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Chechnya; again and forever

By Michael Leverone
web posted January 6, 2003

The word Chechnya has become synonymous with suffering, oppression, misery, torture, disappearances, and gruesome death. One's heart cannot but ache at the prevalence of suffering in the region, and with each stinging report of military brutality and terrorist inhumanity that ache receives another pinching reminder. Unfortunately there is a conflict within the conflict occurring in the international press, one of interest, and it's leading to misinterpretations and misguided forecasts towards solution.

As any conflict goes – Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya - there will be an inevitable spread of hawks and apologists. The hawkish personalities, whilst examining the Chechen conflict in particular, have callous tendencies to the plight of the people, and can focus too heavily on those perceived as the antagonists – foreign Islamic militants. Apologists have the inclination to alternately focus solely on Russian crimes, which they rightly assert happen far too regularly. In the end, however, the horrors committed by Chechen militants must remain in proper context with equally gruesome Russian transgressions. It should be accepted that all around Chechnya is a bad place to be right now.

Even still, as a recent editorial in the Chechen Press rightly and recently illustrated, America does have a significant stake in the security of Chechnya. Nuclear materials, flourishing black markets, international blood money, and loose authority make for just the kind of cauldron that will inevitably threaten global security. Many have been dismissive of direct links between al-Qaida and Chechnya – being seen as an American justification for muted responses to Russian crimes – but as the world must challenge the tide of fanatical Islam in all its incantations, so too must its ugly face in Chechnya be met honestly.

This interest has nevertheless been widely disregarded in press coverage, and has instead both produced and amplified – knowingly or otherwise – a series of misconceptions and misrepresentations of the conflict. This partiality, or unawareness, is clearly a symptom of what is known as the story line temptation, and while state run media outlets are most often guilty of this offense for carrying ‘official lines,' the independent media is increasingly guilty of an equally destructive sin. It's the tendency for any news organization to depend heavily on an established story line; some recurrent aspect of an event through which to frame breaking news as it occurs.

This benign sounding practice may seem harmless, but as past indicators show it can lead to disastrous outcomes when these storylines expire but the media fails to recognize it fully.

Jim Lederman, a journalist who covered the original Intifada in Israel describes this temptation in his book Battle Lines: The American Media and the Intifada. In the book he describes how the media machines throughout the world have become increasingly dependant on a fixed story line to present news quickly. Since a four or five minute television report or an 800 word article cannot thoroughly explain context there is natural pressure to rely on established story lines to make for efficient reporting. Too often editors and managers are too pressed for time for thorough research, and as the days pass and correspondents alternate an established story line – effectively one that is stated over and over – sinks into the very fabric of how events are framed.

In Lederman's sole example in Israel, he demonstrated that the established story line misconstrued the whole situation and led to agreements that were doomed to fail from the beginning.

"The apparent Unity of the uprising's leaders, who came from a number of Palestinian factions, also served to befuddle things. This social revolution was not a clash between factions or classes or religions, places where journalists had been taught in the past to look for causes of violence in the Middle East. It was between generations within the same class, or the same religion." [p.18]

The international media, pressed for time and reeling in newfound competition, turned to the ‘land dispute' angle that had been established following the many wars fought between Muslims and Jews in the region. It was a means to describe what was occurring, and this led to terrible miscalculations on the part of the international community, the worst of which led to the Oslo Accords. Since the international community believed that the conflict was another land dispute, one in which Yassir Arafat could be credited as representing Palestinian demands, the international community advocated a solution in accordance with that assumption. As a result, we find ourselves mired in violence again because a workable solution – one based on an accurate picture of the details – was not sought when trouble began.

Coverage of the Chechen conflict has been shrouded in these same kinds of editorial missteps. There is a basic story line stapled to the conflict, which at one time was true, but as the situation has evolved the international community has stubbornly refused to change in turn. The international press, through covering social upheavals and the military response in the Soviet Union, has adopted a fixed approach to reporting unrest in former states of the USSR. When Chechnya first declared independence in 1994, and Boris Yeltsin sent the tanks to quell the rebellion, that story line was accurate; Yeltsin sought to subvert the population of Chechnya. Yeltsin's move was imperial, and as such the international press was right to report it in that context.

Developments over just the last few years, however, have significantly altered that reality. An influx of foreign extremists, fully acknowledged but scantily appreciated in the press, have created a new necessity in settling the region. Even the first negotiated settlement with Chechen officials, instigated after Yeltsin's disastrous military campaign, served as proof that the ‘established' government of Chechnya couldn't hold steady to the growing influence of foreign extremists. The settlement established in 1996 was useless because the Chechen participants were no longer holding the reigns of power. Extremists had bought there way into control, and even as the second Chechen war began in response to terrorist attacks the story was still conveyed the same as always.

Rescue workers pass by a crater near to the administration building in the Chechen capital Grozny on December 27
Rescue workers pass by a crater near to the administration building in the Chechen capital Grozny on December 27

Coverage of Friday's bombing in Chechnya proves that the misguiding story line is still in use.

The Guardian reported in coverage of the Grozny bombing that "The Russian government has insisted that Chechnya is returning to normal, and that the military campaign there is nearly complete. But the rebels have continued to unleash small-scale attacks on Russian troops and Chechens perceived to be collaborating with them, as well as the occasional larger explosion of military trucks, police stations and other symbols of Russian authority.

The facts preceding this quote are accurate, but this snippet shows the partiality towards old story proclivity. Mounds of evidence show that the Chechen people want nothing to do with these extremists and these attacks, which demonstrates that some other force is behind these attacks, in which case the military stage is winding down and what remains is indeed police work, and not of a military nature. Implying that the military phase is still ongoing assumes that these attacks occur on behalf of Chechen nationalistic aspirations, which they clearly are not.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) supports this claim; reporting that overall the Chechen people fear Islamic militants as much as, or more than the Russians. The IWPR reported that "some 30 prominent religious figures and upwards of 200 regional and local government officials have died at the hands of Islamic militants in the republic," in the last three years of fighting. The foreign militants are attempting to clear out all remnants of Chechnya's historically moderate practice of Islam, tribal and familial power structures, and desire to live peacefully whether under independent or Russian rule. This trend illustrates that while Islamic militants purport to fight for Chechen independence they actually seek to subvert it. As an unnamed deputy governor in a Chechen municipality recently stated, "as far as they are concerned, we are all traitors, or kafir [Arabic for apostate]."

Chechen militants found in Afghanistan, Arab militants found in Chechnya, terrorist recruiting tapes featuring the ‘mujehedeen' operating in the region, characters such as Khattab (a close associate of Osama bin Laden) killed by Russian special forces in the area, the militant takeover of Grozny in 1996, hostage taking in Dagestan, and still little acknowledgement in the mainstream media that perhaps the situation is a bit more complicated than Russians v Chechens. Then when people read ‘[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has skillfully presented the military campaign as a counter-terrorist operation' from the BBC they are led to believe the presentation as a manipulation, which simply isn't true.

This continued implication that Russia's imperial arm is at work has strong influence around the world; principally in the Mideast, Europe, and Turkey. As such, Russia has - deservedly - come under considerable pressure to end the conflict, but the inaccurate representations have produced calls for the wrong solutions.

The UN, Europe, and Mideast have prescribed the ‘peace through negotiation' since 1994; when the first Russo-Chechen war began. After two years of war President Boris Yeltsin did so; probably realizing that he shouldn't have started it in the first place. The negotiations led to a full Russian withdrawal, which allowed extremists the free reign to brutally oppress the Chechen people, set up transit routes for drugs and weapons, and embolden groups of terrorists to invade other regions of Southern Russia. The premature settlement, founded on wholly inaccurate understandings, made way for continuing tension and misery in the region.

A clear indication of this problem came when relations between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and President Putin came to a boil over militants hiding out in Northeastern Georgia and staging attacks within Chechnya. Shevardnadze's position was that Russia's unnecessary war in Chechnya was causing a flood of refugees into his country and destabilizing the security situation. He denied accountability for the security lapses at the border, called for the cessation of Russian pursuits within Georgia, and if it weren't for American troops providing logistical support he would still be impotent against the militants that were known to be hiding in his country.

Ultimately he knew the UN would back his stand because they too see the Chechen conflict as one of independence and therefore an unnecessary exercise of imperial aspiration. This put Russian forces at a major disadvantage in pursuing militants, who could hide in Georgia and protract the conflict by launching attacks across the border. Had it not been for American military assistance to his rag-tag army, Shevardnadze might still be thumbing his nose to the Russians while terrorists exploited the base his country was providing.

All in all the coverage of events in Chechnya has been surprisingly good, with the Russian military attempting to keep the press out of the region it is quite encouraging that brave journalists and correspondents are able to report the goings on and keep the story alive in the global conscience. Chechnya is a travesty, in all manners of the word, and without the noble pursuit of these men and women the Chechen people might have slipped from the international spotlight long ago. This nobility, however, must be matched by editors and managers of major international news networks. That as their field reporters strive everyday to bring truth to the world, they too must do everything they can to convey that truth in an accurate context.

Chechnya has come to embody the very worst of what the human soul is capable. Russians are destroying any hope of maintaining order in the region, and foreign extremists forego humanity in advocating relentless violence directed at all who oppose Islamist domination. The international press must do what it can to accurately portray this conflict, no matter how difficult it may be to stray dangerously close to considering government positions as truths, and even if it takes an extra minute to convey a complicated situation for what it is. Anything less cheats the world of valuable perspective and in the end only prolongs the misery of long suffering people who deserve a chance to live safe and fulfilling lives.

Michael Leverone is a junior at American University. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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