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Monday, 21 February, 2000, 16:14 GMT
Chechnya: Is Russia in the wrong?
Quiz the Russian Spokesman on the conflict in Chechnya
The Russian Spokesman on the conflict in Chechnya, Mikhail Margelov, answered your questions on the justification of the war, military tactics, the plight of the refugees and the likely aftermath.

Battle for the Caucasus
Head of the Russian Information Centre, Mr Margelov was appointed by Prime Minister (now acting President) Vladimir Putin to push the Russian perspective on the conflict.

An articulate and media-savvy speaker, he has been described as Russia's answer to Jamie Shea.

Click below to listen to Mr Margelov answering YOUR questions


Mr M Elahi, UK: What proof do the Russians have that the bombs that went off in Moscow were the work of the Chechens, and is it enough to justify your actions in Chechnya?

Mikhail Margelov: We were never saying that it was the job of Chechens, we were saying it was the job of terrorists. And what Russia does in Chechnya is not to fight against the Chechens as a nation, it's to fight against terrorism. And it's to fight against international terrorism, because there are a lot of representatives of other nationalities, like the Taleban, people from the Middle East, some territories of Russia, the Baltic states, some Russian states, the Ukraine. So we never say that we're fighting against Chechnya, and we never say it's revenge for the bombs in Moscow.


John Tillinghast, California, USA: Russia's government has a very serious credibility problem regarding this war.... [He asks a number of questions, and one of them is...] Now we find out that plans were already being made last spring to re-invade Chechnya, contradicting the official line since September. Why shouldn't we think that Putin planned this all along? When are we going to know the truth?

Mikhail Margelov: Russia never planned to invade Chechnya in spring or anywhere else. What is happening now in the Caucasus is not part of the PR campaign of Vladimir Putin for the campaign for presidency. We are not that cynical and we would never build a PR or advertising strategy on blood. We were forced to use force first in Dagestan where the terrorists from Chechnya had invaded and we were then forced to use force in Chechnya. And please do not think that Russians are happy to take part in military clashes. No-one likes war. No normal people like war.


Zoya T, Russia: Mr. Margelov, what are the casualties from both sides? How do you react to the reports about killings of Chechen civilians?

Mikhail Margelov: We accept the fact that there is collateral damage during the anti-terrorist operation and we can talk about hundreds of civilians who could suffer. But we can not give any exact numbers because the operation has not ended yet and even today we do not have reliable information. Of course there is a lot of speculation about this topic, but what is really important here is that Russia is not fighting against the Chechens as a nation, and civilians are not the target.


Steven Ross, Azerbaijan/Scotland: If my home was destroyed, my possessions looted and my parents, wife or my children killed, then I might now decide it's time to fight Russian soldiers - would this make me a terrorist?
Is it not the case that Russia started out to try to end a terrorist problem and has more than likely created a much larger problem that will come back to haunt Russia again and again?

Mikhail Margelov: It's quite obvious that Russia is not trying to declare that every Chechen man or woman is a terrorist, and we know and understand quite well that by military means it will be possible to put an end to terrorist activities on the territory of Chechnya and other territories of Russia on a massive scale.
Of course we understand that there can be long-lasting guerrilla wars, taking into consideration the experience of different countries all around the world, for example France has its problem with Algeria, Great Britain has its problem with Northern Ireland. But what is important here is that Russia will never repeat the mistakes of the USSR of the late 50s and 60s. The political solution to this problem should be done by Chechens themselves. The ball is on their side now and they have to sit down and talk.


Sayeed, Afghanistan: How come Russia did not learn from the Afghan war? Do you think you can completely take over Chechnya? Do you have any concern about human rights at all?

Mikhail Margelov: Well of course we have concerns about human rights, and it's very interesting to hear this question from Afghanistan. We learnt our lessons from the USSR, not only from Afghanistan but also from Hungary, from Czechoslovakia, from other conflicts and we have learnt the lessons of the previous Chechen war.
It is not correct to compare what happens now in Chechnya with what happened in Afghanistan. Because Russian acts on the territory of the Russian Federation and we do not go into the territories of other states. So it is our internal matter and we have all the legal rights to establish the order as we see it on our territory. So I think these two conflicts can not be compared.


Nat Helms, USA: Mr. Margelov, I follow the Chechnya situation very closely on BBC, NY Times, Washington Post, etc. and still don't understand what it is about. Is it about terrorism, politics, "banditry and hooliganism," or simply the reestablishment of Russian authority over a breakaway group of ethnically and religiously different people... or... is it really about huge oil and natural gas fields?
I had the opportunity to meet and become friends with Russian UNPROFOR officers in Bosnia in '93 and they were already concerned about Chechnya then. They claimed the Chechens were out to grab Russian oil and natural gas to finance a closer association to Islamic interests.

Mikhail Margelov: This coin has two sides. On the one hand there are basic economic matters on all that happens in the c

Caucasus, and you're quite right saying that oil is the essential part of all the problems that occur. And of course Chechnya being an important point on the map of the Caucasus, is interesting for different forces and groups. We know it quite well and others have documents saying that the terrorists on the territory of Chechnya are financed from some international terrorist organisation, they're financed from abroad. Of course it's all about oil, if you take the economic aspect of this problem.
But for you being an American citizen I think it will be very easy to understand the legal aspect of the problem. Just try to imagine that the Cuban majority in Florida wants independence and they buy M-16 guns and start shooting. So what will be the next step of the US government? The next step will be using the National Guard and that's what we're doing in Chechnya.


Fouad Sayegh, Canada: Does Islamic fundamentalism have wide support amongst the Chechens? And do you believe that the Chechens would have gone this far in challenging Russia without financial help and encouragement from outside fundamentalist Islamists?

Mikhail Margelov: I cannot say that Islamist fundamentalism is widely supported among the Chechen Nation. I've got education in the Arabic language and history so I know quite well the basic principles of Islam. I can say that the Chechens are not very strong religious believers, the tradition has more importance to them - the tradition of their nation, of their family. Any young boy in Chechnya will act the way his father acted, even if what his father did contradicted with the basic principles of Islam.
And in that case we are not surprise to see that some Wahhabi organisations are not widely supported in Chechnya. Of course they have a certain level of support, but I would compare that situation with some Middle Eastern countries where Islamic Fundamentalism is supported by part of the nation but does not have the overwhelming majority of the nation to support it.


S. H. Shah, The Netherlands: How far do you think has Russia been in conformity with rules of international law in dealing with the crisis in Chechnya? Do you think use of force in the manner Russia has been employing against the Chechens the only, and more importantly, the best available option? How would you justify your position?

Mikhail Margelov: Our position is quite clear. We are acting on our territory, and it is all about the domestic legislation and our domestic laws. We are not fighting against Chechnya as a republic or Chechens as a Nation. The first Chechen war, which took place 1994-1996, was not widely supported by the public in Russia. It was the war against the independence of the Chechen Republic, it was the war for the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, but after that there were three years of peaceful co-existence.
Unfortunately Aslan Maskhadov failed to become the Russian Gerry Adams. He could not become a figure whom Russia could trust and whom Chechens could trust. It all happened like it happened and we have seen the Buccaneer state on the territory of the Chechen Republic fully controlled by the terrorists. I do not think we exceed the levels of force in what we are doing now in Chechnya, but of course from the moral side of this problem like in any war when you start shooting there is no good guy and bad guy.


James Clarke, UK: Please explain how you justify the handing over of an independent journalist to people you label as terrorists? If this man is never seen again, would it be we wrong to label the Russians as terrorists?

Mikhail Margelov: The story surrounds Andrei Babitsky, correspondent of the Liberty Radio Station, which is an American Radio Station but he's a Russian citizen. I know his work quite well, and of course our positions contradict but Russia was not treating him as an enemy.
For example yesterday one of the Moscow radio stations (an independent station not controlled by the government and belongs to a company which doesn't support what Russia does in Chechnya) gave the word to the representative of the Chechen side that Andrei Babitsky was on the territory which is controlled by the terrorists. He was on one of the bases and the Chechens were planning to evacuate Babitsky from the territory of Chechnya to one of the European states.
So okay he's free to act the way he wants, and Russia has never put him into prison or handcuffs on his hands, so he's with his friends. I think it's a matter of ethics. It's a matter of his political views - on what side does he want to be?


Martin Malek, Austria: Why is Russia supporting armed separatists in Moldova ("Dnestr-Republic"), Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) and Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), whereas it calls other separatists, the Chechen fighters, "terrorists and bandits" and declares officially the goal to annihilate them? And why is Russia spreading the tale, that it combats "Islamic fundamentalism" in Chechnya, whereas it supports the regime in Iran and sells it weapons and nuclear reactors?

Mikhail Margelov: The Russian government has never supported these quasi-states that you have mentioned. Of course there were some organisations from Russia who were giving support to Moldovan separatists and to South Ossetians on the territory of Georgia. We are developing our democratic system, we have different political parties, we have different groups who operate on the territory of Russia and of course we cannot control all of them. There were some Russian volunteers involved in all of these conflicts, and we know it quite well, but we cannot say the Russian Government supports any of these regimes.
As for relations between Russia and Iran, they trace their roots back to the 18th century. We cannot say that the current government in Iran is fully democratic like the western type of democracy, but Russia being in a very complicated economic situation, has to co-operate with any country where it can find the possibility for the development of economic co-operation.
The more the world criticises Russia for what it does in Chechnya, the more support this criticism gives to the forces inside the Russian Federation who want to get back to the isolation of Russia, who want to get back to the time of the Cold War and don't want transparency. I think this position strengthens their position inside the Russian political establishment.


Mark, USA: On the military front, are the Russians encountering hand-held SAMs or Afghan trained soldiers? In the last war the Russian logistics were a mess; are your troops experiencing any shortages this time?

Mikhail Margelov: The Russian military has learnt their lesson from the previous war and now, I cannot say the system ticks like a Swiss clock, but it works much better than it did before. This time the Russian military is organised much better, the logistics work much better, they have managed to built a more integrated system and the management has improved.
They also had a chance to use more high-tech weapons, which also helps to minimise the collateral damage. I think that even what you see on the TV, you see that Russian soldiers are equipped better, they're dressed better, practically all of them wear bullet-proof vests and so on.


Vadim, Russia: Mr. Margelov, we have heard for a long time about the necessity to create a professional army. But little has been done so far to that end. Don't you consider this war in Chechnya a lesson to the Russian military system as a whole? Can it be the last straw on the way of finally creating a completely professional army despite the need to sacrifice army top commanders' corrupt interests?

Mikhail Margelov: I would not be that optimistic, I would not call that conflict the last brick in the wall. I cannot say that this conflict will pave the way for a professional army 100%. I think that one of the conclusions which will be drawn from this anti-terrorist operation is that as a first step there should be a combination between the professional regiments and the way it works today.
I do not think it will be possible to transfer our system into a professional army in one week. What is important now is this is not a matter of the government or the president, but a matter that should be discussed and solved by our parliament, the State Dumar. They should pay more attention to this matter. The sooner they start discussing it, the sooner we will have a professional army.
The situation today reminds me of the days of the Vietnam War in the USA, where not many people were not optimistic about the system of draughts and the USA turned to a professional army. Well of course it takes time, but I think the result will be the turning to a professional army.


Anonymous: I have spent the bulk of my time over the last three years living in Chechnya as the manager of a humanitarian programme. In the last three months, up to and including December last year, I personally witnessed over 40 cases where Russian forces directly targeted Chechen civilians.
It was my impression that the war was being waged against the Chechen people as a whole. If that is not the case, why are international aid organisations not allowed in to relieve the plight of those injured and displaced? Having lived there for three years in peace and war I do not accept personal safety as a valid reason for excluding aid organisations.

Mikhail Margelov: I would like to remind you of the fact that the personal security of the representatives of international aid organisations cannot be protected well. After five employees of the Red Cross were killed, this renowned organisation left Chechnya. The OAC mission also left for Moscow due to the absence of the guarantees of security on the Chechen territory. Many people in Great Britain cannot forget the brutal killing of four British engineers.
I can say that the Russian government is and will be trying to do its best to give aid to those civilians who suffer during this operation. We are not against the involvement of international organisations, not at all. There were representatives of different international organisations who monitored the situation there.
First what should be done is their personal security should be protected. I think that these organisations will be working more effectively after Chechens themselves create the right docking mechanism for receiving the aid from them. Otherwise we'll see the same problem which we saw 1996-1999, when international aid was coming to Chechnya, but it was immediately found on the black markets.


Nwanko Etim, Nigeria: We have all the seen the pictures of a totally destroyed Grozny. How can you explain to the innocent civilians that you have destroyed their homes? Why is there not more aid going to the massive refugee camps?

Mikhail Margelov: We see not only a destroyed Grozny, we also see a destroyed Gudermes and some other Chechen cities. The most important answer is that about 80% of what you see destroyed was destroyed during the war in 1994-1996. After that during the three years of 1996-1999 after the peace agreements were signed, Russia was transferring funds to Maskhadov and his government for the re-building of Chechnya. Not a penny was spent on the re-building of Chechnya by Maskhadov's government. Russian militaries were very active in Grozny and of course there is a higher level of damage and we accept that fact and we do not argue with it.
There are different points of view about the future of the city of Grozny. For example the Russian Deputy Vice Prime Minister thinks that the Chechen capital should be transferred to Gudermes from Grozny. There are some different points of view among Chechens who live in Chechnya, among the representatives of Chechen Diaspora outside Chechnya so I think that Chechens will be discussing that matter.
Nothing realistically good will happen before Chechen businessmen try to find an economic solution for the re-building process in Chechnya.


Lisa James, England: Will the Russians pay for all the bomb damage in Chechnya, or will they be looking to the West for handouts?

Mikhail Margelov: I've already said that we have paid for all the damage we did on the Chechen region in 1994-1996. More than that we were transferring funds for paying teachers and doctors and those who served for governmental institutions, these people were not receiving salaries or pensions.
Here we come again to the problem of a docking mechanism for any economic programs on the territory of Chechnya.
I do not think Russia will ask for international financial aid for re-building Chechnya. I think it will be done another way. I think Chechen business will be heavily involved in the restoration process.


William Yimbo, Kenya: On what website can I find the most up to date information on background to the Chechen War, especially the Russian perspective, to help me understand the issues and their regional and international implications?

Mikhail Margelov: Unfortunately we do not have this website in Swahili, but we have it both in Russian and English. The internet address is www.infocentre.ru and this is the Russian Information Centre website and there we have a lot of materials, photos and scripts of briefings which take place in Moscow. You will find there the official position and angle of how Russia sees what happens in Chechnya now.

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See also:

07 Feb 00 | Europe
Putin: 'Grozny liberated'
05 Feb 00 | Europe
Russians pursue Chechen rebels


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