Chechnya * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Chechnya *

Chechnya *

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the subsequent U.S.-led attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russia intensified its efforts to portray the war in Chechnya as part of the struggle against international terrorists. Russian President Vladimir Putin's support of the U.S. antiterrorism campaign led to concern that Moscow would use its newfound cooperation with Washington to justify hardline policies in Chechnya. Some countries in the West, including the United States, which previously had criticized Russian actions in the breakaway republic, softened their stance over Chechnya in the months following the attacks of September 11. While Russian and Chechen representatives held face-to-face negotiations in November for the first time in more than two years, clashes between federal troops and Chechen separatists continued throughout the year, underscoring the Russian military's tenuous hold over much of Chechen territory.

A small Northern Caucasus republic covered by flat plains in the north-central portion and by high mountains in the south, Chechnya has been at war with Russia almost continuously since the late 1700s. In February 1944, the Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakhstan under the pretext of their having collaborated with Germany during World War II. Although rehabilitated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957 and allowed to return to their homeland, they continued to be politically suspect and were excluded from the region's administration.

In his first decree as head of state after his election as Chechnya's president in October 1991, former Soviet Air Force Commander Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed Chechnya's independence on November 1. Moscow responded by instituting an economic blockade of the republic and engaging in political intimidation of the territory's leadership.

In 1994, Russia began overtly to assist Chechen figures opposed to Dudayev, whose rule was marked by corruption and the rise of powerful clans and criminal gangs. Lowintensity conflicts developed in July, and fighting escalated in September. Citing the need to protect Moscow's national security and important economic interests, such as railways and energy pipelines, President Boris Yeltsin sent 40,000 Russian troops into Chechnya by mid-December 1994 and attacked the capital city on New Year's Eve. Russian forces intensified the shelling of Grozny and other population centers throughout 1995, with civilians becoming frequent targets. Chechen forces regrouped, making significant gains against ill-trained, undisciplined, and demoralized Russian troops. Russian public opposition to the war increased, fueled by criticism from many of the country's media. In April 1996, President Dudayev was killed, reportedly by a Russian missile.

With mounting Russian casualties and no imminent victory for Moscow, a peace deal was signed in August 1996. While calling for the withdrawal of most Russian forces from the breakaway territory, the document postponed a final settlement on the republic's status until 2001. Russia had suffered a humiliating defeat against the much smaller Chechen forces, while Chechnya's formal economy and infrastructure were virtually destroyed. The war had been marked by serious human rights violations committed by Russian government forces, as well as reported abuses by armed Chechen opposition groups.

On January 27, 1997, moderate Chief of Staff Aslan Maskhadov was elected president over 12 other candidates, including his principal rival, field commander Shamil Basayev. Concurrent national legislative elections ushered in the fifth parliament since 1990, as none of the previous ones had lasted their full term. Maskhadov, who subsequently named Basayev acting prime minister, sought to maintain Chechen sovereignty while pressing Moscow to help rebuild the republic. On May 12, Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed an accord that included a reference to Moscow's recognition of Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate president. Throughout 1998, Basayev and other former field commanders formed an unruly opposition of often-competing warlords, removing large areas of Chechnya from Maskhadov's control. A series of kidnappings, including the taking of foreign nationals as hostages by criminal gangs and militia groups, illustrated Maskhadov's growing weakness.

In early August 1999, a group of more than 1,000 Chechen guerillas crossed into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, seizing several towns and declaring their intention to unite Chechnya and Dagestan as an independent Islamic state. Russian troops soon recaptured the villages and claimed to have driven the guerillas back into bases in Chechnya by late September. A few weeks later, a string of bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities killed nearly 300 people. Although the Kremlin blamed the attacks on Chechen militants, both the Chechen government and rebel groups denied any involvement.

In what was described by Moscow as an operation to destroy the Chechen guerillas, the Kremlin ordered air strikes on key Chechen military installations and economic targets in late September 1999, and the subsequent deployment of ground troops in Chechnya. Although Russian troops advanced rapidly over the largely flat terrain in the northern third of the republic, their progress slowed considerably as they neared the heavily defended city of Grozny, which they entered in mid-December but failed to capture by year's end. In a notable policy shift, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in early October effectively withdrew Moscow's recognition of President Maskhadov as the republic's main legitimate authority.

Russia's increasingly deliberate and indiscriminate bombing attacks on civilian targets caused sone 200,000 people to flee Chechnya, most to the tiny neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. Tens of thousands of residents remained trapped in basements in Grozny during the deadly air and artillery strikes. While Western governments and international organizations expressed growing condemnation of the attacks, in Russia the campaign enjoyed broad popular support, fueled by the media's one-sided reporting favoring the official government position.

After Russian troops finally captured the largely destroyed city of Grozny in early February 2000, causing thousands of Chechen separatists to flee the capital, the Russian military turned its offensive against the remaining rebel strongholds in the southern mountain region. While Russian troops conducted air and artillery raids against towns suspected of harboring large numbers of Chechen fighters, frequently followed by often indiscriminate mopping-up operations to check for remaining rebels, they became subject to almost daily guerilla bomb and sniper attacks by rebel forces. The international community issued periodic condemnations of Moscow's operation in Chechnya, as did the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, which voted in April to suspend Russia's voting rights in the organization.

Throughout 2001, Chechen rebels continued to engage in guerilla warfare against Russian troops with regular mine, sniper, and bomb attacks, highlighting Moscow's inability to assert full control over the breakaway republic. In January, President Putin signed a decree transferring command of military operations in Chechnya from the defense ministry to one of the country's main intelligence agencies, the FSB. The same month, the Kremlin announced that it would scale down its operations in Chechnya by reducing the number of Russian troops in Chechnya from 80,000 to 20,000. However, the withdrawal halted in early May after only 5,000 soldiers were sent home.

Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Russian officials announced their support for the U.S. antiterrorism campaign. Moscow described the Chechen conflict as part of the broader war on global terrorism, drawing a connection between Chechen separatists and international terrorist groups associated with Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the West softened its criticisms of Moscow's actions in Chechnya in apparent exchange for Russia's support of U.S.-led operations against the Taliban. While German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suggested that the world should reevaluate the situation in Chechnya in light of the September 11 events, the United States urged Chechen rebels to cut their alleged ties with terrorist groups. In contrast, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights had approved a resolution less than half a year earlier condemning what it called the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Russia's armed forces in Chechnya.

In the worst outbreak of hostilities in many months, Chechen fighters staged a series of surprise offensives in mid-September in the second largest city of Gudermes and shot down a military helicopter over Grozny. The Russian military responded by detaining more than 400 people suspected of assisting the rebels.

In an unexpected reversal of the Russian policy of refusing to negotiate with Chechen separatists, President Putin on September 24 offered the rebels a 72-hour deadline to sever all of their alleged contacts with international terrorists and approach federal representatives in the region to discuss disarmament procedures. As the deadline passed, Putin's envoy to Chechnya, Viktor Kazantzev, reported having made brief telephone contact with Aslan Maskhadov's representative, Akhmed Zakayev. Some analysts maintained that the Kremlin's goal in extending the offer to negotiate was to deflect Western criticism of Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, while at the same time justifying continued military operations in the republic if the deadline was not met.

In another surprising development, Russian and Chechen representatives sat down on November 18 for the first official face-to-face negotiations since the war broke out more than two years ago. Kazantsev and Zakayev, who met in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport for a few hours, discussed a possible resolution to the conflict and agreed to hold future meetings. Despite these initiatives, fighting continued in several cities throughout the republic, and Russia's defense minister announced plans in December to launch a new winter offensive targeting rebel groups. Also, serious doubts remained as to whether President Maskhadov maintained sufficient control over the territory's various rival factions to impose a peace process.

The trial of prominent Chechen rebel leader Salman Raduyev, who had led a hostage- taking raid on a hospital in neighboring Dagestan in 1996 that left 78 people dead, opened in Dagestan on November 15. Russia's prosecutor-general personally handled the case, underscoring the importance with which federal authorities regarded the trial. On December 25, Raduyev was found guilty of hostage taking, terrorism, and murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

With the resumption of war in Chechnya in 1999, residents of the republic currently do not have the means to change their government democratically. The 1997 presidential elections were characterized by international observers to have been reasonably free and fair. President Aslan Maskhadov fled the capital city in December 1999, and the parliament elected in 1997 ceased to function. Russia placed Moscow loyalists or Chechens opposed to Maskhadov's central government in various administrative posts throughout the republic. In June 2000, Putin enacted a decree establishing direct presidential rule over Chechnya, appointing Akhmed Kadyrov, a Muslim cleric and Chechnya's spiritual leader, to head the republic's administration. Kadyrov was denounced by Maskhadov and separatist Chechens as a traitor, while pro-Moscow Chechens objected to his support during the first Chechen war for the republic's independence.

The Russian military continued to impose severe restrictions on journalists' access to the Chechen war zone, issuing accreditation primarily to those with proven loyalty to the Russian government. Few foreign reporters are allowed into the breakaway republic. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with the daily Russian paper Novaya Gazeta, who has published articles critical of Moscow's war effort in Chechnya, was briefly detained by Russian forces in February. In July, the Russian military announced that journalists covering the war must be accompanied at all times by an official from the interior ministry's press service. The disruptive effects of the war severely hinder news production and the flow of information to the general public. Russian state-run television and radio resumed broadcasts in Chechnya in March via a transmitter north of Grozny, although much of the population remains without electricity. The Chechen rebel government operates a website, Kavkaz Center, with reports about the conflict and other news from its perspective.

Muslims enjoy freedom of worship, although the Wahhabi sect, a group with roots in Saudi Arabia and characterized by a strict observance of Islam, has been banned. Most religious Chechens practice Sufiism, a mystical form of Islam.

Since the resumption of war, the rule of law has become virtually nonexistent. Civilians have been subject to harassment and violence, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions, at the hands of Russian soldiers, while senior military authorities have shown general disregard for these abuses. In the spring of 2001, Russian Colonel Yuri Budanov went on trial at a military court on charges of abducting and murdering a young Chechen woman in March 2000. The trial was adjourned in July to allow for a psychiatric evaluation of the defendant, who was found to be "emotionally distressed" at the time he committed the crime, allowing the charge to be reduced to manslaughter. Human rights groups emphasized that this case represented only one of many crimes committed by Russian soldiers against local civilians. Chechen fighters have targeted Chechens who have cooperated with Russian government officials. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 18 local administration heads and 5 religious leaders, as well as many Chechen teachers, police officers, and other civil servants, were murdered in 2001. Kadyrov survived several assassination attempts, and one of his deputies was killed.

A mass grave containing 51 bodies, many in civilian clothing and showing signs of torture, was discovered in February in a town near Grozny. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the Russian government's investigators failed to preserve crucial evidence and prematurely reburied unidentified bodies. In early July, a roundup of some 1,500 men for supposed document checks unleashed new allegations of brutality against the Russian military. According to eyewitness accounts, some of those detained were not released until their families paid bribes, while others were tortured or had disappeared and were presumed dead. Soldiers reportedly looted homes, schools, and hospitals during the raids, which were in apparent retaliation for rebel attacks that had left five Russian policemen dead. The massive mopping-up operation took place in three towns that had been declared safe zones for refugees, causing almost all of the 26,000 Chechens harbored there to seek safety in neighboring Ingushetia. Kadyrov expressed unprecedented criticism of the roundups, and several local officials appointed by Moscow threatened to quit in protest. The Russian military initiated an investigation into the incident and subsequently arrested six lower-ranking soldiers, although no top army officials were charged.

Travel both within and to and from the republic is severely restricted. After the resumption of war, the Russian military failed to provide safe exit routes for many civilians out of the conflict zones. Many Chechens, particularly those in Grozny, face often random harassment or physical assault by Russian troops and local armed groups while traveling even short distances. Bribes are usually required to pass the numerous military checkpoints. By the end of 2001, about 150,000 officially registered internally displaced persons remained in Ingushetia, citing fears for their personal safety if they returned to Chechnya. According to a Council of Europe representative, conditions in the refugee camps had worsened over the year, with a shortage of clothing, food, and medicine.

Widespread corruption and economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity. Ransoms obtained from kidnapping, counterfeiting, and the production of low-quality fuel out of oil stolen from pipelines provide money for guerillas and criminal elements. Residents of Russian-occupied areas report that many basic social and other services have not been restored.

While women continue to face discrimination in the traditional male-dominated culture, the war has resulted in many women becoming the primary breadwinners for their families. Russian soldiers reportedly rape Chechen women in areas controlled by the Russian military.