When in the autumn of 1999 I began my mandate as Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, what would become the second war in Chechnya had just begun.
An armed confrontation caused by a group of Chechens, led by a fanatic like Shamil Basayev, accompanied by Islamist militias, who invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan, and proclaimed the ultimate goal of establishing a caliphate in the Caucasus.
A madness that, in addition to ruining the efforts of the most moderate, to build a Chechen Republic in peace, allowed the Russian army to take a cruel and bloody revenge, for the humiliation of the first war, lost under the mandate of Boris Yeltsin. And the newly arrived president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, forge an image of a harsh and implacable ruler, who claimed the sullied national honor. In those times, the president he is today began to be forged, a president of war, who despises the weak rulers of the West and seems to only believe in force as a means to achieve objectives that he sets for himself as ruler.
It was with that newly arrived President Putin that I had to deal during those war and post-war years. There were several long conversations that allowed me to glimpse that, beneath the coldness with which he listened to me recount the brutalities of the Russian Army on Chechen soil and the need to put an end to that barbarism and do justice to the crimes against the defenseless population, he still valued the usefulness of making some gestures, in line with what was requested of him, even if it was for purely tactical reasons.
I remember that, on my return from one of those visits to the Chechen republic, he received me at the famous long table, but this time face to face and, in an aside, without the microphones that recorded the entire conversation. I told him that he had to put an end to the barbarities committed by his army in Chechnya, by repressing any attack, with the immediate indiscriminate bombing of a population in the mountains or wherever. Creating more victims and hate.
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He listened to me attentively and replied that he did not have another army, but that he promised to remove it from the front line in two months and hand over the responsibility of ensuring general security to Ramzan Kadyrov’s men. Knowing the brutality and cruelty of these Chechen units loyal to Russia, I asked him if he trusted them to stop these abuses, and he told me emphatically that he never trusted anyone.
He kept his word and the indiscriminate bombing ended, but Kadyrov’s power and his dictatorship in Chechnya were reinforced. He today he uses the forces at his command to frighten the Ukrainians. As a partly psychological weapon, for its known cruelty and violence.
That President Putin of more than 20 years ago still listened and maintained a space for dialogue. He was also surrounded by people with a different mood, such as the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Igor Ivanov, former ambassador to Spain, a skillful and fine negotiator, respectful of his interlocutors, without ever using bully language. Or Vladimir Lukin, former ambassador to the United States with Yeltsin and Commissioner for Human Rights, with whom I worked so much and who helped me. Moderate people with a direct line to the Kremlin. Today this is history. The president seems to be surrounded only by sycophants, who tell him what he wants to hear, military hawks and the oligarchs who have gotten rich off him.
I have to admit that he was very correct with me in manners and tough on the bottom line (he never agreed to my request to abolish the death penalty, although he maintained the moratorium), but he allowed informal peace talks in Strasbourg, the launch of a “war” Ombudsman, to receive and investigate complaints about disappearances or human rights violations, or gave his consent to start the search for the disappeared from both sides, their identification and return to their families, with the support of the European Union. An operation that the Secretary General of the Council of Europe would abort, shortly after the end of my mandate.
He agreed to several other recommendations I made to him. But it is no less true that, throughout those extensive conversations, one could perceive a person deeply hurt by the West and what he called his lack of understanding of Russia, at least in terms of his vision of Russia. With a deep-rooted nationalist thought, he longs for a strong and respected Russia in the world, as in the Soviet era.
And of course, very far from sharing the democratic values that characterize Europe and that the Council of Europe represents, of which the Russian Federation was a member. Quite a contradiction. The latest joint declaration with China already makes clear its belief in other types of values that, of course, do not revolve around humanism, nor respect for the dignity of people, freedom, the rule of law and respect for human rights that characterize our model of European democratic society.
But that president I knew and with whom I negotiated no longer exists. Those who, around him, sought peace and the consolidation of a minimum democracy have been swept away.
Over time we have been able to verify an authoritarian drift without dissimulation, persecuting those who made political opposition to him, dissolving civil organizations that were uncomfortable for him, especially those that worked with Western institutions or received funds from them. The last to succumb to this totalitarian policy has been the historic Memorial. It was preceded by the then Moscow School of Political Studies, which carried out an extraordinary job of training thousands of young people in democracy, with the support of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and with which I have always collaborated, which has been closed and its exiled address in Lithuania.
Justice is an institutional apparatus whose independence is conspicuous by its absence. Parliament, a toy in the hands of the single party. The official media dominates everything. The few independents that remained have been closed and criminally persecuted journalists, with a law that a servile Duma has approved in 24 hours.
Radio ECO of Moscow, to which I went so many times to talk about the human rights situation in Russia and especially in Chechnya, has just been closed. It was the last internal voice of information released. As in the Soviet era, which the president admires, dissent is not allowed and the official truth is the only one that is transmitted to the people. In short, today Russia is sliding towards a dictatorship, pure and simple.
But here, too, Putin is wrong. Today there is a parallel world of information channels, practically uncontrollable. And as much as he tries to intoxicate his people, the truth will be known about this aggression against Ukraine, about this imperialist war, and violator of the international order. It is true that it is not the only illegal one that we have witnessed in recent times, but it is no less reprehensible for that.
On the other hand, it has managed to get the European Union to take a giant step, with all the measures adopted to deal with this aggression against a European country. And the conviction that it is necessary to strengthen a common foreign and defense policy has grown in public opinion and among political forces.
But we must not make the mistake of judging the Russian people by the ravings and attitudes of their current president, who, make no mistake, is not crazy. Absolutely. Everything he does and how he does it responds to his profound conception of the exercise of power, of power relations in the world. The only thing that he today he understands and respects. Nor is the same support appreciated by the Russian people that the invasion of Crimea aroused. There are no spontaneous demonstrations in support of the war. On the contrary, a significant part of the citizenry is showing us their courage, demonstrating against it, and there are thousands of detainees. Giving testimony of resistance to the dictatorship.
Lastly, let us not forget that, despite all the horror we are seeing, we must make an effort to leave open a possibility of negotiation to end this war; and I still think that the West should be able to use the platform of the Council of Europe, from which Russia has been suspended, but not expelled, to open up that space for dialogue, however difficult it may be. It was done with the Chechen war and we must try again today. We owe it to the victims of this barbarism, including the Russians themselves, those of the young soldiers who are dying and who, as the novelist Svetlana Alexievitch recounted, will soon begin to be delivered to their mothers, in zinc coffins.
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