13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 12


Norman Davies says that, ten years after the Wall came down, the Evil Empire is thriving — with the help of the West

In reality, the fate of Chechnya is not a small matter. It is a scandal of global pro- portions that has nothing to do with transi- tion. The charge of genocide has been raised, and not only by the Chechens them- selves. This poses a test both for Russian democracy and for the supposedly ethical policy of Western leaders. For Russia is conducting itself exactly as the Soviet Union would have done and as Mr Milosc- vic would approve. Having failed to crush the Chechens in a war that cost 80,000, mainly civilian, lives, Moscow has now ordered a general assault on their country, indiscriminately shelling, bombing, strafing and killing on a much larger scale. Reports of civilian casualties are suppressed. The

huge refugee crisis is out of control. Out- side charities are not able to operate, for it is 'an internal problem'. The only differ- ence now is that we are paying for it. And Western leaders have encouraged it, Chechnya is not Russian in any sense except that it was once conquered and involuntarily incorporated into the imperial Russian state by force. Its people are Mus- lims. They speak a Caucasian language similar to that of their Ingush neighbours. In all aspects of their culture and history, they have far more in common with the

Turkish and Persian worlds to the south, than with the Russian world to the north. They number fewer than two million. They call themselves Nokhchi. It is significant that we know them only by a name invent- ed by the Russians.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, 14 of its 15 republics broke free and declared their independence. The 15th, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Repub- lic (RSFSR), still the largest state on earth, was transformed into the new federation of supposedly democratic Russia. At the time, the Chechens would undoubtedly have wished to follow the example of other small ex-Soviet peoples, such as the Estonians, and to have chosen freedom.

Unfortunately, unlike Estonia, Chechnya was not a constituent republic of the USSR. It was merely an autonomous republic within the RSFSR. And it had no direct access to the West. So when Western governments hastened to recognise post- Soviet Russia, they asked no questions about the many non-Russian parts of the new state. As with Kosovo, which had been an autonomous province within Serbia, not a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, no time was wasted on listening to voices that had been calling from the start for a peaceful and democratic solution. Conse- quently, as in Kosovo, the influence of militant sepa- ratists and of violent moun- tain warlords steadily increased.

Russian attitudes to Chechnya, however, are not governed by technicalities. They are the product of fierce historic passions and Since then, Russian prejudice has cast the Chechens in the role of inveterate rebels and bandits, who have never willing- ly subscribed to the blessings of Russian civilisation. In 1918-21, during the civil wars, the Chechens briefly broke free. In 1943-44, Stalin was so suspicious of their intentions towards the advancing Wehr- macht that he had the entire nation deport- ed in cattle trucks to Central Asia, killing perhaps half of them in the process. The victims, as was the practice, were added to the tally of 'Russian war dead'. After the war, the autonomous republic was set up without genuine autonomy. All positions of power were held by the Russian-run Com- munist party, which turned the capital Grozny into a Russian city. The Grozny district was valuable. It had oil, and it had a pipeline running between the Caspian and Black seas. Chechnya's natural wealth could he pumped away for the sole benefit of Moscow's coffers. So the Chechen survivors, when they returned from their wartime exile in 1957, came back to a colony where they were cast in the role of second-class intruders. Only decades of pent-up anger can explain the extreme daring and ferocity which defeated the Russian attack in 1994-96.

For some reason, Western commentators rarely refer to this background. A compla- cent presenter on Radio Four's Today pro- gramme remarked that 'the Russians and Chechens have been fighting each other for centuries'. Journalists in Moscow simply repeat the argument that bombs placed in Moscow by unidentified perpetrators some- how explain, if they do not completely jus- tify, a general invasion of Chechnya. As if the RAF would incinerate Belfast and all its inhabitants in response to a bomb of suspected IRA origin in London. A Rus- sian general assures everyone that Grozny will not be attacked. Then Grozny is attacked. Firing rockets at capital cities does not equate with a genuine attempt to fight terrorism. The only question worth asking in all this is: has the Russian army occupied Chechnya or the Chechen army occupied Russia?

The implications for democracy are not trifling. The distinguished Oxford profes- sors do not actually say that today's Russia is undemocratic. That would be too unaca- demic. So the word is that Russia is a 'hybrid'. In plain language, this means that Moscow has just enough democratic frontage to satisfy the IMF, but not enough democratic substance to treat its citizens decently. Holding elections is neither here nor there. Controlled elections were a Soviet speciality. After two extraordinarily brutal invasions of their own internal terri- tory, the acid test for the Russians is whether or not they intend to grant their co-citizens in Chechnya and elsewhere the democratic right of determining their own future.

The economics of the operation are also interesting. Post-communist Russia is so poor that it has repeatedly turned to the West for loans, aid, investment and, at one point, food parcels. The total dispensed over the last decade amounts to some $80 billion. For some reason, this huge treasure- chest does not actually find its way into the family budgets of ordinary Russians. The privatised banks are now run by the priva- tised nomenklatura bosses. Ex-Soviet gang- sters, now called the Mafia, are strangling most promising new businesses. As before, most economic activities are dominated by crude barter and by the black market. Hardly anyone pays taxes. The defence budget remains a mythical creature. According to one estimate, the overall size of the official Russian economy, supporting a population of 150 million, has not grown beyond the dollar-value of an average Western supermarket chain. After the near default of 1998, the foreigners investing in Russian state bonds lost everything except 4p in the fl. The IMF has been obliged to offer new credits in order to cover the interest payments on earlier loans.

Yet there is enough money to spare to go on building advanced military aircraft, to finance the arms trade, and to subsidise the droves of well-heeled sons and daugh- ters of Russian officials who learn English in private schools on Oxford's Banbury Road. Dubious Slavonic gents carrying suitcases stuffed with banknotes vie with Arabs in the cash sector of the Hampstead property market. Russian ministers demand bribes from their Western part- ners. Even after that, the surplus is suffi- cient to send 100,000 men and 60,000 armoured vehicles to chase bandits in Chechnya.

For the best part of a decade, the West- ern powers were agreed on a generous pol- icy of 'Russia First'. Russia, after all, is an important country. Nations which had spent half a century being oppressed, humiliated and exploited by Moscow had to wait in line for Western largesse. But the Russian elite were not required to stand down their spymasters, secret policemen and commissars in the way that the East Germans had done. They were given their gargantuan loans without having to meet the harsh political and economic conditions that were imposed on mere Poles, Czechs or Hungarians. They were not publicly told that co-operation with the West was subject to any sort of good behaviour. The Rus- sians still had the world's largest nuclear arsenal, and might turn nasty without pref- erential treatment. Indeed, by pleading the inability to service their decaying stockpile, they had no difficulty in extracting extra American money to keep them in the accustomed nuclear manner. Only recently have Western politicians and hankers begun to see sense.

Russia's leaders have therefore undoubt- edly gauged their scope for further manoeu- vre, by weighing the West's deeds against the West's rhetoric. Joined by their new ex- KGB premier, the ex-Soviet hybrid in the Kremlin must really have relished Robin Cook's declarations about an ethical for- eign policy. It was just like old times. Watching developments in Kosovo and Serbia, their advisers must surely have told them that the West was not prepared to lose a single soldier's life in pursuit of its principles. On the contrary, the smart way to wage wars these days is to declare one's own selective interpretation of ethics as superior to international law and then to bomb and blast one's adversary from heights where tanks cannot be distin- guished from tractors, and Chinese embassies can be mistaken for command posts. Sooner or later, one can claim victo- ry amidst a sea of rubble and refugees. No matter that Milosevic, like Saddam, is still in office.

If ever there was an unspoken invitation, this was it. The Kremlin does not have to share Blair's and Clinton's high-minded motives for military invention. It certainly does not share their humanitarian scruples. But it has been handed the perfect scenario for maintaining appearances. Having received the latest instalment from the IMF, and having secured a multi-billion dollar nest-egg from rising oil prices, the Russian government declares that the Chechens are guilty of gross breaches of human rights. It then overrules the provi- sions of the Conventional Arms Treaty in the name of the international fight against terrorism.

Its huge armada will not make the mis- take of 1994, when the Chcchcn fighters were actually drawn into combat. This time, the bandit gangs will be pin-pointed in every town and village, which can then be drenched with mortars and missiles and be destroyed with everyone in them. In this way, Chechnya will be both ethnically and ethically cleansed. No real risk will be taken beyond a frightening letter of 'concern' from Mr Cook. After a decent interval the libera- tom of Chechnya can expect to be feted at Buckingham Palace like the liberators of Tibet. And the celebrations in Berlin can continue in the knowledge that the transi- tion from communism is, well, transiting.

The Isles by Norman Davies (np £30) is available for £25 through The Spectator Bookshop. To order, please call 0541 557 288 and quote SP166.