- How does Deputy Assistant Pifer imply the issue of Chechnya is also an issue of the survival of Russia?
- To what rights should an ethnic group denied self-government be entitled? Does the survival of a state justify the suppression of ethnic issues?
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Steven Pifer, discusses the United States' stance toward the conflict in Chechnya. Pifer defends the support of Russia's fight with Chechnya as an effort to maintain territorial integrity and discourage separatists elsewhere. Russia believes this fight is part of the war on terrorism, but Pifer poses a more complicated political situation.
Small but fiercely independent, the republic of Chechnya has been involved for years in a war for self-determination against Russia. The ruined cityscape of Grozny and the scarred roads and fields of the countryside are evidence of a conflict that has been marked both by brutal occupation and terrorist resistance.
In 1991, General Jokhar Dudayev, leader of the separatist party, was elected as president of Chechnya and promptly declared Chechnya's independence from the Soviet Union. This declaration of independence was not accepted by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who at the time was trying to build a new regime. After a failed attack by the Russian counter-intelligence, Yeltsin directed Russian troops to invade Chechnya in December of 1994. Russian forces seized Dudayev's presidential palace. Despite this and other Russian strategic gains, the rebel attacks continued. Russia momentarily appeared to gain an upper hand in April 1996, when Russian forces killed the Chechen president in a missile attack.
A peace agreement was signed in August of 1996 that postponed consideration of Chechnya's political status until 2001 and recognized de facto independence. Unfortunately, internal conflicts between rival Chechen warlords continued, despite the introduction of varied means of control, including Islamic Sharia courts. In 1999 Russian mounted a second, extended, military intervention in the area in an attempt to reclaim Grozny and weed out rebel fighters. Russian forces instituted a campaign of zachistki - "clean-up operations" - among the civilian population, resulting in the disappearance or death of hundreds of Chechen civilians. Many of them fled the area. Russian attempts to convince Chechen refugees that they can safely return to their homeland are ongoing, but, set against a backdrop of ruined cities, mined fields and an ever-changing security situation, have not met with success.
The Wide Angle film GREETINGS FROM GROZNY is a journey that leads the viewer behind the lines on both sides of the Russian-Chechen conflict. Film crews accompany Russian troops on "cleansing missions" through residential districts of Grozny, and spend 24 tense hours at a Russian checkpoint. They also go undercover in the border regions where there is evidence that radical Islam increasingly motivates Chechen fighters, and provide glimpses into the webs of special interest woven around this horrific conflict by the United States, the Wahabist Muslims and the Georgians.
But why does Russia care so much about holding on to Chechnya? I mean, why does this small piece of territory matter so much to them?
STEVEN PIFER, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE:
Well, I think the Russian concern is that they want to protect Russian territorial integrity. And they don't want to see one bit break off, because it might encourage separatists elsewhere in Russia.
And I should say, this is something that we support. We support Russian territorial integrity. Our fear is that if you acknowledge the right of the Chechens or another group unilaterally to secede from Russia, you open up a can of worms and you might have other parts of Russia begin to move in that direction. We don't think that's a healthy process for Russia, we don't think that's a healthy process for Europe.
Russia describes the war in Chechnya as a war against terrorism. What's the U.S.'s position on that? Do we agree?
We have a slightly different view. We agree that the Russians are fighting in Chechnya against some factions that are connected to international terrorism, but we would not consider the entire conflict to be a war against terrorism. It's a more complex issue.
Complex in what sense?
In that you have groups in there, and it gets into shades of gray between some of the tactics, but you have groups in there that are fighting that we don't see as terrorists, that have some legitimate political grievances that are going to have to be addressed.
And actually, that is one element of our approach towards Chechnya that has changed since September 11th, is since September 11 we've called upon the moderate Chechens and said, you need to distance yourselves from these groups that are connected to al-Qaeda and the other international terrorist organizations.
And what we've heard in response is, we've heard the right answer, they've said, yes, we understand the importance of doing that. What we haven't seen, though, is real action to sort of create that divide.