Whose terrorists are they?

  • 2002-11-14
  • Ib Alken
Last week's hostage taking in Moscow had ramifications far outside the "theater of action."

In Riga the plight of innocent bystanders was brought home through the accounts of members of the Dubina-Zelcermanis family, present amongst the hostages. In Grozny the escalation of Russian military activities accelerate.

And in Copenhagen the Danish government is weathering a foreign policy tempest in relations with Russia on the issue of an extradition request for a prominent Chechen exile politician.

The loss of hostage lives caused by the use of opiate gas, and the summary execution of all of the Chechen terrorists by Russian special forces were integral parts of the dramatic operation which brought the occupation of the Moscow theater to an end.

A discussion of what happened, who gave what orders, and if it all could have been done differently, is now going full scale in the Russian media. The overall assessment is that the storming of the theater was a necessary - even successful - operation proving the ability the nation's security forces.

Only in the margins of media coverage is there a discussion of the underlying issue of the legitimacy of continued Russian military activity in Chechnya.

Not so in Copenhagen. There the dramatic events have provoked strong expressions of support for the Chechen fight for independence, accompanied by indignant protests against Russian attempts to bring pressure to bear on Danish authorities.

Well before the beginning of the Moscow hostage drama a Danish grassroots support group for the Chechen cause started preparations for holding the Chechen World Congress in Copenhagen. Preparations included the customary notification to police, as is required by law.

By coincidence (or premeditation, as opined in Moscow) the two day congress took place exactly during the climax of the hostage drama. Thus on the eve of the conference Russian diplomats appealed to the Danish government to cancel the conference.

Denmark's negative reply, as stated by Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, was based solely on the Danish constitution, which guarantees the right of lawful assembly.

At the same time Russia sent Denmark through Interpol requests for the arrest and extradition of a number of Chechen participants in the congress. The handling of this request was delayed in police headquarters through a bureaucratic mishap, and was only seen by relevant officials on the third day after transmission. But by then the temperature had increased considerably.

One individual on the list, Akhmed Zakajev, in charge of foreign relations of Chechnya's exile political network, is being accused by Russia of direct involvement in the hostage taking. Danish police arrested him after midnight on October 29, on the eve of the congress.

Zekajev is being detained in prison for a two-week period until November 13 to allow for an examination of the accusations against him. Should the Ministry of Justice decide to extradite Zakajev, he will have the right of appeal, including to the European Human Rights court.

The slow response in Denmark caused an uproar in Moscow, where a furious anti-Denmark campaign raged in the media. President Vladimir Putin called off a long planned state visit to Denmark for a high-level Russia-EU meeting. No bones were made as to why he canceled.

To mollify Russia, Denmark, which holds the EU presidency until the end of the year, offered to transfer the Russia-EU meeting to Brussels instead. This was accepted, but caused criticism at home, where the social democratic opposition found that the government was bending unduly to Russian pressure.

It would appear we are in the slipstream of September 11, 2001. And the row between Copenhagen and Moscow illustrates the dilemma of governments, particularly small state governments, in responding to demands for action on alleged terrorists. But the question is: whose terrorists?

The Bush administration has had success in forming an impressive anti-terrorist alliance, including Russia, which has enacted legislation and coordinated intelligence and security activities. However, the qualifying decision to list organizations and individuals as terrorist remains with the American administration. Until now Russian requests for inclusion of Chechen rebels on the list have not been accommodated.

Are the Chechens thus terrorists, or freedom fighters?

The answer depends on their acts and on who stands to answer. The world has been very hesitant at publicly taking a stand against Russia's efforts to prevent Chechnya from gaining self-determination. Condemnations of Russian atrocities towards civilians are left to non-governmental human rights organizations, and substantial loss of civilian life in urban guerrilla operations is normally regretted and brushed aside. This, they say, is the price of war.

Who, then, are we to believe when forced to act on a wave of world public opinion? In the recent words of Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen: "Criticism cannot be avoided, whether we decide one way or the other. This is part of the challenge of a proactive foreign policy. We can no longer hide behind the back of others, but have to make decisions, particularly during this period of EU presidency. What matters is for us to arrive at the right decisions. The post-September world no longer holds the option of conflict avoidance."

Ib Alken is an independent correspondent in Riga to the Danish media.