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Can Chechnya’s current unprecedentedly low levels of violence be reconciled with its government’s poor human rights record?by Valery Dzutsev 5 February 2010
Chechnya is enjoying its most peaceful and prosperous period since the second Russian-Chechen war ended 10 years ago, perhaps since the first one began in 1994. Carpet bombings or massive mop-up operations like those of the two full-scale wars are only a bad memory. Grozny, where the level of destruction outdid many of the worst-hit European cities during World War II, has practically been rebuilt, along with Gudermes and many other places in the republic. In December Grozny airport resumed international traffic after many years.
Yet, abuses of human rights are still common in Chechnya, and often the trail of blame seems to lead back to the republic’s strongman president, Ramzan Kadyrov. In Human Rights Watch’s annual worldwide review for 2009, conditions in Russia are portrayed as “a severe deterioration in the human rights climate.” Much of the decline was attributed to abuses in the North Caucasus. Five civil-rights activists were killed in Russia, three of them in Chechnya, and another slaying in Moscow was linked to Chechnya. Human rights violations such as torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions are still common in the republic.
Rights monitors are especially concerned at the tactic of collective punishment. Russia’s Memorial human rights center documented 30 arson attacks on the houses of people with ties to suspected Chechen rebels, such as close relatives. Memorial also reported a threefold increase in the number of kidnappings in Chechnya in 2009.
Reconstruction is going ahead at a great pace, most of it funded by Moscow. The federal government allotted $2 billion for reconstruction projects in 2009 and plans to spend as much in 2010. Even with the shocking level of war damage, this is a substantial level of resources for a territory with an official population of more than 1.2 million, but put by independent estimates at closer to 800,000.
Roads and houses are being rebuilt, planes fly, people have more time for leisure and going out. Do extralegal killings and other forms of violence against a few overshadow these achievements? An anonymous source in Chechnya says the appearance of tranquility is deceiving. “Kadyrov’s siloviki [security forces] commit crimes worse than the Russians did. People are scared and reduced to a semi-beggar state. Only Kadyrov’s entourage and his henchmen thrive.” The source also laments that such businesses as gas stations, retail stores, and entertainment facilities that bring revenue to the authorities are being built, although productive industries that would give employment remain moribund. This, coupled with an estimated unemployment rate of 70 percent (twice the official rate) along with the “unthinkable bureaucracy” are “just another way to oppress the people,” the source says.
Others on the ground in Chechnya see things very differently. Timur Aliev, an expert with the Chechen Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank closely associated with the government, argues that Kadyrov’s omnipotence is a journalistic cliché. “The arrests and detentions that take place today are applied to those who are involved or suspected in terror attacks or supporting them. When the security services are looking for people like these, should they first display a search warrant, or go and arrest them first, out of fear of being blown up with them? I’m not sure. If they have to [make warrantless arrests] they are probably in breach of human rights. But I don’t understand what this has to do with Kadyrov. This is common practice among special services,” Aliev said.
KADYROV AND THE KREMLIN
Kadyrov, rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, has evolved a highly personalized relationship with Vladimir Putin. He and his father, Akhmad, fought the Russians in the mid-1990s but changed sides with the start of the second war in 1999, the elder Kadyrov continuing his pro-Moscow policies during his presidency, which ended with his assassination in 2004. Now 33, his son has managed to concentrate unprecedented power and resources in his hands and is believed to enjoy Putin’s full support.
“We have a very strong politician of global stature: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. There is no one like him on the world stage,” Kadyrov said in an interview with Reuters in December. Kadyrov enjoys a degree of freedom to speak his mind, even on the Kremlin’s foreign policy, that would be unthinkable for any other regional leader. In the same interview, in a remark that caused alarm in Kyiv and Tbilisi, he called on the federal authorities to counterattack in Ukraine and Georgia in order to contain the West’s encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence. In another rare interview for a foreign audience, granted to the Kremlin-sponsored English-language Russia Today TV channel on 25 January, Kadyrov accused Russian oligarch exile Boris Berezovsky of murdering rights activists and the United States of setting up Al Qaeda.
While few question Kadyrov’s ability to control Chechnya, several suicide bombings rocked the republic in 2009 after two years of relative calm following the killing of the terrorist chieftain Shamil Basaev in 2006. “In Chechnya, if someone sells a ram to the rebels he simply gets killed [by government forces]. No one will talk to him. With terror like that it is understandable that the rebels descend [from the mountains] into the valleys only to blow themselves up,” Alexander Burtin, a journalist with the popular online magazine Russian Reporter, told Radio Liberty in October. According to Burtin, the real number of rebels in Chechnya is thought to be close to 2,000, far higher than the figure of 50 to 60 “devils” Kadyrov often cites.
The anonymous source puts it that rampant economic inequality is at least in part responsible for pushing young people to join the rebels: “There are few rich and many more poor people. There are very few middle income families. Young people from just those poor families go to the mountains [join the rebel forces], because they understand that they will never have a rewarding job and be able to sustain their families.”
The Kremlin loyalist Kadyrov enjoys much wider freedom of action than his independence-seeking predecessors Jokhar Dudaev and Aslan Maskhadov. Part of the internal freedom that Kadyrov exercises allows him to spread elements of Sharia law in Chechnya, in particular restrictions on women’s social behavior. In his interview for Russia Today he openly admitted to supporting polygamy.
TIME FOR CHANGE
Observers are waiting to assess how Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to redraw the power map of the North Caucasus will alter the Kremlin’s close relationship with the Chechen leader.
On 19 January Medvedev announced the creation of a new federal district grouping all the North Caucasus republics except for Adygeya in the west, along with the Stavropol region. Medvedev named Alexander Khloponin, former governor of the Siberian Krasnoyarsk region, to oversee the new district and entrusted him primarily with the task of improving the economy. The decision signals Medvedev’s concern over the region’s instability and badly performing economies. But many observers doubt the new envoy will be able to control people like Kadyrov, who is used to special treatment by the Russian government and has thousands of armed men under his command.
Lack of information about the real situation in Chechnya is a problem that those trying to assess the conditions in the republic now face more than ever. The work of the best-known human rights monitor in the republic, Memorial, was severely hampered following the abduction and murder of renowned rights defender Natalya Estemirova in July. Even prior to last year’s spate of attacks on rights activists, Chechnya had not been covered in any depth by the mainstream Russian or international media, and now hardly anything is known for certain about the ongoing fighting between Kadyrov’s forces, often referred to as kadyrovtsy, and the rebels. Rumors have replaced news. One rumor goes that Kadyrov uncovered a conspiracy against him in December and executed 15 alleged plotters from among his close associates. The rumor might be wrong, but Kadyrov’s critics do have a tendency to die prematurely, whether in Chechnya, elsewhere in Russia, or abroad, with frightening regularity. Rights activists and journalists have linked Kadyrov to the murders of opposition Chechen exiles in Austria and Turkey, as well as rival Chechen clan chiefs in Moscow and Dubai.
Under Kadyrov Chechen cities have been rebuilt with the help of huge cash injections from Moscow. Yet when it comes to slightly more sophisticated tasks needed for the republic’s economic development in a market economy – tasks that go beyond rebuilding houses using government subsidies – Kadyrov may be too unqualified and too authoritarian for the job. In such a case, the present level of relative peace may be unlikely to show a rising trend over time. Instead, the republic may continue to experience intermittent spikes and low periods. Sooner or later, the Kremlin will have to recognize that Chechnya can do better than that.