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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
[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]
'ends Chechnya operation'," BBC News, April 16, 2009
Copyright © 2002 Eric Margolis - All Rights