Archive for August, 2009

NGOs flee Chechnya

August 18, 2009

Pledges by Chechen president Kadyrov to track down the killers of relief workers Zarema Sadulaeva and Umar Dzhabrailov are not earning him any plaudits from the human rights community. Investigative-journalism newspaper Novaya Gazeta and human-rights watchdog Memorial have both suspended operations in the republic due to the “lack of security.”

Memorial specifically cited death threats its workers received and incidents of unknown people following three workers throughout the month of July. One of those workers was Natalya Estemirova.

The two groups are not alone. Given Estemirova’s death in July 15 and this double murder less than six weeks later, rights groups in general feel certain that the Chechen government either cannot, or will not, protect them.

The day of the latter double murder, the staff of the Helsinki Group issued a statement lamenting the mortal danger confronting Chechnya’s human-rights workers: “These murders became the latest proof of the authorities’ inability to provide elementary security for its citizens… federal and regional authorities exhibit a criminal inaction.”

The NGOs’ decision to evacuate follows new revelations is not surprising. It follows new revelations that Sulayeva was beaten and tortured before her death. Moreover, the Chechen government’s behavior since the slayings doesn’t give NGOs any reason to lend it their trust. Kadyrov sued Memorial head Oleg Orlov for $10 million last week for telling an audience that Kadyrov was was responsible for Estemirova’s death.

And a recently aired video shows Adam Delimkhanov, a Kadyrov ally and Chechnya’s representative to the Russian State Duma, asserting that “rights activists in Chechnya are helping the criminal bandits” and that they will meet untimely ends: “Each of these [rights activists], be he a Chechen or an Ingush or someone else, must know that they will have to answer for their words.” When did Delimkhanov utter these words? Just 11 days before Estemirova’s death.

Kadyrov’s government has given NGO workers ample reasons to think that it will allow violent acts to befall them, if not commit the violent acts itself. Since they cannot advance human rights if they are dead, the only course of action for them to take is to leave Chechnya. That may well be what Kadyrov and company wanted all along; more free reign to imprison and execute out of sight of watchful eyes. The NGOs will leave and the status quo of uninhibited police state will be upheld.

But what good has this status quo done Chechnya to date? Uninhibited police state has been Chechnya’s political reality for the last eight decades, first administered by Russia and then by Russia’s Chechen proxies. It achieved Chechnya reaching the sad state it is in right now. Like anywhere else where they have been tried, oppressive governments who are heavily backed by foreigners tend to breed violent domestic opposition. And when the governments get more oppressive, the opposition will get more violent.

The Chechen authorities’ obvious contempt for human rights groups is ample proof that they plan to go the way of more oppression. This may be a politically expedient strategy. But it’s also a guarantee that the mayhem that is Chechnya’s present-day situation will continue into the foreseeable future. Brutal government tactics will inspire more people to take up arms against the government. Which will fuel still more oppresive government tactics. And so on ad infinitum, government and opposition fueling each other’s growth and raise each other’s body count in a neverending, headline-generating cycle.

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A Wolf in Security Officer’s Clothing

August 18, 2009

No one knows the identities of the five men who abducted and murdered relief workers Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov on August 11. But Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is apparently certain that they were separatists.

Bandits… trying to create an environment of general fear and suspicion to get society to stop working together to rebuild the republic,” he said Friday.

Kadyrov noted that Dzhabrailov had once been a member of a militant group before serving four years in jail and leaving the resistance. His former compatriots may have thus wanted him dead as a result of some “blood feud.”

Hence, continued Kadyrov, the  operations against the militants will intensify and the killers will be found. It “will be a matter of personal honor.”

But Alexander Cherkasov of Russian nonprofit group Memorial places his suspicions somewhere else: on Chechnya’s security services. He told the Moscow News on Monday that he saw an “obvious” link between the five abductors and Chechen law enforcement.

Cherkasov explains that according to eyewitnesses, the men “politely” identified themselves as members of security. And in fact, three of them were wearing security fatigues. More curious, all five had their faces uncovered uncovered—one typically expects terrorists, like anyone operating outside the law, to conceal their identities behind masks.

“They were without masks, and relatively polite,” said Cherkasov. “It seemed like they were being taken away only for a chat.”

Cherkasov is not the only nonprofit worker to implicate Chechnya’s supposedly lawful government. Tatiana Lokshina, the deputy head of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, told Al Jazeera that the investigation into the killings will have no credibility unless it is controlled by the Kremlin and administered by federal investigators, not by local servicemen: “The possibility of involvement of local officials in the killing cannot be excluded at all.”

It would seem shocking that security personnel would have seen fit to dispatch two relief workers who by every account were expressly nonpolitical: The two operated a shelter and treatment center for traumatized children; they were in the business of helping Chechens, not of challenging Russia or trying to replace Kadyrov.

This is a simple public-service organization, the type a fledgling government typically likes to see. Is there anyone in Chechen law enforcement who would see fit to do harm to it?

There are. Enter the “kontraktniki.” Since the 1990s, Russia’s military forces have increasingly supplemented their enlisted troops with contract fighters who bear arms for hire. Most are unemployed former policemen and security guards.

A former Russian soldier shared with the Kavkaz Center his memories of fighting alongside these “kontraktniki,” as they were called. By his account, even conscripts hated them, and understandably so. They were usually drunk, loved to use hard drugs, and reveled in indiscriminate violence and murder far above and beyond the call of duty: kidnapping and torturing young children, shooting innocent bystanders for no reason, and even brutalizing their fellow Russian soldiers. When kontraktniki were on patrol, no one was safe.

Al Jazeera notes that since Russia’s official end of operations in Chechnya last April, Russian military units have largely pulled out.  Russian police and “special units,” however, remain. Translation: The professionals have gone home; the undisciplined and underpaid amateurs stay around.

Given this problematic situation, Alexeyava’s next observation on the double murder is food for thought: “It just shows that anyone whose position allows them a gun can kill whoever they like.”

Perhaps even kill members of an apolitical relief organization? Why not? They would have had an excuse in Dzhabrailov’s onetime ties to militants. Perhaps he knew something, they would reason. Take him in to question him. Take Sadulayeva along, too—they could torture her to loosen him up if he gets uncooperative.

Or maybe the kontraktniki would have had no specific need to seize Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov at all. Perhaps the two were only convenient targets that they chose for no reason except to make an example of them.

As Alexayava noted further after the murders, “The climate for civic society workers in Chechnya today is absolutely intolerable. Unless the perpetrators are brought to justice, one really cannot do independent reporting of human rights work in the region on the ground.”

And that—a republic with no NGOs on the ground to call out the government or the security services on their abuses—would be a dream scenario for the likes of the kontraktniki and the Kadyrov government.

Of course, Kadyrov has every incentive to step up operations against separatists following this double murder. But if he is serious about ascertaining Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov’s killers, then he might also want to take a hard look at his own personnel. Time will tell if he does, and if his “personal honor” is worth anything at all.

The EU holds the line on Georgia and South Ossetia

August 3, 2009

Georgian president Saakashvili is looking more vulnerable than ever. He told Reuters today that he has “no plans” to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that he is just grateful that he hasn’t been ousted yet—a fact that he calls “almost a miraculous story of survival” considering Russia’s determination to get rid of him.

“I am still sitting in this office despite solemn pledges by Putin to hang me by different parts of my body, to crush Georgia’s statehood,” he said.

His foreswearing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a major concession from a man who, as of last September, was “more confident than ever that (Georgia’s) territorial integrity will be restored.” It is also a sign that now, more than ever, he craves some outside support.

He has good reason for it. That support might determine whether or not Russia declares another war against him. At this moment, the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM) is patrolling the Georgia-Russia border. That mission’s charter was going to expire this September. But on July 27, the EU decided to extend EUMM through September 2010.

David Bakradze, speaker of the Georgian parliament, rejoiced at the EU’s decision.

“This is, for us, a certain guarantee that Russia will not have cause and context for thinking about any new military aggression or large-scale military actions,” Bakradze said.

Russia gives more and more reasons for worry of late. Its military’s aircraft have been known to venture into Georgian air space.  Backing them up is the contingent of 300 Russian armored vehicles that arrived in South Ossetia this weekend.

Those vehicles arrive following the four mysterious explosions in South Ossetia last week that Russia’s Defense Ministry asserted were from Georgian military firing mortar shells across the border. The claim is suspect, however, since the EUMM patrols claim no evidence that Georgians fired anything across the border. Obviously, the EUMM and Russian Defense Ministry can’t both be right. Who is telling the truth?

It is hard to know, since Russia will not allow the EUMM patrols to enter Abkhazia or South Ossetia. If no entrance, then no evidence.

And if no evidence, then any theory about the explosions is about as good as any other. Were they mortar shells at all? If so, who fired them? What could have been fired by Georgians could as easily been fired by an anti-Georgian Ossetian militant group. Or, quite possibly, from Russia itself.

Russia would have plenty of motivation to orchestrate an explosion and then pin it on Georgia. It would serve as the pretext to declare Georgia an aggressor state and topple it for the sake of Russia’s security.

Coupled with South Ossetia’s recent claim to the Truso Gorge, which Saakashvili—weakened though he is—will be sure to contest, Russia’s leadership is strategically setting the perfect stage for a second clash, not unlike the one last summer. This, though, will be one that Saakashvili’s government, and maybe even the Georgian nation itself, does not survive.

The only item of business remaining is to see that the meddlesome EU mission goes home. Fortunately, it does not appear that that will be happening any time soon.

South Ossetia braces for a fight

August 2, 2009

One of Georgia’s breakaway republics wants to break away yet a little more of Georgia. South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity officially laid claim Friday to the Truso Gorge, a slope of the Caucasus that lies on the Georgian side of the Russian-Georgian border facing South Ossetia’s northeast.

“This unique place, where many prominent representatives of our people were born, now belongs to Georgia. In principle, this is a territory of North Ossetia,” he said.

According to Kokoity, the gorge is “an indigenous Ossetian land” that the Soviet Union transferred to the then-Georgian Soviet Republic in the 1920s, and which post-Soviet state Georgia has held onto ever since. But now, it is time for Georgia to give it back.

“Today we must raise the issue of returning these lands to Ossetia,” he said.

Georgia does not even consider South Ossetia a country. So how receptive does Kokoity think Georgia will be to a request from South Ossetia for a piece of its land?

Besides, the timing is a particularly bad one for South Ossetia to be asking Georgia for anything. For the last few months, Georgia has been protesting loudly against South Ossetia’s construction of fences along the South Ossetian-Georgian border and Russia’s construction of new military bases in South Ossetia as well as in fellow breakaway republic Abkhazia. Kokoity’s new request for the gorge is nothing less than the addition of insult to injury, and he will have to expect some hostility from Tbilisi on account of it.

In fact, maybe he hoping for some hostility. Over the course of last week, four explosions took place in South Ossetia near the Georgian border. Russian and South Ossetian officials claimed that the cause was mortar shells fired by Georgian forces. But patrols affiliated with the European Union Monitoring Mission—which is policing the border to discourage more hostilities—tell a different story; they say there is no evidence that Georgia fired any projectiles of any kind into South Ossetia. They say that there were explosions, but that there is no telling who, or what, might have caused them.

They could not have found any evidence anyway, though. Russia does not allow the EUMM teams into the territories of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. They are permitted only to skirt the borders. Make of that what you will.

No evidence notwithstanding, Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a warning Saturday that the explosions were an attack from Georgia, and that Russia will respond with full firepower to any more such attacks in the future.

“The August 2008 event developed along similar lines,” the ministry said. “If civilians or troops are threatened, the Russian Defense Ministry reserves the right to use all forces and means at its disposal.”

By its Defense Ministry’s admission, Russia’s leadership is avowedly more than willing to go to war with Georgia again, just as it did in the summer of 2008. All it needs now is for Georgia to do something that could justify it. It need not be a full-fledged attack by Georgian forces against Russia. A small event might suffice. Who is to say that a quarrel over the Truso Gorge will not serve the purpose? Stir new tensions with a further claim to land in Georgia, which will inevitably invite new rounds of virulent denunciations from Georgian politicians, which in return will invite more threatening rhetoric from their counterparts in Russia. All it will take then is for one rogue unit in Georgia, or one separatist militia in South Ossetia, or one unruly group of rioting civilians in either territory, to turn words into action and spark an incident. Then Russia has its own green light to storm into Georgia and be finished with Saakashvili’s government once and for all.

The global community should pay close attention, lest things escalate any further than they already have.