Russia

Chechnya: A form of complicity

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By Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, special to Prague Watchdog

Nizhny Novgorod

On December 22 a "Declaration" appeared on the website of Chechnya's Human Rights Commissioner, Ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, announcing the resumption of the work of the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Chechnya. In itself the text is rather neutral, yet on reading it I experienced at least three strong emotions.

The first emotion was anger. When I looked at the list of signatories to the letter I saw the names of many of my close friends, in whose personal integrity it would never have occurred to me to doubt.

The second was relief, when I discovered that many of the people whose names appear under the document did not actually sign it or give their authorization for signing. Why, I wondered, would anyone embark so lightly on such a forgery? The answer seemed obvious: confronted with the fact, none of the "Chechen social activists" would dare to utter a peep of protest. And unfortunately I was right. Hardly any of them - with the exception of Supyan Baskhanov (head of the Committee against Torture, ed.) - were in any hurry to publicly disown their signature under the frankly vile document.

And this realization made me feel a third strong emotion - one of shame for people I know.

When I discussed the situation with colleagues, they told me not to be too hard on the people who had signed. It wasn't even their own personal safety that was at stake. They all had families, and if they publicly told the truth in Kadyrov's Chechnya, the safety of their children, spouses and parents would be threatened. Although in many ways this is true, I don't really feel sorry for them. Working to defend human rights in a country like Russia which, to put it euphemistically, cannot exactly be called a model of democracy, is an activity not without its dangers. Some people who engaged in it - like Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova and Stanislav Markelov - were forced to pay for it with their lives. At the very least we are talking about occupational hazards, and there is nothing shameful in deciding to change one's line of work. Such a step at least has the virtue of honesty.

By early 2007 in Chechnya was largely under the absolute control of the regime of Ramzan Kadyrov, to whom the federal authorities had delegated the right to practice unlawful coercion. The main elements of that regime are the personality cult of a leader who is above the law, the absolute power of the official armed groupings, the widespread application for repressive purposes of the principle of collective responsibility, the absence of a legal opposition and independent media, a de facto ban on criticism of the president and his closest associates, the destruction of traditional morality and its substitution with servility, hypocrisy and denunciation. Mutatis mutandis, we are dealing with a miniature clone of textbook Stalinism that has been cultivated in the Kremlin's test tube.

During the process that formed the dictatorship, the "social activists" who lived and worked in Chechnya faced two choices. The first choice involved an uncompromising defence of principles, with a high probability of being kidnapped, receiving a bullet in the head, losing members of one's family or, in the best scenario, ending up far from one's homeland, in exile. The second choice was to honestly give up a sphere of activity that entailed such an immense risk to oneself and one's loved ones. But there was also a third choice: that of compromise with the authorities. Some of the people whose names ended up on the list of signatories to the "Declaration of NGOs" had taken that choice. They naturally took care to justify their intentions as good ones: one could not simply abandon people: one had to help those who could still be helped, and even speak the kind of truth for which one would not be killed.

What the strategy of these organizations boiled down to was the following: the crimes of the so-called "Kadyrovites" were to be ignored and all one's efforts focused on helping those who were victims of the federal troops and those Chechen security forces which were neither actually or formally under Kadyrov's control. I will not say that all this was done in order to placate Kadyrov, but here the interests of the young dictator and the "Chechen social activists" coincided. The thunder and lightning of righteous anger were directed mainly at sops that had already been thrown by Moscow, such as the permanently accused Arakcheyeva and Khudyakov and the out-on-early-parole Budanov. Nevertheless, even this simple trick produced the required effect, and not only on the internal audience: even an experienced politician like Akhmed Zakayev began to make statements implying that Kadyrov was continuing the struggle for Chechnya's independence. The final element in the strategy was to sling mud at Kadyrov's rivals - Baysarov, the Yamadayevs, Kokiyev and others like them - with mention of the killings, torture and abductions that were committed by their subordinates.

And of course, the participation of the Chechen social activists in these propaganda campaigns was not in itself reprehensible - after all, the atrocities involved were truly outrageous. However, the people and organizations that embarked on this path quickly became the objects of manipulation by the regime.

Kadyrov refused to play by the rules. The members of the Memorial Human Rights Centre chose the first and most risky solution. Reports of disappearances, assassinations, collective punishments carried out by the henchmen of Chechnya's de facto dictator appeared regularly on the organization's website. And so from the moment the persecution of the organization began, when Natalia Estemirova was abducted and murdered, when Kadyrov quite brazenly said vile things about her, things that were unworthy of a Chechen - the social activists' silence gradually began to take the form of complicity. This was the last signal: if you cannot undertake the mission that has been assigned to you, go away. Otherwise, what is required of you next time will be not simply approving silence, but action...

The next time arrived. First there was a trial in Moscow, where some of the "Chechen social activists" defended "the honour, dignity and business reputation of Ramzan Kadyrov." The defendant was Memorial's chairman, Oleg Orlov. Then, to replace Memorial, which had suspended its activities after the murder of Estemirova, the Combined Mobile Group of rights defenders from the Russian regions arrived. They were able to initiate an investigation of several cases of enforced disappearances which allegedly involved members of the Chechen Interior Ministry. And the "social activists" were needed again - in the office of Nurdi Nukhazhiyev the "correct" representatives of Chechen NGOs led by the ombudsman himself gave a telling-off to the "incorrect" ones who had dared to start work in Chechnya without their approval and the sanction of the current authorities.

Evil gossip has it that a few days later Nukhazhiyev demanded that his faithful "social activists" should - almost as a political demonstration - go to the apartment that had been rented by their Russian colleagues in Grozny and ask them to leave the republic altogether. But under various specious pretexts they supposedly refused to take part in this crusade.

Whatever the truth of the matter, when to all the other ills that were being heaped on the head of Kadyrov's chief civil society prosecutor was added the return of Memorial, and its agreement to take part in another act of ignominy, he seems to have preferred not to ask any more questions of his ministerial audience (or at least a part of it). That, I think, is how the Declaration came to be published.

A gang leader who wants to secure guarantees of loyalty from members of his gang attempts to bind them as accomplices by means of a shared blood sacrifice. This is also the principle on which many of the pro-Russian armed groupings recruited from among ethnic Chechens were originally formed. In the destitute Chechnya of the day, young men were attracted by high salaries, guarantees of personal security during "mop-ups" and the chance to carry weapons legally. Then they took part in night raids, kidnappings, torture or murder. All the members of the squad were bound by the blood they shed, and therefore became more and more obedient to their superiors.

The "Chechen social activists" are bound not by blood but by a shared consciousness of their own guilt. And it cannot be said that they could not have foreseen this and avoided it. Now, each of them only has one way out - like Supyan Baskhanov, to publicly dissociate themselves from this text.

Otherwise, dear friends, you will be used in the future as well. And the more that this happens, the worse its consequences will be - not least for yourselves.

(Translation by DM)

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