Chechnya * | Freedom House

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Chechnya *

Chechnya *

Freedom in the World 2007

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Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov was promoted to the Chechen premiership in March 2006 and continued to strengthen his hold on power in the republic. Critics like investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in October, have claimed that Kadyrov and his security forces torture suspected rebels, many of whom disappear without a trace. Rebel violence declined as Kadyrov consolidated his position, and two important rebel leaders were killed during the year, but the larger region remained unstable.

Chechnya, a small, partly mountainous North Caucasus republic, has a history of armed resistance to Russian rule dating to the czarist period. In February 1944, the Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakhstan after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi German forces. Officially rehabilitated in 1957 and allowed to return to their homeland, they remained politically suspect and were excluded from the region’s administration.

After winning election as Chechnya’s president in October 1991, former Soviet air force Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed Chechnya’s independence. Moscow responded with an economic blockade. In 1994, Russia began assisting Chechens opposed to Dudayev, whose rule was marked by growing corruption and the rise of powerful clans and criminal gangs. Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops into Chechnya by mid-December of that year and attacked the capital, Grozny. As casualties mounted in the widening conflict, Russian public opposition increased, fueled by criticism from much of the country’s then-independent media. In April 1996, Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile.

A peace deal that was signed in August 1996 resulted in the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Chechnya. However, a final settlement on the republic’s status was put off until 2001. In May 1997, Russia and Chechnya reached an accord recognizing the newly elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, as Chechnya’s legitimate leader.

Following incursions into neighboring Dagestan by renegade Chechen guerrillas and deadly apartment bombings in Russia that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a second military offensive in Chechnya in September 1999. Russian troops conquered the flat terrain in the north of the republic, but progress slowed considerably as they neared heavily defended Grozny. During the hostilities, Moscow withdrew its recognition of Maskhadov as president.

Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets caused some 200,000 people to flee Chechnya, with most heading to the tiny neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. After federal troops finally captured Grozny in February 2000, the Russian military focused on rebel strongholds in the mountainous southern areas. Russian security sweeps led to regular atrocities in which civilians were beaten, raped, or killed, while Russian forces were subject to almost daily bombings and sniper attacks by rebels. The renewed campaign enjoyed broad popular support in Russia, fueled by the media’s now one-sided reporting in favor of the official government position.

As the war persisted and atrocities increased, some Chechen fighters engaged in terrorist acts. In a crisis covered live by Russian television, a group of Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater in October 2002, taking 750 people hostage. Ultimately, more than 120 hostages died, most from the effects of a sedative gas that Russian troops used to incapacitate the rebels. Russian authorities reported that all 41 of the rebels had been killed.

A March 2003 referendum on a new Chechen constitution took place in the absence of free media and public debate. Chechnya’s Moscow-appointed administration claimed a voter turnout of 85 percent, with 96 percent of participants backing the new charter. However, an independent survey of voter sentiments by the Russian human rights group Memorial found that 80 percent of the indigenous population opposed the referendum. Memorial and a number of other human rights groups pointed to a variety of irregularities in the voting, including intimidation by Russian troops, grenade attacks, multiple votes cast by some individuals, and tens of thousands of Russian troops being allowed to vote. Accordingly, the outcome did not reflect the real intentions of the local population.

Kremlin-backed candidate Akhmad Kadyrov won the Chechen presidency in October 2003 elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the elections had not offered voters a significant choice, and the U.S. government deemed them “seriously flawed.” Chechen rebels assassinated Kadyrov in a May 2004 stadium bombing. In subsequent elections in August, Alu Alkhanov, Chechnya’s interior minister since 2003, won with a reported 74 percent of the vote. The official voter turnout was 85 percent, but journalists observing the process called that figure wildly inflated. Despite Alkhanov’s election, a great deal of de facto control remained in the hands of Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who could not become president until he turned 30.

In September 2004, Chechen and other anti-Russian guerrillas carried out a terrorist attack in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia, capturing a school in the town of Beslan. More than 330 people—half of them children—died when the hostage standoff ended in chaotic violence. Putin, who had succeeded Yeltsin as president in 2000, used the attack to justify the further centralization of power in Russia as a whole, replacing the direct election of regional governors with a system of presidential appointments. Meanwhile, some families of the Beslan victims criticized the government in Moscow for its inability to prevent terrorist attacks and for covering up the negligence and corruption that contributed to the debacle.

In March 2005, Maskhadov, the separatist leader, was killed in an operation conducted by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). His death came weeks after the rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire in February, in an unsuccessful bid to convince the Russian government to enter peace negotiations. Putin responded to the ceasefire by ordering an expansion of the conflict. The assassination of Maskhadov, who had been elected in a relatively fair ballot in 1997, was a serious blow to the more moderate faction in the separatist leadership and significantly reduced the chances for a negotiated settlement.

Maskhadov’s replacement as rebel leader was the little-known Abdul-Khalim Saidulayev, the former head of a religious court. During his tenure, the conflict increasingly spread beyond Chechnya’s borders into the surrounding North Caucasus region. Separatist forces launched a two-day attack on Nalchik, capital of the republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, in October 2005. According to official estimates, 33 police officers and 12 civilians were killed in the fighting, along with 92 guerrillas.

Saidulayev was killed on June 17, 2006; his vice president, Doku Umarov, then became the rebel leader. Umarov vowed to continue Saidulayev’s effort to spread the fight to other regions of Russia while continuing to target Grozny’s pro-Moscow regime. The rebels suffered a major loss with the death of infamous guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev in a July 10 explosion, which the Russian government claimed was part of a special forces operation. Basayev, who had taken responsibility for the Moscow and Beslan hostage raids among other attacks, was the key link between many of the disparate Islamist, terrorist, and criminal elements within the rebel movement. Despite Russian assertions to the contrary, the vast majority of the rebels’ financing came from criminal activity inside Russia, not foreign sponsors. By the end of 2006, the rebels controlled only small areas in the republic’s mountainous south, and major guerrilla actions within Chechnya had become less common as Kadyrov sought to crush or co-opt the remaining rebel fighters.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

While the 1997 presidential elections—conducted by the republic’s separatist authorities—were characterized by international observers as reasonably free and fair, the resumption of war in 1999 led to the total evisceration of Chechens’ political rights. President Maskhadov fled the capital in December 1999, and the parliament elected in 1997 ceased to function. In June 2000, Russian president Putin enacted a decree establishing direct presidential rule over Chechnya. There is no party pluralism and politicians who advocate Chechen independence are unable to work openly and freely.

The Russian government’s claims to have returned the republic to democratic rule with a March 2003 constitutional referendum lacked credibility. The referendum was orchestrated by the Kremlin with no opportunity for debate, and widespread vote rigging was reported. In the subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections of October 2003, candidates representing a genuine alternative were not on the ballot, and debate was stifled in an atmosphere of repression and censorship. The Russian president recommends a candidate for the Chechen presidency, who then must be approved by the Chechen parliament. The Chechen president effectively serves at the pleasure of the Russian president. The bicameral legislature consists of the 21-member Council of the Republic and 40-member Popular Assembly. The members serve four-year terms.

The president elected in 2003, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in May 2004. Although Alkhanov won the presidency under similarly undemocratic circumstances later in 2004, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed prime minister in March 2006, now wields the most power in the republic. Kadyrov headed his father’s security service, and reconstituted it as the Akhmad Kadyrov Special Purpose Regiment in 2004. His men are reportedly involved in abductions, disappearances, extortion, trading in contraband, and the maintenance of unsanctioned prisons and torture chambers. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya said in April 2006 that she had evidence of torture by Kadyrov’s group, including one witness who had been tortured by Kadyrov himself. The Russian human rights group Memorial and Human Rights Watch have made similar charges, which Kadyrov has denied. His fighters have clashed with police in neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia, and with Alkhanov’s guards.

Kadyrov’s strong-arm rule has helped the Kremlin consolidate more effective control over the republic, crushing rebel resistance and beginning the rebuilding process. Kadyrov reached the age of 30 in October 2006, the minimum required to be president, leading to growing friction with Alkhanov. Kadyrov benefits in this struggle from his extensive control over the current Chechen parliament, which was elected in November 2005. He has begun building a personality cult and seeks increasing autonomy from the Kremlin.

Corruption is rampant in Chechnya. Kadyrov’s critics have reported that he forces public-sector employees to make “voluntary” contributions to a fund named after his father. Corruption in the North Caucasus education system makes it prohibitively expensive for many youth to get the kind of training they want, threatening stability and economic development, according to a World Bank report. Federal funds designated for rebuilding Chechnya traditionally have been diverted to a variety of other purposes due to extensive corruption. On November 15, Sultan Isakov, the head of the agency responsible for providing compensation to people who lost property in the fighting, was arrested for allegedly soliciting a bribe.

Information in Chechnya is tightly managed. Kadyrov’s financial resources allow him to control all local broadcast and most print media, which provide extensive coverage of his activities. There are three licensed television broadcasters, whose content is pro-government. Russian state-run television and radio continue to broadcast in Chechnya, although much of the population remains without electricity. The rebel movement operates a website with reports about the conflict and other news from its perspective. The October 2006 Moscow murder of Politkovskaya, a special correspondent for Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, silenced one of the few remaining journalists brave enough to travel in Chechnya without official escorts and collect evidence of abuses by Russian troops and the pro-Moscow Chechen government. Kadyrov had publicly expressed his hatred of her.

The Russian military imposes severe restrictions on journalists’ access to the widening Caucasus conflict area, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the Russian government. Few foreign reporters are allowed into Chechnya, and when they are granted entry, journalists covering the conflict must be accompanied at all times by military officials. Because of the devastating effects of the war, including damaged infrastructure, internet usage is negligible.

Most Chechens are Muslims who practice Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. Ramzan Kadyrov openly calls for giving this form of Islam a central role in Chechen public life. He has also called on women to wear headscarves. The strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, with roots in Saudi Arabia, has been banned by the Russian government.

Since the start of the fighting in 1994, many of the republic’s schools have been damaged or destroyed, and 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.

Some charitable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on humanitarian, cultural, and social issues are allowed to operate, but they face increasing Russian government criticism and pressure. Human rights groups, particularly those that deal with sensitive issues such as torture and other forms of abuse by police and the security services, have been subjected to growing scrutiny by the authorities. In 2006, the federal government introduced extensive reporting requirements, greatly increasing the workload for NGOs. The International Committee of the Red Cross in September 2004 suspended its visits to detainees because there were too many obstacles to conducting them properly. Attempts to resume the visits in 2006 failed. Kadyrov suspended the activities of the Danish Refugee Council for several weeks in February and March 2006 to protest the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. In October of that year, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, postponed a planned visit because the Russian government would not let him make unannounced trips to detention centers or interview detainees in private. Also that month, the authorities closed the Nizhny Novgorod–based Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a humanitarian organization involved in building mutual understanding between Russians and Chechens and monitoring human rights abuses in the republic. Labor union activity is almost nonexistent as a result of the devastation of the Chechen economy and widespread unemployment.

The rule of law is extremely weak. Extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other serious crimes are rarely investigated and even more rarely prosecuted. There has been some progress in a few high-profile cases. After juries in the Russian city of Rostov twice refused to convict Captain Eduard Ulman and three other members of a Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) special unit for killing six Chechens in January 2002 even though they had admitted to the slayings, the Constitutional Court ruled in April 2006 that a military tribunal would hear their case. Jury trials are set to be introduced in Chechnya in 2007, allowing Chechen juries to hear cases against people accused of committing crimes in the republic. The European Court of Human Rights has stepped in when Russian courts refuse to hear cases. In July 2006, the Strasbourg-based court found Colonel General Aleksandr Baranov, currently the commander of Russian military forces in the North Caucasus, responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of Khadzhi-Murat Yandiyev, a prisoner detained in Chechnya in 2000. The decision was the first on a disappearance in Chechnya and could open the way for similar cases. Memorial estimates that as many as 5,000 people have vanished during the second Chechen war and notes that the problem is not being addressed by the authorities. In November, the Court found Russia responsible for the disappearances and presumed death of an additional three individuals in Chechnya.

The Chechen police forces are led by commanders who have allegedly committed murder and abductions. Civilians are subject to harassment and violence, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial execution, at the hands of Russian soldiers, and senior Russian military authorities have disregarded such abuses. Human rights groups report that while disappearances had previously been concentrated in Chechnya, the practice has now spread to neighboring Ingushetia. Chechen rebels have captured Russian soldiers during combat, enslaving them, trading them among themselves, and ultimately selling them back to their families.

Russian troops 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. Thousands of Chechens have gone missing or been found dead after such operations.

While many refugee camps have been closed and Chechens who fled the violence have been pressured to return to their homes, tens of thousands of refugees still remain outside of Chechnya. Many who return live in appalling conditions in tent camps, abandoned buildings, or cramped quarters with friends or relatives. There are tens of thousands of additional internally displaced persons inside the republic and well over 100,000 long-term homeless, many of them orphaned children and teenagers. Travel to and from the republic and inside its borders is severely restricted.

Widespread corruption and the economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity. Ransom 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 funds widely believed to have been substantially misappropriated by corrupt local authorities. In the capital city of Grozny, the long-term conflict has devastated civilian life, with more than 60 percent of all buildings completely destroyed. Much of the population ekes out a living selling produce or other goods at local markets. Residents who have found work are employed mostly by the local police, the Chechen administration, the oil and construction sectors, or small enterprises. The success of Kadyrov’s government in pushing forward rebuilding efforts has improved the overall economic situation.

With the rise of Ramzan Kadyrov, who emphasizes traditional values, women face increased discrimination in this Islamic, male-dominated culture. At the same time, the war has resulted in many women becoming the primary breadwinners for their families. The war has taken a heavy toll on children, many of whom suffer from various psychological traumas. Children, who accounted for up to 40 percent of casualties during the war, continue to suffer from poor living conditions, including lack of access to education and health care.