The West should not repeat past mistakes in its policy toward Russia's ongoing conflict in Chechnya. Russian air strikes in Chechnya, now a week old, have raised fears of a ground invasion and a repeat of the catastrophic 1994-1996 war, which cost thousands of civilian lives.
In 1994, the Clinton administration called the Chechen war, and the aerial bombardments, an "internal matter" for Russia. "The Clinton administration was slow to react to the carnage," declared Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "But much worse, Russia was never called to account for that massively abusive war. Instead, the international community heaped benefits on Russia during and after the war, because it wanted to keep President Yeltsin in power."
Since the new bombardments began, Western governments, including the Clinton administration, expressed some concern, but Human Rights Watch charged that in the past, concern did not translate into action.
In the spring of 1995, several months after the bombardments, the IMF released a $6.2 billion tranche of a massive loan to Russia, after Moscow gained the strategic advantage in its breakaway republic. That summer, the European Union also granted Russia its version of most favored nation trading status. In January 1996, as the Russians were leveling the village of Pervomaskoe, held by Chechen rebels, the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization for the promotion of democracy and human rights, voted to admit Russia, abrogating its own human rights policies.
"For the past few years, western governments have done much to advance the notion of international justice, supporting tribunals on crimes against humanity, war crimes and the like, commented Ms. Cartner. "But their vision is obviously selective. How can we talk about justice in Russia if the international community doesn't stop essentially rewarding massive attacks on noncombatants?"
The 1994-1996 war in Chechnya killed almost 100,000 people, most of them civilians. According to official figures, between 25,000-29,000 civilians in the capital of Grozny between December 1994 and March 1995, and reduced the city to rubble.
"It was an utterly lawless war," continued Ms. Cartner, "in which the normal rules of engagement were completely ignored. In any new war in Chechnya, civilians are sure to be the first casualties because there was no penalty last time."
Russia's new air strikes in Chechnya, which began last Thursday, have so far forced tens of thousands to flee their homes and reportedly caused at least eight civilian deaths, although these could not be independently confirmed.