Despite what Russia's government might say, journalists and human rights workers are unable to carry out their work in an ordinary and open way in Chechnya, a disputed Connecticut-sized region wedged in the North Caucasus.
"The Islamist insurgency is the North Caucasus republics remained active in 2010," according to Human Rights Watch. "In countering it, law enforcement and security agencies continued to commit grave violations of fundamental human rights, such as torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings." The perpetrators of these offenses have not been held accountable.
Russia's counterinsurgency approach coupled with a lack of engagement from the West, has encouraged the radicalization of the Chechen population, according to Ilyas Akhmadov, the exiled former foreign minister of Chechnya.
"I think that the misunderstandings of the nature of this conflict by the West, and prior policies of the West, have contributed to the radicalization of the resistance," Akhmadov said in an interview with the Pulitzer Center. Akhmadov noted that the West dismisses Chechnya as a radical region.
"Today, to look at it and say that Chechnyans have a radical image and to pull away from it just contributes to greater isolation," he said.
Akhmadov, who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2004, was a panelist at the National Endowment for Democracy event entitled "The Chechen Struggle" — also the name of his new book. During his talk, he said that in mid-90s, the Chechen political climate was nationalistic and democratic, but that because of Chechnya's geographic and cultural isolation, Russia maintains unchallenged control of the region.
"Unfortunately, the policies of most governments are based on the presumption that you shouldn't annoy Russia, you shouldn't bring up what is a painful subject for Russia. I think this approach is counterproductive," Akhmadov said.
"Without active attention and participation from international institutions — the OSCE, the UN, other organizations and foreign governments — it's impossible to see how this situation could change," he said. "Governments should not be afraid of sanctions. Sanctions are just one method of trying to achieve certain goals and it's clear that without such measures, nothing there can change."
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter, went even further:
"The U.S., by and large, has turned its back on this issue — and engaged in gross oversimplifications as an excuse of its evasion," said Brzezinski, adding that diplomatic engagement is key in resolving the conflict.
"It will have to be resolved in a political sense, and that can only happen if one retains some degree of shared humanity with the opponent on the field of battle," he said.
The struggles of the Chechen people remain underreported — largely because as Akhmadov puts it, "There is no such thing as press freedom." But this may change in the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a town within a couple hundred miles of Chechnya. The skiing competitions will take place on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.
Some activists have already called for a Western boycott of what are purportedly non-politicized games. This would certainly bring international attention to the conflict.
A March 7 New York Times article points out that the Olympic stadium is less than 250 miles from the home of a the suicide bomber who killed 37 at Moscow's Demodedovo Airport in January. Russia, meanwhile, is implementing measures to ensure that there are no terrorist threats to the games in a region bordered by Chechnya, Dagestan, and the breakaway region of Abkhazia, which sparked the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008.
"I think this is going to be the big story of the next few years," said Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Russia trying to come up with yet another policy in the North Caucasus — hopefully less short termist, more strategic, more tolerant than before."
Akhmadov discusses his involvement, his experience in the First Chechen War, press freedoms, and the need for international intervention with the Pulitzer Center:
See below for Thomas de Waal's comments on Chechnya at Eurasia Foundation event in February: