growing, cotton monoculture. The bottom fell out of the cotton market after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The state was actually the biggest purchaser of cotton. So cotton farmers have essentially gone out of business and it’s been very difficult to restore the Uzbek economy.
Then, neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are doing extremely badly. They have a great deal of internal instability. The, Tajikistan was devastated by civil war from ‘92 to ‘97. It’s never fully recovered from that. In some parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan you’ve got as high as 95 percent unemployment. And recent reports by the International Crisis Group based on data collected by the World Bank and others suggests that as many as 80 percent of the population in both of those countries may be at or below the poverty line.
PORTER: Eighty percent?
HILL: Eighty percent.
PORTER: Wow. We’ve heard a few stories trickling out about Turkmenistan and the sort of eccentric stories out of there. Tell us something about what’s happened in Turkmenistan.
HILL: Well, eccentric is actually a good way of describing the government of Turkmenistan. I mean, really we’ve seen a Soviet-style personality cult develop around the president, Niyazov. Ashkhabad, the Turkmen capital, is replete with gold-coated statues of Niyazov that reportedly-I haven’t seen this myself-rotate and play music. I mean, there’s a lot that’s got to be apocryphal because Turkmenistan has become quite a closed society. In fact, you know, comparisons have been made with North Korea, for example. It’s become insular. It’s disengaged, even from its immediate neighbors.
In fact, when I traveled to Uzbekistan last year people were saying, “Well, my god, you know, we’re so much better off here than they are in Turkmenistan,” because they pick up Turkmen TV and they see this as a kind of perverse Disney World. You know, completely full of strange apparitions on the, you know, with these statues and these huge posters of Niyazov everywhere. And you know, kind of, the people somewhat incredulous about the situation there. Obviously, Turkmenistan is sitting on huge gas deposits-enormous gas deposits. And there were lots of predictions that Turkmenistan could become a mini-Kuwait, that there would be great wealth for the whole of the population. But it really seems more like so many of the African states that have had vast wealth and it’s been squandered and diverted into these grandiose building projects meant to glorify the leader, rather than actually for the welfare of the population.
PORTER: Are there particular success stories? I mean, is there any one of these post-Soviet states that you think is doing particularly well?
HILL: Well, you see, there are success stories even within states. So that although the overall picture seems somewhat gloomy, when you actually get down to the grassroots level, there’s actually some amazing things that are taking place in all of these states, in fact. I mean, if you just take Tajhikistan, you know, which I’ve just said is in a bit of a disastrous condition as a result of its civil war, the civil war actually had a rather positive effect in terms of creating dialogue within the country. In fact, Tajhikistan has public debates that you just couldn’t imagine taking place anywhere else in Central Asia and which we’d even be hard pressed to see, you know, kind of in some of the Western states of the former Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan there have been a number of small business associations set up, community loan funds have been set up which have actually been quite effective. There’s a whole host of home-grown groups who are, have pushed ahead things like arbitration in economic disputes and have set up their own centers. Also in Kyrgyzstan last year I met with a group of lawyers who were doing absolutely incredible work in the Fergana Valley of Kyrgyzstan, which is the valley that is now split between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and which has been the focal point of a great deal of social unrest, and where there are now militant Islamic groups operating. But this group of lawyers has actually created a traveling legal clinic to go around the area and deal with disputes at the local level before they get out of hand and become some kind of trigger for violence.
PORTER: Okay. I have a couple of last questions for you that are sort of forward-looking questions on this topic. Is there a new generation of leadership being formed in these states. Is there some, some sign that perhaps there’s some hope that there will be another generation that will come that will not base its whole context for leadership on the post-Soviet era, but on something else?
HILL: Well, some new leaders are already starting to emerge. Obviously, in the last 10 years there’s actually been very little change from the leadership from the Soviet period to the new leaders. Especially in Central Asia there’s been almost no change in the top leadership from the Soviet period, with the exception of Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. And to some degree the Tajhik leader who was not kind of the Party secretary in the Soviet period, but was actually a high-level Communist Party member. Obviously in the Caucasus we brought back the kind of Gorbachev era, you know, Politburo members after, you know, kind of brief flirtations with non-Communist governments that ended up in a civil war. But you know, in Ukraine and Byelorus you’ve obviously got again back to the old Party structures again at the head of the governments then, just the Communist government brought back in Moldava. So, I mean it seems in many respects, that you know, ten years out not a great deal has changed.
Now, however, behind this there has been a lot of new blood brought into these governments. The pivotal group right now are those particularly in their 30s. You know, kind of early-to-late 30s, who grew up in the Soviet period, but have then had a great deal of experience outside. Many have been educated in the West, in the United States, through programs like the Muskie Fellowship. And many other of the, the scholarships for people to study abroad that the United States and other countries have, have managed. And then there’s a whole new generation who are now in their late teens and 20s who’ve had a great deal of exposure to the West. Many again who have studied outside.
For example in Kazakhstan the government there, in spite of its continued grip and control has been quite far sighted. They had a program in which their, which was sponsored by the presidents, the Kazakhs themselves paid for a great deal of this, in which they picked out their brightest students. Not just from the capital or from those who were related to, you know, high-ranking members of the government, but from, you know, some of the remoter areas of Kazakhstan, and had them sent to the United States to study in a whole variety of institutions, not just, you know, kind of Ivy League, but you know, right the way down to some of the local colleges, you know, out in the Midwest and elsewhere. A very extensive, very extensive program. And they’ve actually brought a lot of those people back and put them in positions in the government. Now, not necessarily high positions, but they’ve also been brought back into international institutions that are operating there. So you could see kind of 10, 20 years down the line that you would have a shift.
Now, of course, the question is whether, you know, these people really can manage to survive in the currently restrictive political climates in their countries and manage to kind of make it out the other end, you know, without being, you know, somewhat kind of constrained in the mobilities for future development. The problem is on the mass level, where a lot of the Soviet education system has been eroded; nothing else has developed to take its place. You may see an increasing divide, you know, between the kind of educated Western-oriented, very capable elites and the broader population who, you know, outside Russia, have not been able to have the same educational opportunities they even had in the past.
PORTER: Well, given all that, would you say you’re mostly hopeful or mostly skeptical for the future of these states?
HILL: Long term I’m hopeful. I am optimistic. But I obviously have a kind of cautious optimism. I mean, I see a lot of signs there but it’s going to take a long time, and as we’ve seen from the September 11 events, a major crisis can throw a lot of things that were already on one trajectory off. I mean, look at US foreign policy now. We’re in a completely different world than we were just at the beginning of the month of September.
PORTER: That is Fiona Hill, a Central Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. And be sure to listen for Keith and I next month on the Russia Project, a two-hour special documentary on life in Russia a decade after the Soviet Union.
PORTER: The Russia Project will be hosted by Walter Cronkite and is made possible by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. Contact your local public radio station to find out when you can hear the Russia Project.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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