What You Should Know About Chechnya as the Boston Story Unfolds

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A policeman keeps watch at the site of a suicide bombing in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on September 16, 2009. (S. Dal/Reuters)

Breaking reports indicate that the alleged perpetrators of the horrific Boston Marathon terrorist attack were born in Chechnya. This Russian-occupied, landlocked Muslim nation of 1.3 million is the center of a Russian war that has taken the lives of more than 200,000 people over the last two decades. It is also one of the world's most poorly understood conflict zones.

On social networking profiles, the Boston bombers reveal themselves as supporters of "Chechen independence." Given the media spotlight that will descend on the region in the next few days, it is absolutely essential to separate the country's three major political groups: Russia's puppet dictatorship, led by Ramzan Kadyrov; the radical Islamist rebellion led by Dokka Umarov; and the legitimate government of Chechnya, headed by the exiled Akhmed Zakayev.

Chechnya has been ripped apart by Russian aggression for centuries. Most notoriously, Stalin deported its entire population to Kazakhstan in 1944. One-fifth of them died in the forced relocation and were only allowed to return after the dictator's death. In 1991, when Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and other former Soviet states proclaimed their independence, so did Chechnya. Russia launched two devastating separatist wars since, the first between 1994 and 1996 and the second since 1999. Several Chechen presidents have been murdered by the Russian government, and in 2007 Zakayev was forced into exile. Moscow installed its autocratic puppet Kadyrov in his place. At the same time, Umarov's Islamist terrorist network proclaimed a "Caucasus Emirate" in Chechnya.

Umarov's rebels claim responsibility for numerous bloody attacks in Moscow and elsewhere. Umarov provides Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and the criminal gang that controls Russia's vast energy resources with a scapegoat villain. Fear works, and in Russia the Chechen people are cast as the perfect enemy: Islamist radicals who celebrate the 9/11 attacks and pay homage to Al Qaeda. In the next few days, the Putin government will point to the Boston bombings as the result of any and all Chechen opposition to Russian rule.

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This has been Putin's game for the past 15 years. After rising to power in 1999 on a promise to crush Chechen separatists, he exploited a series of terrorist attacks known as the "apartment bombings" to bolster his electoral chances. Almost 300 people died in explosions across three Russian cities. The tumultuous attack was purportedly carried out by Chechen rebels. However, a recently published book about the events by a Stanford University academic indicates that the horrific attack was most likely organized and financed by Putin and his henchmen -- to stir up nationalistic fervor, paving the way for the subsequent Russian invasion of Chechnya and cementing his reputation for being "tough on terror."

In the 2000 elections, Putin ran on a successful platform of restoring national pride and identity, and taking back the former colony of Chechnya was a major talking point. Reopening the Chechen conflict gave him the opportunity to play tough, to show strength, and to exercise his military might while voters cheered for a post-Soviet champion. Even President Bush praised Putin's "strong hand" against terrorists in Chechnya.

The result is that the world perceives Chechens as troublesome Islamist terrorists, and is willing to accept the thug-like Kadyrov as a bulwark against extremism.

Not everyone is fooled by Putin's bloody opportunism, however, and a number of Russians knew the truth. Anna Politkovskaya, an internationally celebrated investigative journalist, was one of them. Natalya Estemirova, a human rights activist, was another. They were both assassinated with the preponderance of evidence pointing to the Kremlin. Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB colleague of Putin, also knew the truth, especially the details relating to the apartment bombings. Litvinenko defected to the West and settled in London where he was murdered after Putin apparatchiks poisoned him with Polonium 210, a radioactive chemical.

The goal of these executions? To silence those trying to expose Putin's crimes in Chechnya. Until his dying breath Litvinenko kept warning anyone who would listen: Putin is a criminal and the key to his undoing is his abuses in Chechnya. Putin understands this very well, which is part of the reason why, in Chechnya, he rigs the votes with comedic results, recently winning 99.82 percent of the presidential vote. One Chechen precinct even registered a voter turnout of 107 percent.

Andrei Sakharov's late widow, Elena Bonner, put it plainly: "Chechnya is one great concentration camp." It is looted and occupied by Kadyrov, the warden of Putin's choice, whose security forces operate with such medieval behavior as kidnapping women to rape at their convenience. And Kadyrov is kept in place partly by an international fear of Umarov's terrorism. The majority of Chechens are trapped, prisoners in their own homeland.

The Chechen struggle epitomizes Putin's violence and reflects poorly on Europe, which has not done enough to lend a helping hand. Chechnya may lie outside the political limits of the European family but it is an overwhelmingly European nation. Most Chechens, unlike the family that these two suspects come from (they reportedly took refuge in Kyrgyzstan, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was born), seek refuge in democracies, not in Islamic dictatorships. The Arab League has not once expressed a single concern over Chechnya's Muslim population and what the Russian regime has done to them. Most Chechen diasporans seek freedom, live in free countries, and understand the separation of mosque and state. Their qualities should be in demand, and their struggle is deserving of significant European assistance.

To allow the Boston attacks to cast all Chechens as violent religious zealots is exactly what Putin needs. That will allow him to keep his deadly arrangement going. The supreme irony of Putin's PR strategy is that most Chechens share the democratic values of a Western civilization that completely disregards, and misunderstands, their struggle.

Thor Halvorssen

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation.


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