Chechnya * | Freedom House

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Chechnya *

Chechnya *

Freedom in the World 2003

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Despite some indications of rising support for a political solution to the ongoing war in Chechnya, the brutal conflict continued throughout 2002 with no clear end in sight. Russian forces continued to face daily ambushes and sniper attacks by rebel forces, underscoring the Russian military's tenuous hold over much of the breakaway republic's territory. The fighting struck closer to home for many Russians when Chechen separatists captured 800 people in a Moscow theater in October, a crisis that ended with the deaths of most of the rebels and some 120 of the hostages.

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.

Following 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 assisting Chechen figures opposed to Dudayev, whose rule was marked by corruption and the rise of powerful clans and criminal gangs. Russian president Boris Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops into Chechnya by mid-December 1994 and attacked the capital city, Grozny, on New Year's Eve. Federal 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 much of the country's media. In April 1996, 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. In May 1997, Yeltsin and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov signed an accord in which Moscow recognized Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate leader. Maskhadov sought to maintain Chechen sovereignty while pressing Moscow to help rebuild the republic, whose formal economy and infrastructure were virtually destroyed. Throughout 1998, a number of former rival field commanders came together as an unruly opposition of often-competing warlords, removing large areas of Chechen territory from Maskhadov's control.

In September 1999, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a second military offensive in Chechnya after incursions into the neighboring republic of Dagestan by a group of Chechen rebels, and a string of deadly apartment bombings in Russia that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants. 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. In a notable policy shift, Putin in early October effectively withdrew Moscow's recognition of Maskhadov as the republic's main legitimate authority.

Russia's increasingly deliberate and indiscriminate bomb attacks on civilian targets caused some 200,000 people to flee Chechnya, most to the tiny neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. After federal troops finally captured the largely destroyed city of Grozny in February 2000, the Russian military turned its offensive against the remaining rebel strongholds in the southern mountainous region. While Russian troops conducted air and artillery raids against towns suspected of harboring large numbers of Chechen fighters--frequently followed by security sweeps in which civilians were beaten, raped or killed--they were subject to almost daily guerilla bomb and sniper attacks by rebel forces. Although the international community issued periodic condemnations of Moscow's operation in Chechnya, the campaign enjoyed broad popular support in Russia that was fueled by the media's now one-sided reporting favoring the official government position.

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Moscow defended its actions in Chechnya as part of the broader war on global terrorism, drawing a connection between Chechen separatists and international terrorist groups associated with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the West softened some of its criticisms of Moscow's conduct in Chechnya in apparent exchange for Russia's support of the U.S.-led operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As the bloody conflict entered its third year, prominent Russian and Chechen figures met in Liechtenstein in August 2002 to discuss a compromise peace plan, an apparent sign of gradual growing support for a political settlement to the protracted conflict. Among the participants were Maskhadov's representative, Akhmed Zakayev; the Russian parliamentary deputy from Chechnya, Aslambek Aslakhanov; the former speaker of Russia's parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov; and the former Russian security council chief, Ivan Rybkin. The draft plan envisaged giving Chechnya special status within the borders of the Russian Republic.

However, genuine progress toward peace remained elusive, as Chechen rebels continued to engage in guerilla warfare against Russian troops with mine, sniper, and bomb attacks, highlighting Moscow's inability to assert full control over the breakaway republic. In August, rebels reportedly shot down a Russian military helicopter near Grozny, killing more than 100 people on board. In the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, heavy clashes between federal troops and Chechen separatists erupted in September, the first time that such large-scale fighting had occurred in the area since 1994. Moscow stepped up its pressure on neighboring Georgia to crack down on Chechen rebels allegedly hiding in Georgia's lawless Pankisi Gorge region. Russian military airplanes reportedly bombed Georgian territory several times in a stated attempt to flush out Chechen fighters, leading Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze to order a police operation to cleanse the area of armed rebels and criminals.

In a dramatic development broadcast live on Russian television, a group of some 50 Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater on October 23, taking 750 people hostage. More than 120 hostages were killed, most from the effects of a sedative gas that Russian troops used to incapacitate the rebels prior to making a pre-dawn rescue attempt on October 26. Russian authorities reported that 41 of the rebels had been killed.

Following the hostage crisis, Russian officials announced a suspension of a long-planned reduction in the number of federal troops stationed in Chechnya, estimated at 80,000. On October 30, Akhmed Zakayev, who had been attending a world congress of Chechens in Copenhagen, was arrested by Danish police at Moscow's request. Zakayev was accused by Russian authorities of participating in terrorist activities, including the Moscow theater hostage crisis. On December 3, Denmark released him from custody, citing insufficient evidence. Just days later, Zakayev was detained again in London, but was released the next day after British actress Vanessa Redgrave posted his $78,000 bail. He was ordered to return to court in early January 2003. Moscow also asked Qatar to extradite Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yanderbiev.

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. On December 12, 2002, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree calling for a public referendum on a constitution in Chechnya and subsequent elections for the republic's president and parliament. Critics of the planned referendum, scheduled to take place in March 2003, insist that it should not be held while fighting continues and that the results are likely to be falsified.

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 2001 via a transmitter north of Grozny, although much of the population remains without electricity. The Chechen rebel government operates a Web site with reports about the conflict and other news from its perspective.

The Russian military continued to impose severe restrictions on journalists' access to the Chechen war zone, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the Russian government. Few foreign reporters are allowed into the breakaway republic. In July 2001, the Russian military announced that journalists covering the war must be accompanied at all times by military officials. In August 2002, Russian soldiers briefly confiscated equipment from ORT television and TV Center crews who were filming fighting between federal troops and rebels near the town of Shalazhi. The journalists were accused by the army of having traveled to the town without a military escort.

Amendments to Russia's media law, which would have placed stricter controls on reporting antiterrorist operations, were vetoed by Putin on November 25. Press freedom advocates had criticized the amendments, which parliament adopted quickly after the Moscow theater crisis, as an attempt to further censor coverage of the war in Chechnya. In April 2002, the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty began airing daily broadcasts from Prague in Chechen and two other North Caucasus languages. Originally scheduled to start broadcasting in February, Radio Liberty's governing body decided to postpone the broadcasts after protests by the Russian government, including threats to revoke Radio Liberty's license in Russia.

Most religious Chechens practice Sufism, a mystical form of Islam characterized by the veneration of local saints and by groups practicing their own rituals. The Wahhabi sect, with roots in Saudi Arabia and characterized by a strict observance of Islam, has been banned. Since the start of the last war in 1994, during which time many of the republic's schools have been damaged or destroyed, education in Chechnya has been sporadic. Most schools have not been renovated and continue to lack such basic amenities as textbooks, electricity, and running water.

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 execution, at the hands of Russian soldiers, while senior military authorities have shown general disregard for these abuses. Chechen fighters have targeted Chechens who have cooperated with Russian government officials and work for the pro-Moscow local administration. In November 2002, Putin ordered the creation of a Chechen interior ministry to be in charge of the local police force, a move designed to strengthen the pro-Moscow Chechen administration of Akhmed Kadyrov. Previously, the federal Interior Ministry had been responsible for overseeing Chechen law enforcement activities.

The trial of the first high-ranking Russian officer to be charged with a serious crime against a civilian in Chechnya ended on December 31, 2002, when a military court acquitted Colonel Yuri Budanov on charges of abducting and murdering a young Chechen woman in March 2000. The court ruled that Budanov had been temporarily insane at the time of the killing and ordered him sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. The verdict came after nearly two years of procedural delays and repeated psychiatric examinations, including two conducted by the Serbsky Institute, known for its role during the Soviet era of using false psychiatric grounds to condemn political dissidents. The New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the verdict as "a travesty of justice" and an indication of Russia's resolve to shield its military from accountability for atrocities committed in Chechnya. Human rights groups emphasized that the Budanov case represents only one of many similar crimes committed by Russian soldiers against local civilians.

Prominent Chechen rebel leader Salman Raduyev, who was serving a life sentence in prison for leading a 1996 hostage-taking raid on a hospital in neighboring Dagestan that lead to the deaths of 78 people, died on December 14, 2002. While the Russian Ministry of Justice maintained that he died of natural causes, others, including representatives of the separatist Chechen leadership, insist that he was murdered. The Saudi-born Khattab, an elusive Chechen rebel commander accused of having links to Osama Bin Laden, was reportedly killed in March 2002 by a poisoned letter.

Russian troops continued to engage in so-called mopping-up operations, in which they seal off entire towns and conduct house-to-house searches for suspected rebels. During these security sweeps, soldiers have been accused of beating and torturing civilians, looting, and extorting money. Moreover, thousands of Chechens have gone missing or been found dead after such operations. In a high-level acknowledgment of the extent of these abuses, the commander of federal troops in Chechnya issued new rules in March 2002 for troops conducting sweeps, including being courteous, identifying themselves, and providing a full list of those detained. However, human rights activists have accused federal troops of ignoring these rules, called Order 80. Similarly, under Decree No. 46, which was adopted after notoriously harsh sweeps in mid-2001, officials are supposed to compile comprehensive information on all detainees. However, Human Rights Watch maintains that the decree, meant to prevent forced disappearances or mistreatment of detainees, is not being fully implemented.

More than 100,000 Chechen refugees continue to seek shelter in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, often living in appalling conditions in tent camps, in abandoned buildings, or in cramped quarters with friends or relatives. Despite assurances from the Russian government that refugees will not be forcibly returned, Human Rights Watch reported that immigration officials were placing enormous pressure on displaced persons to leave in late 2002. In early December, Russian authorities closed a tent camp in neighboring Ingushetia housing some 1,700 Chechen refugees, and announced plans to close the five remaining tent camps sheltering an estimated 20,000 people. Critics charge that Moscow is using the resettlement plans to bolster its argument that it has restored order and stability to Chechnya. However, most refugees fear returning because of ongoing concerns for personal security, as well as the lack of employment and housing opportunities.

In mid-December, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that 4,704 Russian soldiers, officers, and policemen had been killed in Chechnya since 1999. However, the Soldiers' Mothers of Russia group estimates that casualty figures, which are impossible to verify, are more than double the official number provided. Both sides in the conflict routinely inflate enemy losses while downplaying their own casualty figures.

Travel within, into, 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. Bribes are usually required to pass the numerous military checkpoints.

Widespread corruption and the economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity. Ransoms obtained from kidnapping and the lucrative illegal oil trade provide money for Chechens and members of the Russian military. Much of the republic's infrastructure and housing remains damaged or destroyed after years of war, with reconstruction efforts plagued by chronic funding delays, money shortages, and corruption. The first installments of federal funding earmarked for 2002 were finally released in May. Much of the population ekes out a living selling produce or other goods at local markets. Residents who have found work are employed largely by the local police, the Chechen administration, the oil and construction sectors, or at small enterprises, such as cafes.

While women continue to face discrimination in a 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 federal forces.