Russia

Chechnya: Fading hopes

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Dispatches from Chechnya No. 28
The Situation in the Chechen Republic: January 2003

The overall situation in the Chechen Republic is unstable, worsening with each day. Nevertheless, the Russian government, along with the temporary Chechen administration, constantly talk about the stabilization of the socio-political situation in the republic. They have prepared a legislative framework for conducting a referendum regarding the Constitution and governmental elections. At the same time, they maintain that by March 2003 conditions will be established allowing the Russian military to return to the barracks and the MVD of the Chechen Republic to take the responsibility for controlling the situation.

The reality of the situation is much more grave. Lately, the situation in the mountainous regions has intensified. From the beginning of the war, the Chechen rebels have had absolute control in the mountains during the day; by night, they become the rulers of the Vedensk and Nozhai-urtov regions. The Shatoisk and Itum-Kale regions have up until now been considered loyal to the federal rule and there have not been any full scale searches of villages. The federal military is ever present.

But the situation in the Shatoisk and Itum-Kale regions noticeably worsened by the end of 2002. There was an attack on policemen from the Novosibirsk OMON, who were holding down the post by Bashin-Kale. A few people were killed. Upon arriving on the scene, the Chechen police discovered that representatives of the Russian forces carried out the attack. A confrontation ensued between the Chechen police and Russian soldiers. This event was not described anywhere. The letters written to the victims' relatives said that they were killed in a confrontation with Chechen rebels. If it hadn't been for the quick response of the Chechen police, the locals would have been blamed for the entire situation, which could then be used as an excuse for full-scale searches in the surrounding villages.

In mid-December of 2002, a landmine exploded near a microbus traveling on the road out of the village of Ushkala, killing two and injuring several passengers, who were residents of Itum-Kale. The Russian forces blamed this on an act of terrorism on rebels. The villagers, however, are well aware of the fact that the road is controlled by Russian soldiers, who are stationed only a few hundred meters apart. Besides, the representatives of Russian forces appeared on the scene minutes after the explosion.

In mid-January 2003, a grenade exploded in the hands of a Russian soldier by accident while in the market of downtown Shatoisk. As a result of the explosion, the soldier and several of his friends were injured. The city was immediately blockaded, and searches were conducted. Fourteen Chechen policemen and soldiers were disarmed and arrested. They were later released, but badly beaten.

Police actions by the Russian military were activated yet again in the regions of Shatoisk and Itum-Kale. In mid-January 2003 temporary federal forces were stationed along the entire route between Grozny and Itum-Kale. They carefully screened all passing cars and stopped all those that appeared suspicious to them.

The humanitarian situation remains critical. Most mountainous villages, including regional centers, of the Ifumkal and Shatoisk regions lie in ruins. People do not have basic living conditions. There are no hospitals or medical centers and no work. People are absolutely ungoverned and unprotected from the tyranny of Russian soldiers.

Many villages lack schools, which forces children to walk to schools several kilometers from home. In Itum-Kale and several other villages, students are still educated in tents. There is a lack of textbooks and of qualified teachers and the educational process itself has become more of a formality. People are lacking food and clothing. Additionally, life in the mountains is a lot more difficult and dangerous than in the valley.

The federal forces are causing damage to the natural and architectural reserves in the mountains. As a result of fire in the years 2000-2002, a number of architectural statues aging 800-1000 years were destroyed. Bombing and artillery fire have caused irreparable damage to the reserve's forests and unique fauna. In November 2002, Russian soldiers deliberately set fire to the mountain forests, which burned for nearly a month. Almost twenty thousand hectares of valuable forest burned, as did anything else living in it.

Most ancient architectural monuments of mountainous Chechnya are located in the so-called border zones. According to some statistics, they are destroyed and dismantled on a regular basis, yet the workers of the reserves are denied access to repair them, despite pleadings to soldiers and the temporary administration.

The situation in the valley regions of Chechnya is no less difficult. There are regular searches conducted in various populated regions, but especially frequent in Grozny, Argun, Urus-Martan, in the villages of Old Ataga, Czoczan-Urt, and also in the suburbs of Grozny. More often than not, these searches lead to the arrests of innocent people, some of whom are released on bail, some of whom disappear without a trace. Lately, there have been cases of people being made human explosions. Grenades are tied to a person and are detonated. After this, it becomes impossible to identify the person; only pieces remain.

One of the most perfected ways to attack peaceful populations in Chechen regions is through kidnapping. Armed people in unidentifiable camouflage uniforms drive up to someone's house and take a family member. While doing this, they do not present any form of identification or accusation. The arrested person disappears and is not listed in any records among the dead or the living. Relatives consider themselves lucky if they are able to buy back the corpse. Trade in live and dead bodies has become epidemic among the Russian soldiers.

Despite the constant presence of Russian soldiers, the crime rate in the republic remains grave. Robbery, kidnapping and murder have become everyday activities in today's Chechnya. Russian soldiers turn out to be involved in many criminal activities.

The situation in Grozny also remains grave. The explosion of the Chechen embassy, which caused the death of more than 100 people, deeply shook Chechen society. But each day, there are more people questioning whether the rebels were involved in this explosion. No one in the area saw the cars that were supposedly used to blow up the embassy. The bomb crater that was formed after the explosion could not have been that of a car with explosives. Thirdly, residents of the western parts of Grozny report seeing rockets flying in the direction of the embassy. Some of the survivors of the explosion insist that there were no cars and that the explosion was the result of something falling from above.

The events that took place by the embassy create the most pessimistic and gloomy atmosphere in Chechen society. Most of the residents of Chechnya do not believe that this war will ever come to end, causing people to flee, if only for the sake of their children. The tendency to migrate from the republic only grows stronger with each day.

Reconstruction in Grozny continues at the same tempo as before. A few houses are restored after a very long period, but most of the city's regions are in ruins. The roads are completely torn and streets are cluttered with heaps of garbage.

It was announced that at the beginning of 2002, there would be a noticeable reduction in the number of Russian checkpoints in Grozny. Their number remains the same. The only difference is that in many places they have been moved from the center of the roads to the shoulders. Russian soldiers continue to demand money from drivers. Failure to provide a bribe means being hauled off to the station. In order to earn some money, the Russian soldiers establish temporary posts on any main road. After the embassy explosion, the Russian checkpoints were increased, but without achieving any stabilization of the situation. On the contrary, especially on weekends and holidays, drunk soldiers cause real traffic jams by blocking traffic or aimlessly open fire at night. To this day, Grozny has a nighttime curfew. Without warning, Russian soldiers shoot people who appear in the street in the hours of darkness. Almost every night, late passers-by are killed or injured. Russian snipers sit on the roofs of tall buildings; their actions are never predictable.

On New Year's Eve, the Chechen police arrested a Russian soldier who was attempting to place an exploding device under the New Year's tree located in the center of the city.

On Jan 14, 2003, there was an attack on the central market in Grozny. The attack was carried out by armed people dressed in camouflage driving in armored vehicles. Witnesses claim them to be mostly Russian, but Chechen soldiers were seen as well. They blocked off the market and began detaining all males from the ages of 16 to 50. After this, they looted the storage rooms, carrying out various expensive goods. At the same time they detained three women and three young people. Residents protested, but there are still no suspects and nobody knows what happened to the people detained by the attackers.

Given this background of events, peace and stabilization talks seem even stranger, as do talks about possible terms for a referendum.

The actual situation only gets worse with each day. Any attempts to solve the political problems are doubtful to bring peace and stability to Chechnya.

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