Obama on Russia: Ignorant, or simply Cowardly?

Celestine Bohlen of Bloomberg News, writing in the New York Times:

Russia is still getting away with murder.

On Tuesday, two more bodies of human rights workers were found in the southern republic of Chechnya, this time in the trunk of a car.

This comes less than a month after the shocking death of Natalya Estemirova, a 50-year-old human-rights campaigner whose body was dumped by the side of a road. She had been shot several times — at least once in the head, which is the signature for the killers who have been methodically eliminating critics and rivals of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya.

Once again, Mr. Kadyrov, who is just 32, has mocked both his accusers and the victims. “Why should Kadyrov kill a woman who was useful to no one?” he scoffed when asked by Radio Free Europe about allegations that he was responsible for Ms. Estemirova’s death. “She was devoid of honor, merit and conscience.”

Even more chilling was the silence that fell across a Grozny street at 8:30 on the morning of July 15 when Ms. Estemirova was forced into a small white car. Witnesses heard her scream out that she was being kidnapped, but no one would give details, the license plate number or any descriptions of the driver.

That speaks volumes. Terror breeds fear, which produces the silence that Ms. Estemirova dealt with daily, as she tried to help victims of kidnappings, house burnings, extortion, torture, extrajudicial executions and other crimes.

Her success in getting people to talk is why she was killed: Even President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia said as much, to the surprise of many. “She was doing a very useful job,” he said. “She spoke the truth.”

The Mafia in Sicily thrives on omertà; Russia, on a state level, is tolerating something similar in Chechnya. There is no reason Western leaders should stay quiet about the reign of terror gripping the region, with the Kremlin’s implicit blessing.

Most human-rights observers lay the blame for this wave of violence on Mr. Kadyrov, whose control over the Chechen Republic and its wealth are unchallenged. Whether he is the mastermind of the killings — he denies any responsibility — the fact is that criminals, including those in uniform, act with impunity in his republic.

The key to young Mr. Kadyrov’s unstoppable power is the Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, who ceded control of the republic first to Mr. Kadyrov’s father, and then to him, in return for their help in quashing a separatist rebellion. According to a joke that makes the rounds in the Caucasus republic, if Mr. Putin were to wake up 15 minutes later than usual one day, Mr. Kadyrov’s corpse would already be going cold.

The paradox is that Mr. Putin has succeeded in creating exactly what his predecessor Boris Yeltsin first went to war in Chechnya in 1994 to prevent: a lawless quasi-autonomous region run by a gangland-style warlord who rules through a manipulation of clan rivalries, vendettas and elements of Islamic Shariah law.

Ms. Estemirova was not the first human-rights campaigner killed because of his work in Chechnya. In January, a human-rights lawyer and a young journalist, who both worked on Chechen cases, were gunned down on a Moscow street. And then there was Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist who had also investigated abuses in Chechnya, killed in October 2006 by a bullet to her face, as she was bringing home groceries.

These murders produced an international outcry, but little more. So far, justice hasn’t caught up with the killers, or at least those who ordered the hits.

Now, the bodies of Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Djabrailov, who worked with an organization that helped young people in Chechnya, have been discovered in the trunk of their car in Grozny, after the human rights group Memorial reported they had been kidnapped.

Why aren’t Western governments doing more to hold Moscow accountable? Instead of letting the Kremlin off the hook, they could shame Russia into stopping the murders and jailing the killers. President Medvedev’s outraged comments — rare for a Kremlin leader — may prove to be the crack in the omertà in the Putin-Kadyrov regime. He could be held to his promise of an uncompromising investigation into Ms. Estemirova’s death.

In the past, the West has chosen to mute its criticism of Russia’s Chechen wars. In 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States government accepted Russia’s help in Afghanistan, in return for overlooking brutal tactics in what Moscow described as its own war on terror in Chechnya.

There should be no excuses this time. Ms. Estemirova, like Ms. Politkovskaya, and the other felled human rights campaigners, were a threat only to those who killed her.

Telling the truth should never be that dangerous.

13 responses to “Obama on Russia: Ignorant, or simply Cowardly?

  1. Ignorant, or simply Cowardly?

    – Eh, I think both… :(

  2. @what his predecessor Boris Yeltsin first went to war in Chechnya in 1994 to prevent

    Yeltsin and his drinking buddies (like Korzhakov and Grachev) just needed A Little Victorious War for themselves.

  3. @President Medvedev’s outraged comments — rare for a Kremlin leader — may prove to be the crack in the omertà in the Putin-Kadyrov regime.

    Celestine Bohlen needs a reality check. What “outraged comments”? The outrage at the “unacceptable and primitive” Memorial’s suggestions of Kadyrov’s involvement?

  4. Just a question based from sincere ignorance. I hear this comment frequently, “In 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States government accepted Russia’s help in Afghanistan, in return for overlooking brutal tactics in what Moscow described as its own war on terror in Chechnya.” Does anyone have source material for this? I only hear this conclusion and have never seen any evidence backing it up. Most of what I read are leaps of assumption. While Bush didn’t spend huge amounts of time condemning Putin’s actions in Chechnya, he did promote peaceful solutions to the problem from time to time. Hardly a carte-blanche permission in my mind.

    Keep in mind that formal proof of the statement and what actually happened can be two different things. Just because the U.S. didn’t push with full force against Russia’s actions in Chechnya doesn’t necessarily mean they cut a deal. Most of the articles I find are reporting Bush’s statements against Russia’s behavior in Chechnya.

    If I’m way off base, I’m sure someone will tell me. No worries there. :) Still, it all seems a little strange to me, just like the legend of Albright saying that the U.S. wants to break up Russia into pieces and take over its oil. Assumptions have a way of creating a life of their own, so I’d like to see what facts are available. And by the way, this is not an exclusively a Russian talking point so my question is not necessarily a Russophobe-inspired inquiry. The article above plainly reveals that this idea is widespread.

    Okay everyone, blast away…

    • Well, for example:

      (China’s People’s Daily) Chechnya is Russia’s Internal Affair: Bush

      “…. Bush also gave a full backing to the Russian leadership in dealing with last month’s deadly hostage-taking crisis in a Moscowtheater.

      A total of 128 hostages died as Russian special forces stormed the theater seized by some 50 armed Chechen terrorists, using gas to incapacitate the explosive-attached attackers.

      A national leader must act firmly when terrorists kill civilians. Vladimir Putin was in a dire situation, and the terrorists threatened to kill 800 people, Bush said. He stressed that Putin did whatever he possibly could to save lives.

      Some people place the blame for what happened on Russia, while it is the terrorists who must pay for what they have done, Bush said.”

      • I’ll add the explosives were fake, but in any case they had plenty time to just open fire.

        Instead, terrorists told hostages to take cover (behind the seats) and to protect themselves from gas.

        Just one panicked female tried to detonate her bomb, but couldn’t, because it wasn’t real.

        But even before the 9/11 attacks:

        Bush Woos Putin but Ignores Chechnya

        Insight on the News, August 27, 2001 by Jamie Dettmer

        Exactly what kind of behind-the-scenes understanding is developing between President George W. Bush and Russian leader Vladimir Putin as they head tentatively toward possible negotiations on altering the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty? Has Chechnya been thrown into the mix, and is that why there has been complete silence from the Bush administration about widespread Russian human-rights violations taking place in the rebel republic — violations that constitute “genocide,” according to some Russian critics of the war?

        On Capitol Hill and on the diplomatic circuit in Washington those questions are being asked with mounting urgency as lawmakers here and governments overseas try to make sense of the two meetings Bush and Putin have had so far and what those face-to-face encounters may herald for future U.S.-Russian relations.

        Mixed public signals from Moscow and, to a lesser extent, from the Bush administration make the deciphering process more difficult — diplomacy at this level and at such an early juncture in an apparent major policy shift is as much about nuances and the unsaid as about the declared and concrete.


        But noticeable on both occasions — before, during and after the meetings — was the lack of any reference by the U.S. president to events in Chechnya. That wasn’t highlighted in media reports or commentary. Diplomats here in Washington, though, believe the U.S. silence on Chechnya is significant and linked with the ongoing administration effort to persuade Putin to at least negotiate on ABM changes.

        Bush has shown remarkable discipline in ignoring Russia’s increasingly brutal campaign against separatists in the rebel republic — a campaign dubbed by Yelena Bonner, widow of the Nobel Prize-winning human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov, as the “political genocide of the Chechen people.”

        Since becoming president, in fact, Bush has made absolutely no public comment on Chechnya — suggesting that from the get-go the new administration was trying to engage the Russians in serious discussions about missile defenses.

        “Is there some linkage?” queried a veteran foreign diplomat in Washington. “Nothing has to be written down or said, but the unsaid suggests there is. The administration also has been keen to downplay the new Russia/ China pact.”

        The effect, of course, is to give the Russian military a green light for revenge in Chechnya and to provide Putin with a handy argument when discussing with his military whether to engage with the Americans. “One can almost hear him saying to them,” a European diplomat tells Insight, “`Look, I’ve got the West off your backs in Chechnya.'”

        • Chechen women seek Bush’s ear on untold bloodshed

          WASHINGTON, Apr 30 (Reuters)- Chechen human rights workers visiting Washington has urged that the conflict in their homeland should be on the agenda at next month’s US-Russia summit, saying their people’s suffering was being forgotten amid the focus on Middle East and the US war on terrorism.

          “The world is interested first of all in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then in problems linked to the war in Afghanistan. To put it bluntly, Chechnya is not in fashion,” said Eliza Moussayeva said yesterday, who runs the regional office of memorial, a Russian human rights group, near Chechnya.

          “Every day, we suffer torture, beatings and humiliation,” she added in an interview as she recounted stories about Russian forces killing Chechen civilians as they tried to crush Muslim separatist guerrillas in a 1994-1996 war and in a second conflict that began in September 1999.

          Backed by Amnesty International, Moussayeva and 31-year-old Bela Tsugayeva, who also works for a non-Government group in the north Caucasus region of Ingushetia, came to America on April 18 to visit officials, lawmakers and students.

          They want to revive interest in a conflict that has fallen off the world’s priority list, Moussayeva said.

          In West Asia East conflict, at least 1,325 Palestinians and 458 Israelis had been killed since Sept. 2000. By contrast in Chechnya, tens of thousands of civilians were widely reported to have been killed in 1994-1996.

          Statistics on the death toll in the second conflict are impossible to verify, but rights groups put them in the thousands. The Russian Army puts its death toll in the second conflict at 3,000. Moussayeva said that media accounts alone showed 1,500 Chechens had been killed.

          More reliable data are available on the refugee crisis. An estimated 150,000 people have fled and another 160,000 have been displaced internally in the second conflict. Hundreds of thousands also fled in the first conflict, though there was a period of relative calm in between where they could return. September 11 initially boosted hopes of ordinary Chechens that the conflict would end, Moussayeva said. Russian President Vladimir Putin, pressured by the United States as bilateral relations improved with a shared focus on fighting terrorism, announced an interest in political negotiations. But that came to nothing.

          The result is that Russian liberals and Chechens believe that September 11 freed Putin to do whatever he liked, Moussayeva said.

          “Everyone who understands, every democrat in Russia, every Chechen in Chechnya, knows that after September 11, the Russian leadership’s hands were untied,” Moussayeva said.

          “If there was some pressure or influence from the west before, the Russian leadership has now turned the war in Chechnya into a war on terrorism,” she added.

          Maureen greenwood of Amnesty International said the women would meet Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky on Tuesday.

          Their goal is to get President George W Bush to demand a list of the names of an estimated 1,200-2,000 disappeared people when he meets Putin in Russia next month, and details of investigations into alleged atrocities by Russian forces.

          A key case, greenwood said, is the trial of a Russian colonel accused of raping and killing an 18-year-old girl in March 2000. His defense says he suffered temporary insanity, meaning he may only go to prison for three years, she said.

          They also want the Chechen border to be opened to journalists and an end to torture, and rules of warfare to be followed by the Russians.

          Moussayeva and Tsugayeva, both university graduates, are themselves victims of the conflict having fled their home town Grozny, all but flattened in Russian bombing.

          “The worst thing is never knowing if you will go home,” Moussayeva said.

    • Howard,

      You are absolutely right. Given that USA is so vehement that the territorial integrity of Georgia is sacred, I can see how people like you were ecstatic about violating the would territorial integrity of Serbia, and I can feel your pain that USA didn’t do enough to violate territorial integrity of Russia vis-à-vis Chechnya. :-) :-(

  5. Ignorant AND Cowardly. (He is far too busy dealing with disagreeable citizens who won’t buy his snake oil.)

  6. About the Obamanator:
    Why should he care about, alive, Russian dissidents residing in Russia…..they can’t vote the Democrat ticket at the next election! …and now that many are dead, they are especially useless.
    At any rate such troublemakers only rock his boat.
    Remember! we all are supposed to believe that all the world loves us!…..well, at least NOW since our new messiah took over. Putler is our friend! (?) Reminds me of the old saying: “All is not always as it seems”.
    With the Socialist-Democrat-Obama gang in power in Washington, and with all the airheaded ‘blue’ Americans STILL worshipping them, ….we can all sure rest easy! (?)
    Beam me up, Scotty!

  7. As long as there are no rightwing nut jobs in the Kremlin, Obama will be buddy buddy with the General Secretary.

  8. With Clinton equating electoral corruption and chaos in Nigeria with US elections in 2000 – I say (to the question in the title), complicit

  9. A few years back , perhaps four or five , I ,
    happened to catch an extremely interesting
    and informative program , that I believe was
    aired by Feedom House . The guest speaker was non other than the widow of A. Sakharov , Elena
    Bonner . I must say , that I was extremely
    impressed by her inteligence , her compassion
    and her courage , as she related the numerous
    criminal acts of cruelty , perpetrated on the
    Chechen people in the name of ” war ” . This
    program was aired just on the eve of Bush
    hosting Putin his ” soulmate Wladimir ” , at his
    Texas ranch . Among the many things that
    Ms. Bonner tried to inform Americans about ,
    in a completely frank warning , was not to trust
    Russia and it’s leadership , nomatter how sincere
    and friendly they make themselves appear .
    Among some examples of russian warfare
    tactics and their ” heroizm ” , she mentioned ;
    herding people , mostly women , children and
    older people , unto corrugated metal sheets ,
    like the ones used to cover roofs , and letting
    them stand in the hot sun all day ( it gets 95 +* )
    surrounded by ” heroes ” with automatic
    weapons , until they start dying of dehydration
    and exhaustion . Another favorite tactic used
    by these ” brave ” russians , was to surround a
    school , full of children , lock all doors from the outside and lob in granades through the windows.
    As far as I know , the program was aired once ,
    because I could never find it again . The whole
    event was sponsored by non other than cong-
    ressman Frank Wilson , the one of movie fame ,
    who concurred very emphatically with Bonner ,
    saying that he just returned from trip to Chechnia , to witness things first hand . A great,
    unforgetable program .

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