Lord Judd recently completed a visit to Chechnya at the head of a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly delegation sent to inspect the situation there. He followed the visit with a somewhat contradictory statement to the effect that he saw progress in peaceful regulation of the conflict, but found no improvement in the human-rights situation.
The improvement he saw, it would seem, was that Grozny is no longer a ghost town. Life has resumed and people are living there, even though this seems like it should be impossible. But the main political result of the visit came with Judd's statement that the referendum on a new Chechen constitution, scheduled for the spring, should be postponed. This was not what the Russian authorities wanted to hear.
Judd tried to find Chechens who have seen the draft constitution with their own eyes, but he didn't find any. The official Chechen authorities responded with some irritation that the text was freely available to all, but that they couldn't force people to study it if they didn't want to. Realizing, perhaps, the futility of such discussions, Judd finally made the most important point that the Chechens couldn't have a free say in the referendum with 100,000 federal troops looking on.
The Kremlin has been successful in one thing: There are now hardly any journalists working in Chechnya that aren't controlled by the federal authorities. This means there are no direct eyewitnesses to what the federal forces are doing in Chechnya speaking out in the press, nor does anyone hear from witnesses of what takes place during what the military calls "special operations," and what local people call "cleansing."
Stories of murders and people disappearing during this procedure can be heard in refugee camps, but in most cases it is hard to prove them. Some facts, however, do manage to emerge and become known.
At a meeting between Chechen leaders and Russian journalists last August, Malika Umazheva, the head of the administration of Alkhan-Kala, a town of 20,000 people, took the floor. Umazheva, a woman well known in Chechnya for her fearless willingness to speak out about what the federal forces were doing, told journalists about a cleansing operation in Alkhan-Kala during which her younger brother was killed.
Umazheva's brother was known for certain not to have anything to do with the separatist fighters in Chechnya. Umazheva named the Army division and the prosecutor's office representatives who commanded the operation and refused to investigate the murder. Like hundreds of similar public calls, Umazheva's appeal got no official reaction. But in December, four armed men in masks and camouflage gear entered Umazheva's home and, ignoring her family's protests, took her into the yard and shot her.
The military's usual reaction in such cases is to blame terrorists who dress in Russian uniforms in order to discredit the federal troops. It's impossible to prove or disprove these statements, though it's hard to imagine why the separatists would have wanted to kill Umazheva.
With regard to the referendum, however, what is significant in this case is that a Chechen official was killed, a woman known throughout Chechnya. Assuming the murder really was committed by rebels and not by the "death squads" that locals insist exist within the federal forces, this shows the authorities can't guarantee people's security and lives. How can a referendum be held in such conditions? Perhaps Lord Judd is right to suggest that it is too early.
The authorities are pursuing one very transparent aim with their idea of a referendum and new presidential elections for Chechnya. They want an argument against those who say they should negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov, the man who was elected Chechen president with Moscow's approval in 1997.
The Kremlin doesn't want to talk to Maskhadov, something that is only confirmed by Moscow's insistent campaign to have Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov's representative at negotiations, extradited to Russia.
The Kremlin's new plan is clear and could realistically be carried out. The idea is to hold a managed referendum followed by a managed election that would elect a new president with whom Moscow would then negotiate. The problem is that the only real way to end any war is to make peace with your adversary, and in the case of the guerilla war underway in Chechnya, the adversary is the Chechen people, which will only accept negotiations and deals with its own representative Maskhadov as legitimate. To ignore this is to let the war continue.
There is a great danger the war will indeed keep going. By insisting on holding the referendum and elections as soon as it can, Moscow might drive itself further into the dead end created by several years of hasty actions. It's not easy to get out of a dead end, but it is possible. The thing to remember, however, is you don't get out by blundering forward, but by going into reverse.