The Observer - Russia sets the price for Kosovo

Sunday December 12, 1999

As Russian forces prepare their final assault on Grozny, it is not just a ruined city which is about to fall. It is also a castle in the air. Until the second Chechen war, there was a fragile hope that we were entering a new millennial world, in which frontiers melted before the triumphal advance of human rights.

But on Friday, President Yeltsin and President Jiang of China issued a joint warning: 'No country can interfere in another sovereign country's attacks against domestic terrorism.' Here, at last, is the price we must pay for Kosovo. One part of the globe believes that humanitarian intervention in the affairs of a nation-state may be justified. The other part - the two dilapidated giants who repress unwilling minorities within their own land empires - flatly disagree. And both giants are permanent members of the Security Council.

There are signs that Western outrage is getting through. Nothing came of the threat to kill everyone in Grozny yesterday if the city did not surrender, and Russian Ministers began to mumble defensively about leaving corridors for civilian evacuation. But the bitter truth remains that the Chechens are going to be crushed. Thousands more civilians are going to die, and the world has been almost totally unable to help them.

Humanitarian intervention in the affairs of an independent state - the Kosovo principle - was never going to be stainless. It is limited by sanity. Armed action against Russia, to halt the atrocities in Chechnya or merely to escort humanitarian aid as in Bosnia, was unthinkable. No nation in the world would have supported it, and foreign military interventions in Russia have always proved suicidal.

Yet this does not mean that 'there was nothing we could have done'. The EU should have fought far harder to get proper access for humanitarian organisations as soon as the refugees began to pour out of Chechnya. No sanctions will deflect Russian strategy. But world-wide protest - including the symbolic freezing of loans - can still save lives. It can restrain the vengeance of Russian troops on the Chechen people. We feel guilty and impotent. But that is no reason to be silent as well.,3879,113535,00.html

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