Monday, February 27, 2006

Chechnya - Bloody Harvest

Sun was shining over the freshly harvested fields. Was this really Chechnya, the reign of terror that he had heard so much about? Thoughts of the idyllic picture before his eyes were interrupted by his Chechen companion's comment: "It's the new cluster bombs. Their razor-sharp projectiles shave the face of the earth clean."

This story of a western journalist, travelling through Chechnya a few years back, serves to illustrate how difficult it is to comprehend the infathomable realities of daily life in this war-ridden country.

Only today, Sveriges Radio (Swedish State Radio) reports on a mysterious illness that has struck the population - mostly children - of Chelkovskaya, a village some 70 kilometres from Grozny. Symptoms with difficulties breathing and stomach-pains have led the local population to assume that the illness is caused by Russian troops dumping nerve gas or some other poison near the village. Russian authorities, however, claim that symptoms are wholly psychosomatic, and that there is no ground for the dumping allegations.

Last Friday, UN Human Rights Commissioner, Louise Arbour, said that there is "a climate of fear" in Chechnya, caused by the "very serious shortcomings of the law enforcement system," BBC reports. The area "has still not been able to move away from a society ruled by force to one governed by the rule of law," according to Arbour. Having finished a week-long trip to Russia and the Northern Caucasus, Arbour met with president Putin to discuss human rights issues. It is not hard to imagine that the two - despite diplomatic decorum - had difficulties sharing a common view on the situation.

Needless to say, regular talks on and visits to Chechnya, by representatives of the international community, are important to highlight the situation in the republic. The question is to what extent they help to lay the foundations of peaceful conflict resolution and reconstruction of Chechen society. Not even the Russian government seems able to grasp the situation in full - blinded by their "war on terror" and society's rampant racist sentiments towards Chechens. Also, it seems unlikely that the West will grasp realities and act on them for a true change of the situation. Regrettably, it is safe to assume that - also this year - the only harvesting the Chechen people will see, is that of the great reaper.


Andreas Ribbefjord said...

First, thanks Vilhelm for your well informed and interesting postings.

Quite unlike today's western democracies, Russia has a tradition in which the individual is secondary to state benefit. The rights of the individual toward government is a largely unexplored area.

I'm not saying there's no warmth in Russian society, that people don't care about eachother. It's just that in Russia, you're a brick in a larger construction. You're dispensable. I'm still waiting for the concept of human rights to have its breaktrough in Russian.

In the larger picture, the desparation and suffering in Chechnya is the Russian government's ugliest face. But I wouldn't reduce it to a simple question of tradition and mindset; Of course government officials, military servicemen and police have been formed by the climate of corruption, poverty, a lack of rule of law et cetera, in which they live and try to make a living.

A long walk still remains for Russia toward respect for human life. Until then, I wouldn't be surprised if army servicemen dumped drums of toxic gas outside a village in -- say -- some morbid act of vengence. I wouldn't be surprised if the FSB knew all about it. I wouldn't be surprised if the Kremlin and chiefs of staff had been briefed and did nothing.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Andreas,

First, thank you for your kind words concerning my postings. I blush with pride.

As for your comment, I agree with much that you write.

Concerning Russian society, references to Churchills' saying that Russia "is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" abound, not least when faced with its many apparent paradoxes.

Without laying claim to be right in any way, I often take "turning society around" as my starting point. What does this mean then?

As we analyse western societies in a liberal tradition by top-down or bottom-up vertical perspectives, I often tend to end up on the horizontal perspective when starting out with analyses of Russia.

The reason is simple: Russian society has never induced the people to pay any sincere allegiance to a state or sovereign. The concept of a social contract has not been brougth to bear on Russian society. The obvious example is the lack of the traditional trade-off between the state's monopoly on violence in exchange for protection of the people.

What alternative has there been to Russians, but to organise horizontally - to rely on friends, contacts, and acquaintances for your survival, when the state - or society in our eyes - neither can nor will safeguard your existence.

In this perspective, whatever happens with those outside your own circle of reliance, is of minor importance to you. Au contraire, loyalty to your world - mir - in the "village" may be borderless.

Making such a very simplified ontological assumption, might explain some part of why the "state" - fragmented or as a whole - acts as it does, and also - epistemologically - how distribution of information or disinformation to rulers as well as ruled works.

I should perhaps stop here before becoming totally engulfed in academia, and suffice to say that humanity in Russia does not differ from humanity elsewhere. Its directions and expression may, however, not always be the same.