Release Date: February 21, 2002
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

'The Hiroshima of the Caucasus'

by Eric Margolis

LOS ANGELES - Does any of this sound familiar? In September 1999, four apartment buildings, two in Moscow and two in other Russian cities, were blown up, killing over 300 people, wounding hundreds more. Panic and outrage spread across Russia.

Russian authorities immediately blamed the Chechen. A tiny but fierce Muslim people of the Caucasus, Chechens had battled brutal Russian colonial rule for 250 years, surviving even mass deportation by Stalin to Siberian concentration camps. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechens declared independence. Russia forces invaded Chechnya in 1994 and laid it to waste before being driven out two years later by Chechen mujihadin.

In 1999, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer and point man for Russia's military industrial complex, emerged form the shadows to become prime minister under ailing President Boris Yeltsin. Putin claimed the bombings were the work of Chechen `Islamic terrorists financed by Osama bin Laden,' though he offered no proof.

Putin promised to `liquidate all terrorists.' He proclaimed Russia was facing a war between `good' and `evil.' `It's our boys,' said Putin, fanning war fever and hysteria, `against terrorists' belonging to an `international Islamic conspiracy.' Putin's alleged evidence of Chechen guilt was never forthcoming. Chechen leaders denied any responsibility for the bombings. Why they would seek war with Russia after gaining independence was never explained. Thousands of `swarthy-looking'(meaning Muslim) men from the Caucasus and Central Asia were arrested, brutally interrogated, and held without charges.

After a mysterious incursion into Dagestan by a small number of Chechen and Dagestani mujihadin, Putin ordered the Russian Army to invade independent Chechnya, calling it a `nest of Islamic terrorists.' Russian forces massively bombed and shelled the capital, Grozny, already shattered by the 1994-1996 war in which an estimated 100,000 Chechen civilians were killed by Russian forces. Grozny, in the words of a Russian journalist, was turned into `the Hiroshima of the Caucasus.'

Today, Russian forces are continuing their repression of the ferociously resisting Chechens. Russia's intensive bombing and shelling have killed 57,000 more civilians and made 200,000 refugees, say Chechen officials. Human rights organizations accuse Russian forces in Chechnya of ubiquitous brutality: mass murders and reprisals, arson, looting, torture, running concentration camps. Moscow rejects all such criticism, saying that rough methods are justified against `terrorists.'

The bloody war has become a shadowy, murky struggle, combining a fight for independence with gang warfare by both sides. Russian journalists who reported on Moscow's crimes in the Caucasus were threatened with death, rape, or kidnapping. The exiled Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya told me the Russian government even sells remains of its soldiers killed in Chechnya back to their families.

In late 1999, I wrote that the apartment bombings were a pretext to invade Chechnya and were likely a provocation staged by the Russian security service, FSB(successor to KGB).

The Kremlin kept insisting `Islamic terrorists' did the bombings. A few months later, a wildly popular Putin, whose approval ratings hit 80%, was swept into the presidency of Russia on a wave of patriotic fervor, jingoism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim hysteria.

Then, in late 1999, after the four bombings, FSB agents were caught red-handed planting a large bomb in the basement of an apartment building in the city of Ryazan. Local police were called and arrested the FSB agents - until they revealed their identity. After press reports, particularly from media owned by Berezovsky, the FSB lamely claimed they had been running a `security test' to check preparedness. The bags of `explosives' they were planting actually contained sugar, claimed FSB. However, the Ryazan police reported the bags contained `explosive substances.' The local police were overruled, the Russian press intimidated into silence, or compelled to toe the government line, and the matter was hushed up.

Now, a Russian historian and former KGB-FSB officer have written a book in which they claim the FSB - not Chechen - planted the bombs to justify a second Russian invasion of breakaway Chechnya. Recently, exiled Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, a bitter foe of Putin who has long maintained close contacts with Chechen leaders, claims he will soon reveal evidence the FSB was indeed behind the bombings.

Before 9/11, the US and EU had criticized Russia for massive human rights violations in Chechnya. But once Washington need Russian support for its invasion of Afghanistan - and the Russians cleverly told Bush the Chechen were `linked to Osama bin Laden' - the White House abruptly re-branded the Chechen national resistance - hitherto described as `freedom fighters' - as `Islamic terrorists.'

President Bush proclaimed a joint US-Russian `war against Islamic terrorism' and sanctioned Russia's savage repression in the Caucasus. The EU dutifully fell into line. The FSB whispered to CIA that Afghanistan was filled with Chechen `terrorists' trained and financed by bin Laden, though, in fact, there were only handful there who had come for military training or medical care. The Bush Administration shut down all Chechen web sites on the internet and halted fund raising to assist the beleaguered Chechen people. America, once the champion of democracy and freedom, had come down squarely on the side of reaction and repression.

All in all, a remarkable, intriguing, and quite sinister series of occurrences.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and author of War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in The Economist, May 13, 2000]

"Russia 'ends Chechnya operation'," BBC News, April 16, 2009

Copyright © 2002 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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