Russia’s war in separatist Chechnya is one of the world’s most visible conflicts involving Muslims. Yet support from Muslim countries for the breakaway republic is virtually nonexistent. A number of Arab nations — including, most recently, Iraq, which condemned the actions of “terrorists” in Chechnya — have steered clear of the issue or come down on the side of Russia. Ultimately, the Chechen separatist movement finds its most compassionate supporters among Western human rights groups and the European Union. Why are Muslim leaders refusing to condemn Russia’s war in Chechnya?
Prague, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) — Last week, Iraq expressed support for Russia’s continued military campaign against separatists in the predominantly Muslim breakaway republic of Chechnya. The country’s ambassador to Russia, Abbas Khalaf, said “Chechen terrorists do damage to the Russian Federation, and Iraq is not interested in a weak Russia.”
Such comments might reflect Baghdad’s desire to win Russian support in its own standoff with the United States over its alleged weapons of mass destruction. But Iraq is not the only Muslim nation to avoid a condemnation of Russia’s alleged atrocities in its war in Chechnya. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Libya have all refrained from airing any negative views regarding the war.
The relative silence from the Muslim world comes in contrast to the outspoken criticism of Russian actions by a number of political bodies in the West — most notably, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the European Parliament, and a number of Western and human-rights organizations.
Russia has repeatedly been accused of rampant rights violations during the course of both its wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-present) over the past decade.
Aslambek Aslakhanov is Chechnya’s only elected lawmaker in the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament). In an interview with RFE/RL he says official concern among Muslim nations over the war in Chechnya appears to be nonexistent.
“I have never heard of [Muslim countries] saying something official on this topic — for instance, saying that killings of civilians should be stopped, that there is a need to relieve the suffering of the civilian population, [not to let them suffer] the way they suffer now.”
Aslakhanov says the official silence is a marked change from the active political support many Muslim countries offered Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s and routinely offer Palestinians today. He mentions several possible explanations for why this may be so.
“I think [the governments] of the Muslim countries have twisted information about the situation in the Chechen Republic — an insufficient amount of information on which to make decisions. And maybe many Muslim countries do not want to worsen relations with the Russian Federation and are not looking to intrude on Russia’s internal issues.”
Nicolas Redman of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London agrees. He tells RFE/RL that Muslim countries remain aligned with Russia, despite the fact that Russia’s influence in the world has diminished.
“Despite its diminished diplomatic weight, Russia is still quite an influential actor in the Middle East — most recently with regard to oil, where Russia now has level pegging with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer. And more traditionally in the field of arms, [Russia] is still a major supplier to many Middle Eastern states.”
But beyond the official stance of Muslim governments, Redman says, stronger support for the Chechen cause can be found in the “Arab street” — sometimes from radical Islamic groups who are considered a threat to their own countries’ ruling regimes.
Thomas de Waal works for the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has authored several books on the North Caucasus. He says Muslim countries are not susceptible to concerns about human rights violations in Chechnya the way many Western organizations are.
De Waal adds he was struck by the voting on the Chechnya issue during last year’s annual session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
“Basically all the European countries voted to condemn Russia,” he says, “And all the Islamic countries voted in favor of Russia.”
Chechen separatists, meanwhile, say there is little they can do to gain the support and compassion of the world’s Muslim governments. Illyas Akhmadov is minister of foreign affairs in the separatist government of President Aslan Maskhadov. He says Chechen separatists have routinely appealed to Muslim organizations and governments for help — both now and during Russia’s earlier campaign — but with no results.
“[We asked for help but got] absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing. All this talk about large amounts of money and financial flows allegedly coming to [Chechnya] is complete garbage. Officially, throughout [Russia’s] two military campaigns, not a single government of a single Arabic country said anything — no compassion, not even a little concern — about the events in Chechnya.”
Akhmadov says the Chechen conflict has received far greater support from Western human right groups and pan-European political bodies.
Late last month (29 January), PACE passed a resolution warning that Russia did not have sufficient time to create the “necessary conditions” for its scheduled 23 March constitutional referendum in Chechnya. The resolution also calls on Moscow to seek a peaceful, political solution in Chechnya.
Around that time, a PACE delegation visited Chechnya and said Russian authorities are failing to investigate allegations of Russian forces participating in human rights abuses, massacres, and mysterious disappearances in the breakaway republic.
In a separate development last month, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights issued a statement saying that Chechen civilians continue to be abducted, beaten, and killed by Russian security forces.
Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.