Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War
Reviewer: Kirył Kaścian (University of Bremen)
- Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2010
- ISBN: 9780691130798
- Available at: Amazon
- Author's page: Emma Gilligan
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I will not get a response
Where a question is asked by a bullet
Y. Shevchuk, Death City. Christmas
This book is a difficult read. Equally difficult was it for the author to depict the problematic of the Chechen conflict during 1999– 2005. Gilligan made such an attempt, which itself is noteworthy. Regardless of the accentuations made by the author of such a book, it would attract massive discussions just by the fact of its appearance.
This book targeted Western readers and is full of such words as murder, disappearance, torture to capture the atrocities of war. The book’s narrative partly simplifies the complicated task of readers to digest the depicted tragedies.
The book consists of two parts with four chapters each, as well as an introduction and conclusion. Chapter one provides an introduction to the Chechen conflict prior to the second war and then highlights the bombings of the Chechen capital Grozny by Russian forces throughout winter 1999–2000. The author underlines the personal commitment of Putin (then the newly-appointed prime minister) who relaunched the military campaign in the rebel republic to consolidate his position as head of Russia’s new government.
Chapter two documents so-called “sweep operations” (sing.: zachistka) of Russian forces in 2000–2002. Those actions were aimed not at weakening resistance but rather at humiliation and torture of civilians which may, according to the author, be taken as acts of collective punishment. Mistreatment of civilians were, if not an approved military strategy, than rather a tolerated practice of Russian forces reasoned by multi-causal motives.
The third chapter deals with disappearances that took place in Chechnya between 2002 and 2005. These are regarded as the most efficient method for Russian forces to make away with their enemies. Gilligan argues that Russian authorities denied any responsibility for disappearances and tried to present those practices as traditional for Chechen culture. Moreover, the increased involvement of pro-Moscow Chechen forces (lead by the Kadyrov family) in those actions only deepened the suspicions between Chechens themselves, further complicating an already complicated situation.
The subsequent chapter deals with Chechen refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Obstacles for those categories of Chechen civilians to enjoy basic rights (right to asylum, the freedom of movement, etc) as well as violations of domestic and international law by Russian authorities are depicted.
The fifth chapter opens the second part of the book and is devoted to the activities of radical Chechen separatists such as hostage taking (Budennovsk, Kizliar, Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, Beslan). Those endeavours represent cases of grave violations of humanitarian law which negatively contributed to the image of Chechen rebels.
Chapter six portrays the reaction of Russian civil society to what happened in Chechnya. It describes attempts of Russian human rights defenders and journalists (Sergei Kovalev, Anna Politkovskaya, etc.) to draw attention to the Chechen conflict. The author points out the intentions of the (then) President Putin to dominate the country’s civil society, and accusations against human rights movement of being ‘unconstructive’ and not serving Russia’s national interests. Such efforts by Russian authorities to subdue opposition sentiment were rather successful both in creating a negative image of human rights defenders and in the marginalisation of their voices in the eyes of the Russian public.
Chapter seven is concerned with the international dynamics of the Chechen conflict. It describes the reactions of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the US, and emphasises their inefficiency. A failure of the international community to establish war crimes tribunal on Chechnya is just one in a series of examples how it did not manage to overcome the political weight of Russia on the international level.
Chapter eight focuses on several cases submitted by Chechen civilians before the ECHR. The challenges and obstacles erected by Russian authorities, Chechen applicants had to overcome through are meticulously depicted and the issue of national reconciliation between Chechens and Russians is addressed.
In her book Gilligan attempted to describe numerous human rights violations of the second Chechen war emphasising the disproportionate violence and intents of Russian authorities. The book sought to depict the second Chechen war from the perspective of the supremacy of human rights and humanitarian law. This represents a characteristic clash of approaches with the view of the Kremlin over the Chechen conflict that could perfectly fit the formula ‘realpolitik above all.’ This clash raises the question of whether voices like Gilligan’s can be heard in the Kremlin that reasoned its policies by the need to combat “purely internal” terrorism and banditism as well as by necessity to maintain the territorial integrity of the state. Moreover, it is questionable whether the approach of Gilligan’s book may be understood by the majority of Russian society. Since Russian authorities managed to subdue the country’s civil society and marginalise human right activists as not serving Russia’s national interests, it is difficult to believe that ‘pro-Chechen’ voices may gain wide support within Russia. Growing state-sponsored Russian nationalism combined with the outspoken prejudices against Chechens contributes to the creation of growing public opinion that endorses the endeavours of Russian forces during the second Chechen war. As for the Chechens as a society, as Gilligan underlines, they ‘ended up the victim of two political agendas: latent Russian neo-imperialism and Wahhabi extremism.’ This situation, combined with a lack of real reconciliation both within Chechen society and between Chechens and Russians, raises new questions about this region’s future and prospects of its sustainable development within the Russian Federation. But the answers could hardly be found where questions are asked by bullets as it was in the case of the Chechen conflict. Nevertheless, the Chechen conflict, as a research subject, should be more frequently addressed to from the various perspectives. Gilligan’s book is a solid pioneering piece of work in this direction.