(Washington, DC--August 14, 2002) Anne Nivat, former Moscow correspondent for the Paris-based paper "Liberation," told an RFE/RL audience today that Russian President Vladimir Putin has "brilliantly" used the post-September 11 war on terrorism to garner international sympathy for Russia's own "anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya. Instead of pursuing "terrorists", however, Nivat said that Russian forces are carrying out bloody, arbitrary "mop-up" operations ("zachistki") and enriching themselves with bribes at numerous "checkpoints."
Nivat, who was last in Chechnya this past June, said that the "mop-up" operations -- which can occur "anywhere and at any time" and are directed mainly against civilians -- have hardened the attitude of Chechen civilians against Russia. She described the experience of visiting the village of Mesker-Yurt two days after the end of a 21-day "zachistka", during which villagers were isolated from the outside world by Russian GRU and contract soldiers, who killed civilians, including children, at random. Nivat said local civilians are now too terrified to tell their stories to the few journalists who still cover the war, because of the ever-present threat of Russian retaliation.
Russia's "anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya is a "total failure", Nivat said, noting that Chechnya's elected president Aslan Maskhadov is still free, Chechen warlords Ruslan Gelayev and Shamil Basayev continue to operate, and Russian forces continue to lose ten or twelve men every day. As for published reports of Chechen fighters receiving training in Afghanistan, Nivat dismissed the notion, saying they had plenty of opportunity to train "at home." She also said that, with the exception of the warlord Khattab, she had never seen Arabs fighting on the Chechen side, and knew of no Chechen links to the al-Qaeda network.
According to Nivat, Russian forces are earning "tons of money" in Chechnya by demanding ransoms for the release of live detainees or bribes to release the corpses of dead detainees, or by taking bribes from those wishing to pass through checkpoints. Nivat explained that Russian soldiers at these checkpoints would inspect passports to make sure travelers had "form number 10" -- a ten-ruble bribe that would allow persons to pass through unmolested.
Nivat called the upcoming referendum on the Chechen constitution "ridiculous," saying most people simply want peace and to be given the chance to live normal lives. Returning to normality will be difficult, however, as the past two years have seen a sharp rise in xenophobia in Russia and most Russians have no respect for Chechens--a key concept in Chechen culture. The brutality of the current war has led Chechens to embrace passive resistance to the "occupying" Russian forces and boosted the popularity of President Maskhadov, who was once held responsible by Chechens for the chaos of the 1996-1999 interwar period.