24 December 2003, 12:48

War in Caucasus, peace in Russia

A workshop was held on November 8, 2003, with the assistance of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin, Germany, on problems of the armed conflict area in Chechnya and refugees from that conflict area - both on Russia's remaining territory and in Europe, including Germany.

Alexander Cherkasov, an officer at the Human Rights Center and a board member at Memorial, delivered a report along with other workshop members. Here is his report titled "War in Chechnya, peace in Russia. Some aspects of the influence of the armed conflict in Chechnya on Russia's home policy - and what's to be done about that?" The report follows:

He declared war on Irukan, himself led the army to the border, drowned it in swamps and lost in forests... Any minister would have been hanged by the legs at the top of the Jolly Tower for such slips, but Don Reba somehow remained in power. He abolished the ministries in charge of education and welfare and set up the ministry for guard of the Crown...

Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, It's Hard to be God

In dealing with the stated subject, I will try, where possible, not to talk a lot about Chechnya - its problems are thousandfold Russia's problems. But Chechnya's horrible present can be the prototype of that "bright future" to which the current leadership is leading Russia. This, in turn, is even now a global problem.

This is our common problem - how to turn down such a future, as politely as possible? What can be done for that? How to organize the campaign of pressure on the Russian government and on the European and world governments?

The second war in Chechnya has been underway over four years. All this time, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been underway. These crimes are innumerable, they can be discussed eternally.

In first months of war, these were primarily sweeping and indiscriminate bombings and firings, and thousands of people became their victims. A total of up to 50,000 civilians were killed in the "first" war in 1994-96, and 10,000 to 20,000 in the "second."

Then, "clean-up operations" were conducted over several years - operations of law enforcement and security agencies in settlements, that went along with sweeping indiscriminate violence, "disappearances" of people, and often mass killings, too. It is impossible to say how many people were detained, beaten, and underwent torture and degrading treatment. Even more were robbed and humiliated. It's hard to say how many women underwent violence.

Last year, "clean-up operations" have not been conducted, practically, but "disappearances" of people and extrajudicial executions continue. At night, people are detained and carried away by "armed persons in camouflage" coming by armored personnel carriers. More than 3,000 people disappeared during the "second" war - and that's only official figures.

Note that Chechnya is just a small plot of land, one-thousandth of Russia's area, and about 1/250 in terms population presently. Violence and crimes are therefore enormously packed there. Bringing the number of those who were killed or disappeared into correlation with the republican population, one can say that Chechnya has gone through half of World War II and Stalin's entire big terror in the past decade.

It's true there are terrorists, and they commit crimes, crimes against their own people. What else can the explosions in Znamenskoe, Mozdok, Moscow and last year's hostage taking in the Dubrovka theater be called?

So what, do the government's words about a "counter-terrorist operation" in Chechnya meet reality?

But the Russian government constantly substitutes for terms and definitions, so one should constantly reread George Orwell to understand what is going on in the country.

They talk about a "counter-terrorist operation," but this suggests the highest degree of discrimination in action. The target of such an operation must first of all be to save people's lives, then to seize or destroy the terrorists. Experience shows Russia's law enforcement and security agencies have a substantially different hierarchy of values; they act by all means, and the evidence are both tens of thousands of those killed in Chechnya and the 130 people killed in Dubrovka a year ago.

Such substitution for concepts is everywhere.

They talked about "precision strikes," but in fact there were sweeping and indiscriminate bombings and firings.

They talked about "humanitarian corridors," but in fact these were more like "death corridors," because the roads were fired and bombed all the time.

They talk about fighting terrorism, and therewith justify using state terror.

Generally speaking, words about fighting terrorists are used to cover real war with separatists, while Russia is obliged to solve such problems politically. We'll talk about that later, though...

They talk about restoring the constitutional order, but in fact a legal vacuum has artificially been created in Chechnya, where law enforcement and security agencies' action is, probably, even harder and more uncontrolled than under Stalin.

Committed crimes remain unpunished. People's applications are not accepted, legal actions are not taken on accepted applications. Just several dozen criminal cases have been heard by courts, but a handful of those guilty received actual punishment. This "suspended-sentence justice," this organized impunity cannot but provoke new crimes.

Russia is a warring nation, so developments in Chechnya influence life throughout the federation.

Officers of every Russian law enforcement and security agency, from all regions, go through Chechnya.

Experience of uncontrolled and unpunished violence cannot get by without leaving a trace.

Just like experience of violence over law cannot get by without leaving a trace.

And no doubt, Orwell's language, experience of substitution for concepts becomes a habit, too.

So Russia is presently by no means insured against a comeback of its totalitarian past, which has settled down on one-thousandth of its territory.

What's to be done about that?

Apparently, using every chance to talk about crimes, impunity, and that it is indecent to be in the same legal field with the heirs to Molotov and Ribbentrop.

Big blood always goes along with big lies.

The Russian media practically provide no coverage of developments in Chechnya - or, more precisely, they don't report the truth. The media community is filled with official information, about anything but reality, life and death: but there are official lies about that. There are individual journalists and media outlets, though, that report on something what is important, and they report the truth - but these outlets are not mainstream. There is no nationwide discussion of this problem, the most important one for entire Russia.

How has it happened? It began with truth - in Dagestan, after Basaev's units invaded it in August-September 1999, where the Russian military for the first time in decades acted and was perceived as liberators. Both journalists and, probably, the entire nation wanted "good news" - so they got them. The "small victorious war" was accompanied by euphoria. But when the war crossed Chechnya's administrative border, severe censorship was established, actually. It was public at first - "how can you report on our nice army unfavorably?"

Then information was replaced by unconcealed lies. Thus was after the shelling on October 21, 1999, of the center of Grozny using missiles with cluster warheads equipped with pellet bombs when more than 100 people were killed and thousands were wounded - primarily in the city marketplace.

Right after this, at a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said:

"I can confirm that some explosion really occurred in Grozny's marketplace. However, I would like to draw the attention of the press to the fact that what is meant is not just a marketplace in the generally accepted meaning of the word, what is meant is an arms marketplace - this is how this place is called in Grozny. This is an arms store, arms cache. And this place is one of the headquarters of the gangs. We do not rule out that the explosion that occurred there resulted from conflicts between rival groups."

Such truthfulness is typical for our current president up to now.

Then came police censorship. Such is the story of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky who was detained by Russian law enforcement agencies and delivered to a "filtration point" in Chernokozovo. They say he was then handed over to Chechen resistance forces, but in reality to a unit controlled by the Federal Security Service. Finally, he managed to escape, but was again arrested under a false charge. Sure enough, after this only the most "slow-witted" journalists could afford reporting the truth on developments in Chechnya.

However, it was Chechnya from where an influx of "good news" in all media outlets began. The independent television channels NTV, TV-6, and TVS were placed under control or in different ways eliminated.

There is no objective information not only about Chechnya, but also practically about all problems vital for Russia. Instead, there is silence, twaddle, or official lies. Only a few journalists and publications report the truth, raise relevant problems, but they, I repeat, are not mainstream. There is no nationwide discussion of practically all relevant problems.

What is to be done, what is necessary? Solidarity and pressure.

Sure enough, firstly, supporting independent media outlets, independent journalists and NGOs. This support, these contacts, this solidarity will help them break away from their non-mainstream state. Establishing relations with European NGOs and media outlets, they will get a floor - or at least an ersatz - for discussion. This will enable an "attempt of escape" from the marginal position in the Russian media community, too.

Secondly, there is a need for pressure on Russia, both under the specific "Stop-lying-about-Chechnya!" slogan and with a general demand that freedom of speech is ensured.

Thirdly, one should press one's politicians that contact Russian politicians: "If they lie about Chechnya, how can they be believed in anything else?"

Control of the media community enabled the Russian leadership to manipulate in the political sphere. It is the second Chechen war that made Putin - an unimportant official no one knew about - president.

In the autumn of 1999, Russia finally got a leader which - in contrast to lethargic Yeltsin - at least in some way responded to events, at least somehow talked, and took at least some sort action. Details appeared to be irrelevant. Putin matched the people's need to love the leadership at least a bit. This love turned out to be reciprocal, but perverted - it's always so with government.

In the autumn of 1999, in circumstances of a "counter-terrorist" hysteria, after the explosions of apartment buildings in Russian cities, voicing any doubts turned out to be impossible. Only one political party, Yabloko, afforded it; its popularity rating immediately dropped. Support of war was equal to support for Putin and vice versa. As a result, pro-Putin parties received the majority in the Duma, the lower house, in December 1999, and Putin himself became president in 2000.

However, it is impossible to win two election campaigns, one four years after another, under the same "small-victorious-war" slogan - how can it be "small" and why is it "victorious" in this case?

Chechnya will therefore go with the word "settlement" alone during the election campaign in 2003-04.

This "settlement" is another word from Orwell's vocabulary. Instead of a real political process, there is its ersatz, dummy, puppet show.

The federal side, as I say, called separatists "terrorists." That's how the refusal is substantiated to talk with Aslan Maskhadov, a president whose election was acknowledged by Russia in 1997 and whom Yeltsin received in the Kremlin that time. Likewise, if one believes the Russian Prosecutor General's Office, Akhmed Zakaev, who stood behind Yeltsin's back against the backdrop of a curtain with double eagles when the Russian-Chechen pact was being signed, was also a criminal. Thank God, Zakaev's case was heard by European courts, in Copenhagen and London.

But no talks are underway!

Instead of negotiation with the separatist leaders, we are shown dialogue with their own protИgИ, Akhmad Kadyrov, as a political process.

Instead of an amnesty for ordinary members of Chechen armed units confronting the federal side, it was suggested they join the same Kadyrov's personal guard - given his guarantee.

Results of last year's census were presented as another proof of normalization of the situation in Chechnya. Then, in October, they "counted" 1.088 million people in the republic, much more than before the second war. It's fun that two months before that officials had used the real figure, 0.6 million... It is no less fun that Russia's State Statistics Committee does not either use census results - they talk about 0.815 million residents.

However, hundreds of thousands of "dead souls" is a very powerful electoral resource which the authorities used at both the March "referendum" on Chechnya's Constitution and the October "presidential election."

The election in Chechnya is a glance in the future; there we can see the upcoming elections in Russia. No doubt, this is a triumph of democracy, managed democracy.

Firstly, no elections, referendums or censuses are conducted in time of war or in emergency conditions anywhere around the world. But we are having no war, are we? We are having a "counter-terrorist operation." As for emergency, it was not declared officially, although it is actually in effect. As a result, the terror mentioned above became the key election campaign element.

Secondly, the outcome of the election was programmed, everything was managed from the Kremlin.

Real opponents, i.e. the separatists, had been eliminated from the list of candidates beforehand.

In the course of the "election campaign," the Chechens that were loyal to the Kremlin but capable of actual rivalry with Kadyrov were also removed from the list. Khusein Jabrailov was threatened, Aslambek Aslakhanov bribed with office, and the last one, Malik Saidullaev, was removed through court proceedings. That's all. The "clean-up operation" on the political arena was completed, and only the "crowd" remained.

The leadership "degraded" some and promoted others. Kadyrov's meeting with Putin broadcast by all Russian channels - isn't that illegal publicity? Akhmad-hajji's another pre-election trip, to the United States, thank Allah, did not lead to shaking hands with Bush - the latter disdained it... Does one need to say that meetings with the presidents were impossible for other candidates?

How much is it different from the Russian situation? As Shakespeare rightly observed, "all the world?sa stage, and all the men and women merely players," but in Russia it it's a puppet show, playing a role is replaced by puppet movements.

Opponents - parties or individuals - are artificially eliminated from the political sphere, where clowns are left. Khodorkovsky's arrest is the same stuff. Yet terror remains an extreme measure in the political process; the appetite comes with eating, though. As for pressure on obstinate actors, it is all in the day's work. Russian courts, too, pass necessary decisions at necessary moments.

Publicity is also possible only for "insiders." For an "outsider" candidate, there is an arrest of publicity materials, but for an insider, there is any sort of advertising, including the president's meeting with the "insider" candidate and discussion of the "golden shower" to pour on the region given he/she wins. Matvienko in St. Petersburg is not different here from Kadyrov in Chechnya.

And, to be sure, there is the "right" count of votes - taking legions of "dead souls" into account, prepared during the census.

Mr. Veshniakov, chair of the Russian Central Electoral Commission, called Kadyrov's election "model," and I am afraid it will really become a model for Russia.

What's to be done about that?

Using any chance to remind of this farce with Kadyrov's election in Chechnya is good for Chechnya and Russia and the West.

It comes in handy that neither Russian human rights advocates, nor international structures sent their watchers to this farce. Now they will generate some texts about results of its monitoring. Both can and must be used in the criticism and pressure campaign against Russia and Western structures.

I have tried to show that Chechnya's problems are in fact compact, condensed Russian problems. And now the negative experience accumulated in Chechnya is inexorably spreading all over the country.

But today these problems are becoming Europe's problems. Not because there is the problem of refugees from Chechnya - this is more likely a present, a resource, like the one Jewish refugees were last century, settling down around the world.

The trouble is in the Russian leadership whose style is being assimilated by other nations' leaderships. The Bolshevik Party ruled Russia over seventy years. It looks like a "Bushevik" party is ruling the world presently, and the influence of this party's Russian Republican Committee on the world in general is great and destructive.

This threat should not be underestimated, and it should be fought here and now.

Author: Alexander Cherkasov, Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow); Source: Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow, Russia)

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