Russia

Chechnya: Even "normalization" is halted

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Originally published
Dispatches from Chechnya No. 26
The Situation in the Chechen Republic in November-December 2002

The terrorist action of hostage taking in Moscow at the end of October complicated the situation in Chechnya and the life for Chechens in Russia. It also brought a complete halt to the normalization process, itself ephemeral and painfully slow before that.

Russian president, Vladimir Putin pronounced that "terror is one thing and political normalization is another-we won't negotiate with bandits." For all intents and purposes, his statement broke even the feeble link to peace that was being created in Chechnya by individual politicians, political parties, and public organizations.

After the high-level announcement that there would be no negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov and that the normalization process would continue unimpeded, a delegation of elders and representatives from the Temporary Administration of Chechnya arrived in Moscow on November 8. Russian television carried the information that a group of influential Chechens had requested that Putin hold a referendum in Chechnya on ratifying a new constitution for the republic and on holding presidential and parliamentary elections. According to several sources, the decision to hold a referendum came from the Kremlin. The local initiative was feigned.

The so-called congress of the Peoples of Chechnya met on December 11 in Gudermes and confirmed the date for the referendum and the questions to appear on the ballot. The congress was held under the highest security. It was first announced that it would be held in Grozny, then it was moved to Gudermes. Administrative heads from all levels were invited to accompany the delegates, flaunting even the appearance of propriety and democratic procedure. A Russian journalist observing the congress commented that there were "300 delegates, people with arms guarding the building and the entirety of Akhmad Kadyrov's electorate in Chechnya."

The political farce playing itself out in Chechnya will further tragic effects on Chechen society. This imitation of political processes may lead to schisms and incite rebel activity, which would inevitably cause an increase and intensification of punitive actions against civilians so as "to establish the necessary conditions for holding the referendum."

In the background, a political scandal seems to be breaking out in Ingushetia over the Ingushetian authorities' attempts to remove refugee camps there. The Chechen administration decided in 2001 to return the Chechen refugees to so-called temporary placement points in Grozny, and then this year decided to get rid of all refugee camps in Ingushetia before the end of the year. After his election to the Ingushetian presidency, Murat Zyazikov stated that no one will use force to return Chechen refugees to Chechnya. His statement was contradicted by the incident in the village of Aki-Yurt, which focused the indignation and protest of not only human rights activists and humanitarian organizations, but even numerous heads of state. With journalists watching, Ingushetian police destroyed tents and possessions and mishandled people. The international response was so strong that the Ingushetian president's press service was forced to issue a statement denying that forcible evictions from the tent cities had taken place, and Chechen and Ingushetian authorities noticeably reduced their efforts at repatriation. President Zyazikov even met residents of the Bart tent city and gave financial assistance to the neediest residents. The Ingushetian minister of the interior appeared on local television to deny that Chechen refugees were being pressured to leave Ingushetia and accused several human rights organizations of disinformation and politicking.

The flurry of evictions in Ingushetia is undoubtedly connected with preparations for the referendum in Chechnya. The authorities intend to hold the referendum with great pomp, inviting international observers on the highest level and, in the words of the Chechen administration, "establish all the conditions necessary to carry out that democratic procedure." Refugee camps, of course, have no part in this democratic illusion. Their removal has been suspended for the moment, but future developments are unpredictable.

The Chechen refugees' refusal to return to the "comfort" of Grozny is understandable. Life in Grozny and all of Chechnya is hard. Chechen civilians are still deprived of all civil rights, most of all the right to life.

In spite of limited reconstruction in downtown Grozny, the city remains in ruins. There is no running water, sewer service, heat or electricity in many of its neighborhoods. The rare extreme cold this December has created many problems. Like last winter, apartments are being heated with unsafe gas stoves and heaters that pose a danger to life and health.

Many buildings have unexploded bombs, shells, and rockets in their walls and ceilings. People often live in semi-ruined buildings.

Environmental degradation in the city is also notable. A pall of black smoke from burning oil wells hangs over the city. Even though most oil-well fires have been extinguished, they periodically recombust and their black smoke settles over fields already blackened in battle. In addition, irreparable damage has been done to the city by the tapping and refining of oil condensate. This practice is a true calamity for Chechnya.

There is no sanitation in Grozny. The streets are littered with wrecked building materials as well as household and food wastes. The streets are also slippery with water, including sewage. The city's central market is especially filthy. It is the only place where the residents of the city and its outlying areas can buy food. The city is ripe for an epidemic. A sanitary and epidemiological service was set up long ago, but it has so far been unable to cope with the situation. The drinking water available is no less of a threat to the inhabitants' health. In most parts of the city, residents obtain water from wells, which are sometimes located far from their homes. These wells often contain high levels of gas condensate and are often polluted by sewage. While this water is a great danger, there are no alternative sources available.

Medical care has not been improved. The most elementary supplies are missing from hospitals and patients must pay for both their medicine and care. Many people in the city suffer from serious chronic diseases. Mental illness is also on the rise.

In spite of the tremendous numbers of police and Russian soldiers present on the streets of Grozny, crime is flourishing. Murders occur almost nightly and marauding gangs roam the city after dark in search of loot. Serious crimes, such as robbery and murder, are committed by the soldiers as well.

The same humanitarian aid organizations are still operating in Grozny. These include the International Red Cross, Danish Council on Refugee Affairs, the Chechen organization People in Need and Polish Humanitarian Action. But even their combined efforts are not enough to provide the basic necessities of life for the people of Grozny.

The situation in other areas of the Chechen Republic is no better.

Rebels continue to attack federal forces while they are in transit. Land mines explode along the sides of roads from time to time, killing both Russian soldiers and local civilians.

So-called cleansings are being conducted in various settlements throughout Chechnya, resulting in the arrest, murder or disappearance of many men.

From late October through early December, the villages of Mesker-yurt, Starye Atagi, Samashki and Assinovskaya were subjected to cleansing.

In Assinovskaya, the Russians blew up the home of one of the female participants in the October terrorist act in Moscow.

Large-scale cleansing was carried out in the village of Samashki on the last day of Ramadan, spoiling the holiday for its inhabitants, several of whom were arrested and beaten. Some of the arrestees have yet to be released.

In Starye Atagi, the cleansing was conducted by federal forces along with Chechen police and, therefore, did not have a large negative impact on its inhabitants.

The greatest misfortune to befall the Chechen people are the so-called address cleansings. These were supposed to be, according to Russian officials, a way of avoiding mass repression of the civilian populace.

In reality, it is a highly sophisticated method of annihilation. It most often occurs according to the following scenario: late at night, armed men in camouflage gear and masks enter a house or apartment. They have no identifying markings and some of them speak Chechen. They call out the name of the person they are after and take him away, without giving any explanation, presenting any documents or making any accusations. The arrestee then disappears. No Russian officials claim responsibility for his arrest and, in the best of circumstances, his body is later recovered.

All of these factors work together to create apathy towards ones fate and that of the society and distrust of political transformation. People have no illusions about European or U.S. intervention in the Russian-Chechen conflict. They are well aware that they are small change in the high-stakes game of politics, and that they are doomed to extermination.

Written by correspondents in Chechnya, Dispatches from Chechnya is distributed in English by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), a non-profit organization founded in 1986, dedicated to the promotion of democracy and pluralism in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For more information about IDEE, its programs, and the situation in Chechnya, visit the IDEE webpage at www.idee.org. To receive Dispatches by email, please contact IDEE at idee@idee.org

Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota
Co-Directors, IDEE