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Keeping Check on Chechnya

The world is looking on in growing alarm as Russia attacks one of its own regions - Chechnya - causing a humanitarian crisis.

Our hearts go out to the 125,000 refugees with little food and shelter, and hope that relief aid can reach them soon. But the political complexity of this war makes it very difficult for the West to affect Moscow's behavior. A solution is not clear-cut, but that doesn't mean giving up.

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At the least, Russia must understand that its human rights record is on the line. Its 1994-96 war against the separatist militants of Chechnya left 80,000 people dead and the region in an awkward limbo of near-independence.

The West did little then, and so far sees little it can do now. But it must keep looking for solutions.

Moscow began the war after rogue Chechen commanders invaded the nearby region of Dagestan, attempting to create a larger Islamist state. Moscow also blames Chechen "terrorists" for a rash of apartment bombings in Russian cities that killed 300 people.

It believes the West won't deny its right to go after Chechens who support this alleged terrorism. That right may be clear, but the solution is a meat cleaver, leaving far too much destruction.

Some might wonder why the West does nothing in Chechnya after its interventions in Kosovo and East Timor. All these hot spots have peculiar circumstances that test the West's emerging stance that concern for human rights can supercede respect for national sovereignty.

In Kosovo, NATO intervened largely because the slaughter by Serbs was taking place in Central Europe. In East Timor, the West could easily use its financial muscle to force Indonesia to end the killing of civilians after a vote for independence.

In Chechnya, a weak civilian regime has no control over roving bands of guerrillas and their loose-cannon commanders. Indeed, the lawlessness in Chechnya, including the kidnapping and killing of foreign relief workers, has dampened the world's enthusiasm for the Chechen cause.

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But most of all, the West has one big consideration that explains why it won't easily intervene in Chechnya: Russia has nuclear weapons.

Offending Moscow with economic sanctions at this point might backfire on the West's many interests in a stable Russia.

Given the nearness of Russian parliamentary elections, the West must avoid undermining Russia's democrats, who are already playing defense.

Russia's friends in the West must keep up the pressure for a negotiated settlement. Otherwise, the West risks tarnishing its moral bearings in dealing with the next crisis.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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