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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Using the Chechen Enemy

If the Chechens did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

From the time Vladimir Putin became president, the liberal intelligentsia has complained that the country is heading for authoritarian rule. The last three years have not seen a flowering of democracy, of course, but nor have the gloomy predictions come true. Television stations and newspapers that irked the authorities have experienced their share of unpleasantness, but that happened under Boris Yeltsin, too. All in all, things were going pretty much as usual.

This situation changed after the hostage crisis last month. The calamity in Moscow was not reducible to the deaths of 128 people (and counting). The gas attack in the Theater Na Dubrovke set far-reaching political processes in motion.

We have come closer to the creation of an authoritarian regime in the last three weeks than we had in the preceding three years. New State Duma legislation restricts the freedom of the press to cover anti-terrorist operations. It is now forbidden to analyze the actions of law enforcement in such operations, much less to criticize them. This allows the repressive organs of our government to violate human rights and even the laws of the Russian Federation with impunity.

The state security agencies underscored the seriousness of their intentions by searching the offices of the newspaper Versia. Some Internet sites on the government's black list have been blocked, though not all that effectively. Government officials and Duma deputies now threaten to ban independent-minded and "disloyal" journalists from practicing their profession. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, himself a former journalist, has openly proposed the introduction of censorship.

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An anti-terrorist state is taking shape in Russia. All of its activities are centered around the war on terrorism. Any criticism of the special services therefore becomes an anti-government act.

It's well known that an authoritarian regime needs enemies, both foreign and domestic. Tsarist Russia had enemies abroad in the Turks, Germans and Austrians, and at home -- as they put it at the time -- among the "Yids, university students and the intellegentsia." External enemies are necessary to rally society around the government, which in turn defends the "national interest." The battle against "internal enemies" is meant to justify police repressions. Soldiers defend us against the external enemy, while the secret police defend us at home. Criticism of the authorities is equated with aiding the enemy.

The Chechens have proven ideal enemies for the Russian authorities. On the one hand, they are internal enemies, since they are still considered citizens of Russia. A precedent is being set: Russian citizens can be searched without a warrant, finger-printed without being charged of a crime, detained and deported without good reason. The methods tested in Chechnya are now being used in Moscow, from military censorship to zachistki, or mopping-up operations. And methods of police coercion tried out on Moscow's Chechens can then be used against other residents.

All of this is happening with relatively little resistance because Chechens are also perceived by society as an external enemy. Almost no one thinks of Chechnya as a part of Russia after all that has happened in the last 10 years. It's another country of some kind that for some reason we have to conquer. One huge difference between the first and second Chechen wars is that during the first war both sides still remembered life in the Soviet Union. They still felt themselves to be citizens of a single country -- not the Russian Federation, but the Soviet empire in which they had grown up together, and which they had served together. The second Chechen war is governed by a different set of rules. Nothing unites the two sides any longer. This has resulted in the horrifying brutality of the army's sweep operations and the wave of anti-Russian feeling now washing over the Caucasus.

The first Chechen campaign was conceived as a "little, winnable war" that would allow Russia's leadership to shore up its power and to justify increasing authoritarianism. It had the opposite effect, however. Military defeats sapped the regime's already measly authority, and the liberal press for the first time began to criticize "its own" government. Freedom of speech was suddenly more than just words.

The second Chechen war was meant to destroy the political results of the first war -- not the Khasavyurt and Moscow accords on the status of Chechnya, but political freedom in Russia.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.