Moscow ought to give up the use of force in Chechnya

by Umberto Ranieri

Ever more determined to get the better of "Chechen terrorism", the Russian army is now fighting in the heart of Grozny. The repeated appeals from the West to settle the conflict by political means thus appear increasingly to be in vain. Relations with Moscow have reached such a degree of tension that there has been talk over the past few days of suspending Russia from the Council of Europe.

Such an eventuality must be averted. It is vital for Russia to find a way out of its Caucasian escapade. It seems clear now that the use of brute force will not lead to a lasting solution to a conflict like the one in Chechnya, which can only be ended politically, through negotiations. The disproportionate use of force in a framework of extreme poverty risks fomenting further radicalization of the separatist tendencies and fuelling Islamic fundamentalism. From this point of view, the words spoken by the Afghan Minister of Information appear particularly worrying. He said that military aid to Chechnya is not yet on the agenda, which implies, therefore, that it has not been ruled out. Not only has the supreme chief of the Talebans, the mullah Mohamed Omar, decided to immediately recognize the "government of independent Chechnya led by President Aslan Mashadov", but members of the Chechen delegation are said to affirm that the next step will be an agreement on financial and military aid. In a region in which Islamic fundamentalism often takes the shape of an exacerbated form of nationalism - one has only to think, for example, of the episodic incidents in Pakistan, to name but one example out of several - such an occurrence could create a chain reaction of repercussions that are difficult to predict, and even trickier to prevent.

But the price that Russia is paying for the conflict in Chechnya now seems, from several points of view, extremely high. Millions of dollars per day are being blown on a war that is impossible to win, while the toll in terms of human lives of the Russian military is becoming increasingly painful and unsustainable.

In this framework, the decision announced by Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the year approving the new Russian military doctrine and to reinforce the military potential is worrying. It is a decision which, if carried through, would be Russia's ruin, not only in terms of its economic situation but also with regard to the reaction it would arouse in the United States and the European Union. We do not intend to underestimate, however, the affirmations that Mr. Putin made to the Duma a few days ago when he said that the reform plans and democracy must go ahead and rejected the on-going temptation in Russian transition to take the populist-authoritarian road. But, as Mr. Putin knows full well, in order to proceed along the path of reform, Russia will have to rely on cooperation with the international organizations and their technical and financial support. The Russian interim president must be aware that in order to move in this direction he must first remedy the humanitarian catastrophe in Chechnya and ensure a balanced and negotiated solution to the conflict.

It is that courageous decision that the Foreign Minister Dini urged the Russian authorities to make when visiting Moscow. We trust that President Putin will understand that Russia' acceptance of OSCE intervention and that of the humanitarian organizations to help find a political solution would bring advantages to Russia and would dispel the doubts harboured by those who see Moscow's policy as a return to traditional Soviet-Russian isolationism.