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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2003

Russians asked to sign the Big Lie

June is the month of high school graduation exams in Russia.

Russians have jokes for everything, which helps them survive their often drab reality. Viktor Shenderovich, popular publicist, wrote one for his recent book as quoted in the Novaya Gazeta daily newspaper, which I dare paraphrase for you:

“A teacher tells her class: ‘Write down the essay topic, Democracy in Russia. Done? OK. Now sign your name and hand in your paper,'

“ ‘Well, how about the essays?' asks one of the students.

“ ‘No talking,' the teacher snaps.”

There is truth in this joke: Sign your name to the Big Lie, and you are ready to live in Russia. Some things never change.

Russia's presumably independent lawmakers recently signed their name to a big lie pitched by the Kremlin — the so-called amnesty law for combatants in Chechnya and neighboring Russian territories.

Its language is such that only Russian federal troops will be pardoned for their alleged crimes — about 300 of them. As for the Chechen rebels, only a few, if any, may hope to be pardoned. Only those who did not shoot at Russian troops have a chance, independent Russian experts say.

Since there is no law to guarantee the security of Chechen rebels who accept the amnesty, only those who join the pro-Kremlin troops led by Akhmad Kadyrov are likely to live long enough to enjoy it, the experts say. Mr. Kadyrov is the former mufti of Chechnya who has sided with the Kremlin and been rewarded by his masters with the leadership of the breakaway republic's administration.

Moreover, Mr. Kadyrov's administration is put in charge of the amnesty. Many of Mr. Kadyrov's loyalists are pardoned Chechen fighters from the previous Chechnya war of 1994-1996 who are anxious to prove their loyalty to the Kremlin at the expense of the lives of their former comrades.

It's clear, therefore, that only a suicidal Chechen rebel would accept the amnesty.

And for those legislators who forgot who's the boss, the Kremlin had a reminder. The day they had to vote on the amnesty law, they found concrete barricades in front of the parliament building, “to thwart a possible [Chechen] terrorist attack,” they were told. Maybe, but the immediate effect was to set the “right” mood for the voting.

Only 15 percent of Russians believe the amnesty will help bring peace in Chechnya, according to a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, Russia's answer to Gallup.

You may ask how it was possible to pass the amnesty law. Wouldn't the constituents flood legislators with angry letters? Not at all: Don't forget that the Kremlin has all but eradicated independent TV in Russia. As to a handful of independent papers, their readership is largely limited to a handful of intellectuals in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The majority has been duped by Kremlin TV propaganda that uses a wide brush to paint Chechen rebels as international terrorists. That's easy after Chechens held 800 hostages last year at a Moscow theater. More than 120 hostages were killed in addition to all the Chechens when Russian troops gassed the theater or shortly thereafter.

What's in it (the amnesty) for the Kremlin?

That's a no brainer.

Once the amnesty predictably fails, the Kremlin will have an excuse to step up indiscriminate use of force in Chechnya. The few Russian troops in Chechnya who have been charged with war crimes will be pardoned, appeasing many more who haven't. Moreover, the Kremlin will be able to claim to critics in Europe that it tried to do the right thing.

The Big Lie may work.

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