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Russia's forgotten war

TODAY'S SUMMIT in Bratislava between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a golden opportunity for reassessing conflict and peacemaking in the age of terrorism. It is an opportunity to nudge one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history since the end of World War II toward a peaceful resolution. The war in question is the forgotten conflict between Russia and Chechnya.

The summit falls around the 61st anniversary of Stalin's effort on Feb. 23, 1944, to wipe out the Chechen nation by deportation in cattle cars to Central Asia and Siberia. This was recognized as an act of genocide by a resolution of the European Parliament in 2004. The memory of the deportations motivated the Chechen drive for independence, and in 1991 the Republic of Chechnya proclaimed its independence. Unable to remove the Chechen president by covert means, the Russian military launched its first war into Chechnya in December 1994.

During this decade-long war, more than 200,000 individuals -- one quarter of the Chechen population -- have lost their lives, including thousands of children. Roughly 300,000 Chechens have fled to escape annihilation. Tuberculosis, cardiac problems, deafness, and depression are rampant. As families have been destroyed, some surviving kinfolk have been driven out of desperation to suicide bombing attacks against Russia.

For Russia, Chechnya and the northern Caucasus region have been turned into a tinderbox of armed confrontations. Over the course of the last decade, the Russian military has lost more men than the total number of combat deaths in the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The war in Chechnya has consumed a large portion of Russia's defense budget. Opinion polls in Russia indicate growing restiveness at Putin's inability to bring the conflict to an end. To dampen the political situation, the Kremlin has imposed a taboo on political discussion of the conflict. Meanwhile, Russian federal forces commit mass war crimes against the civilian population while the radical part of the Chechen resistance commits acts of terrorism such as suicide bombings and hostage-takings.

The Kremlin began this war under the slogan of fighting terrorism, but its reliance on force over politics combined with the corruption and incompetence of the Russian military and the security services has exacerbated the problem. Terrorism has become more cruel, more deadly, more frequent, and it strikes as far away as Moscow and the northern Caucasus.

In January 2005, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, elected in 1997 in internationally observed elections, announced a unilateral cease-fire. He did so out of conviction that this futile war is destroying the Chechen nation and is bringing the northern Caucasus region to the brink of chaos.

In contrast with past declarations of willingness to hold talks and cease military actions, we are seeing a political initiative that reveals that Maskhadov exercises the power to restrain guerrilla groups. This cease-fire entails a grave political risk for Maskhadov: There are no formal monitoring mechanisms, and Russia, for the moment, refuses to see the moratorium on military activity as an act of good faith.   Continued...

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