MOSCOW — A favorite old political joke is being resuscitated here as Russians try to understand the deepening quagmire in Chechnya.

It seems that, once upon a time, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev were all together in one of those formal old compartments on a Russian train, when suddenly the train inexplicably stopped.

"I'll take care of it," Stalin immediately announced. He left, and when he came back 10 minutes later, he said, "All's fine. I executed the conductor." But the train did not move.

Then Khrushchev took his turn. He left and soon came back, announcing, "Don't worry, everything's fine. I just rehabilitated the conductor." But still the train did not move.

Finally Brezhnev opened the windows and began to move his arms in a strange manner. "Let's all go 'chug, chug, chug,' " he said, "and we'll pretend we're moving."

That story typifies the Russian government's confused response to the war in the remote and obstreperous region of Chechnya in the Islamic southern Caucasus. Russians seldom hear any news about the Chechnya war, and what little they get is only on government-controlled TV1 and TV2 and always the government's story. That version of events is that Chechen rebels are and always have been genetically terrorists, that they are unredeemable and that an angelic Russian government is generously trying to offer them self-rule through presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 5. Yet in fact, foreign, usually Arabic, terrorist leaders have taken over the province, and bombs go off in neighboring Dagestan and suicide bombers strike constantly.

Meanwhile, Russian officialdom denies any serious mistreatment of the Chechens. In a wide-ranging interview in his simple office, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, President Putin's special envoy for human rights in Chechnya, completely denied the new Council of Europe report outlining widespread Russian torture of Chechens.

"The information is totally incorrect," he told a small group of American journalists. "They get their information from some groups in Chechnya, and they use the European organizations, which are completely helpless against Chechen propaganda. The European countries are not willing to counter the terrorist threat and even promote it."

He stressed repeatedly that the situation, which began as a purely Chechen tribal war of liberation against Moscow, has become still another war of international terrorism, with foreign terrorists there who have as their grandiose idea a 9/11-style "act of terrorist aggression against a nuclear power."

Few believe that the current Russian plan has the slightest possibility of working. On Oct. 5, with the major serious contender, the formerly elected president Aslan Maskhadov, forbidden from entering the country, Moscow's quisling Chechen candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, will surely be "elected."

"This entire policy," says a Western diplomatic observer, "overlooks the fact that they have not eliminated terrorism over all these years, nor have the Russians found a way of communicating with them. I don't see any process under way that will deal with it. It's being spun, not fixed; and in fact, this is still another of these processes in the world that is being radicalized, while Moscow hides its head in the sand trying to pretend that everything's OK."

The Russian-Chechnyan conflict is not quite so clear, morally or physically, as the Putin government would like it to appear.

The Chechens, a Caucasus Mountain people who did not eagerly bow to communism, were deported to the east by Stalin and brutalized horribly. When they returned to their historical home in the Caucasus after the death of the Soviet Union, Chechen militants began a fruitless, but courageous, war for independence from "the center" in Moscow, which soon degenerated into a war of brigands, warlords and kidnappings that finally was taken over by Arab and Afghan terrorists.

The first war, from 1994 to 1996, was fought almost entirely by Chechen militants for a Chechen cause; the second one, from 1999 to today, has seen the massive influx of foreigners that one could reasonably call terrorists from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states.

Their cause was larger than fighting for Chechen rights from Moscow — they were fighting to create the first Islamic state, with Sharia law and control of the area's gas and oil riches, out of Chechnya and Dagestan.

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Once again, in another part of the world, we see how a country is embracing the internationalization of the terrorism excuse put forward by the United States after 9/11 and by Israel for many years.

The genuine and profound complaints of the Chechens are pushed aside, forgotten, derided; everything bad that happened is now due to international terrorism. Moreover, "terrorists" are not normal human beings who have been traumatized into pathological behavior, but men and women born with such evil. Thus there is no salvation or transformation for them, only annihilation.

This is the American message, too — from Afghanistan and Iraq — and it is not a nice one.

Universal Press Syndicate

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