Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

First Ignored, Now Damned

The Chechen government's efforts to communicate with Moscow - or indeed the West - are rebuffed. Negotiators are sidelined. And pleas for safe passage for the terrified civilians of Grozny are ignored.
By Akhjad Idigov

The mayor of Grozny, Leche Dudaev, is appealing to the International Committee of the Red Cross to organise safe passage for civilians to leave the city. He estimates about 40,000 civilians still remain in the capital.


Despite all the communication problems, we remain in near constant contact with the mayor - a nephew of the late Chechen president Djokhar Dudaev.


Asked on Friday about the latest fighting in Grozny, Dudaev told me that the south eastern part of the town had seen further heavy fighting on Thursday night, with Russian helicopter gunships and artillery pounding Chechen units.


Dudaev and Chechen vice-premier Akhmed Zakaev, confirmed to me that Chechen fighters have killed 120 Russian soldiers in the capital, and taken many prisoners in the last few days. Chechen units have also downed two Russian aircraft, and destroyed five Russian helicopters.


As during the previous war, we have reports that Russian troops are panicking, that there are deserters, that Russians are selling their weapons to us. They are not free to do what they want in Chechnya.


At the same time, the situation in Chechnya is dramatic. Everyday, under bombs and artillery fire, war crimes are being committed against Chechen people. Of a population of less than a million, a quarter of a million refugees have fled the country - mostly to Ingushetia but also to Georgia, Azerbaijan and to Russia itself.


More than 15,000 people have been killed, and 38,000 wounded, including 14,000 children who have been maimed, losing eyes, hands, legs or suffering other serious injuries. Of a pre-war population of 100,000, we estimate that approximately 40,000 people remain trapped in Grozny.


For centuries, Russia has thwarted the aspirations of the north Caucasus mountain people, invading and blocking their efforts at self-government and independence. In February 1944, under the pretext of collaboration with the Nazis, the entire Chechen population was deported in freezing goods trains to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan


More than half of the 405,000 people removed perished. Even when the Chechens returned, they were heavily discriminated against, within Chechnya and within Russia as a whole. The 1994-96 war was another bloodbath: 125,000 Chechens died - 12 per cent of the Chechen population.


But Russia is not solely to blame. The West too has a responsibility. As in the former Yugoslavia, the collapse of the communist federation opened up many disputes over the sovereignty of certain territories and the rights of various nationalities.


The dismantling of the Soviet Union violated international law, and disrupted on-going processes whereby various components, including the Republic of Chechnya, were increasing their control. But the international community simply accepted Russia's right to assume power in what was effectively a coup d'etat in a member state of the UN Security Council.


Such contradictions of international law are the cause of considerable human tragedy. Chechen independence is not recognised, and Russia has a free hand to wage war in what it terms an "internal matter." The West cannot or will not intervene across borders it shares some responsibility in establishing.


After the 1996 cease-fire, the legally elected government in Chechnya received neither investments nor aid for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. Despite numerous appeals to the international community, the Russians blocked everything.


Indeed, it is very difficult for Chechen political representatives even to travel internationally to make their case-I myself had great difficulties entering the UK this week and was thoroughly searched on the Eurostar train into London.


In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Chechen institutions were not strong enough to deal with our internal and security problems. But neither were we given any support to do so, and when we sought to cooperate either with Russia or the international community on investigations-such as sharing information on the notorious killing of the British and New Zealander telecommunications workers-no one was willing to work with us.


Quite the reverse: common-law criminals were freed from Russian prisons and paid handsomely to carry out provocations in a country already destroyed. In short, the war never stopped.


Now much more must be done to bring it to a halt. The West should be more forceful and consistent in condemning Russia's actions. It has been far too silent.


It sometimes seems as if people in the West care more about the rights of animals than those of the Chechens. All aspects of international support for Moscow should also be reviewed: money is still flowing from the pockets of western taxpayers into the accounts of the government running this war.


Most importantly, the West should support the legitimate government of Chechnya and its call for negotiations. Despite some press reports, Moscow has so far refused to have any contact with Chechen President Ruslan Maskhadov and his representatives.


Yet we are ready to engage in negotiations-under certain preconditions. Since the previous cease-fire was broken by Moscow, we now call for a third party, an international representative, to act as mediator. The West must broker any new deal, because the Chechens simply cannot afford to trust the Russians any more.


A settlement must also be based on the framework established in the 1996 agreement, which confirmed democratic principals and Chechen authority within Chechnya. The alternative is only conflict.


If Russia could achieve some kind of "final solution" in Chechnya, it would not stop there, but continue with provocations and intervention in Azerbaijan, Georgia and elsewhere.


But the Chechens are prepared to offer a perpetual state of war. We are not going to drop our weapons now. We will continue to struggle for a normal way of life. We have nowhere else to go, and we have to fight. We are not going to give up because we cannot give up.


Akhjad Idigov is a Member of Parliament in Chechnya and chairman of the foreign affairs committee.