published by the
Institute for Democracy
in Eastern Europe
Dispatches from
No. 29, March 15, 2003

The Circumstances Of Never-Ending War
The Situation in the Chechen Republic: February 2003

Despite a superficial calm, the situation in the Chechen Republic remains tense.

There are constant shootings taking place between federal forces and republic fighters in various regions. The fighters’ mine war continues, taking the lives both of soldiers and also mostly peaceable residents. Assassination attempts continue against members of the Chechen police force, especially its leading officials. Gunfire is frequently opened up on guard posts.

For their part, federal forces continue active operations in almost all of the republic’s territories. These operations are masked as “sweeps,” or supposed routine checks. Such operations are especially frequent in the cities of Argun, Urus-Martan, Grozny, Starie Atagi, and in the eastern valley regions of the republic.

According to the Russian military and current Chechen administrations, “checks” have replaced massive “sweeps” with the supposed aim of easing the lives of peaceful residents. In fact, they are a new and improved form of genocide being carried out against the Chechen people. Thousands of young people have been taken away during “checks” by Russian soldiers; they disappear without a trace. At best, their bodies are found in mass graves discovered on the outskirts of Grozny by local residents and construction workers. While before only men and teenage boys were arrested, now women, including those with children, are being taken away also.

We say “at best” because the problem of people’s disappearances is the most urgent issue in today’s Chechnya. Most disappearances likely end in lawless executions. But all attempts made by Chechen and Russian human rights workers to attract the world’s attention to this issue have been futile.

Periodically, the Russian military declares another victory over this or that Chechen guerilla group or announces the executions of famous rebel commanders. In reality, there have not been any serious encounters between the federal forces and Chechen rebels in the recent past. The rebels continue to remain a strong military force capable of destabilizing the republic’s situation, while the federal soldiers' complete lack of morality in adhering to the rules of war make them fit to fight only against the unarmed part of the population. According to various sources, the Chechen mountains hold from three to five thousand armed and well trained Chechen rebels. Thus, the calmness in the republic appears to be false. . . .

The Referendum Issue

Today, the holding of the referendum is at the center of the republic’s attention.

The preparations for a constitutional referendum and presidential elections in the current situation cannot be considered anything other than a provocation, one with potentially horrendous effects on the possibility of peaceful negotiations or an intra-Chechen political dialogue.

The referendum, instead of being a positive step, will be a clear defeat for those who are for peaceful, political resolution of the Chechen crisis and will energize further the war parties in both Russia and the Chechen Republic. It will also do irreparable damage to any governmental reconstruction in Chechnya. The massive fraud and falsifications that will likely occur during the referendum will cause the results to be considered invalid in the eyes both of international observers and Chechen society.

The claimed attempt to create "appropriate" circumstances for holding the referendum by force is leading to more tension, more human rights violations, and greater military opposition.

In Chechen society, there is no particular stand regarding the referendum. . . . [T]he referendum and new elections are not solving the issue of Chechen opposition, i.e. the problems of war and peace. Without the warring side's agreement, or at least declared neutrality, regarding the referendum, its failure is inevitable, as is the radicalization of the conflict. And that is when the situation could become worse for the Russian side, not to mention those other Chechen forces whose aim is the creation of a democratic government. There are reasons to believe in a bad turnout, since the rebels still represent a strong force.

Mass agitation has begun for the referendum. Posters hang in the streets of Grozny calling on all citizens to participate in voting. Every evening, the television programs show discussions of the goals and meaning of the referendum and lawyers speak about the project for a new constitution and for new electoral laws. An initiative group for the referendum was created headed by Hasan Taimaskhanov. Lately, this group has been very active in meeting with social representatives in various regions of the republic. Despite Putin's order to publish a large number of copies of the new Constitution and the other referendum proposals to be voted on, their actual appearance in Chechnya is rare. They were printed in local newspapers, but not on a large scale. Thus, it is nearly impossible to familiarize oneself with the project for a new Constitution and electoral laws. As to the latter, they are hardly noteworthy. But the new constitution of Chechnya proposes to make the republic into a loyal subject of the Russian Federation with a strong governing executive branch. It is hardly a realistic proposal after so many years of bloodshed.

The initiative group has prepared a so-called “Treaty” that all socio-political parties, movements, and NGOs should sign declaring support for the idea of a referendum. The referendum’s supporters associate the lawlessness and exploitation by federal forces with the lack of legitimate rule in Chechnya. They promise to take out a part of the Russian forces from the republic and return the rest to the barracks following the referendum. Certainly, this can appear as a strong argument for people who lack all human rights, including the right to live. How realizable this idea is in today’s situation is not explained by anyone.

Humanitarian Situation

The humanitarian situation in the republic remains difficult. Grozny, despite the beeginning of reconstruction, lies in ruins. Most of the reconstruction has been concentrated around the the middle of the city and is actually being done at a fast pace. It is possible that this is how the current fathers of the city are preparing themselves for the future referendum, by trying to get rid of the scariest ruins, in time for the arrival of international observers, especially those who seeing them for the first time.

Many homes still have mines embedded in them. The walls and ceilings of these homes contain unexploded bombs, firearms, and rockets. Oftentimes, people can be found living in partially destroyed homes.

The criminal situation in Grozny also remains grave. Regardless of the amount of police and Russian soldiers, crime is operating in full force throughout the city. Murders are committed almost every night; killers roam the streets in search of their next prey. Often times these crimes are committed by soldiers, including theft and murder.

Lately, the robbing of the central market by Russian soldiers has increased. These robberies are usually followed by the murder or arrests of innocent people.

The city is dirty and unsanitary. The streets of Grozny are filled with construction and human waste and flooded with water, including sewage water. Communication systems still do not operate in the city and most districts are lacking electricity.

Sanitary services have been reestablished in Grozny for a while now, yet they are unable to handle the catastrophic situation. Drinking water presents no less danger to the health of Grozny residents than other places. People in most regions collect water from wells that are often located far from their homes and apartments. The water in these wells is often diluted with gasoline and sometimes with sewage water. Drinking water is very dangerous to people’s health, but no steps have been taken to clean it.
The ecological situation in the city remains poor. Black smog clouds over the city from oil fires. While most fires have died out, sometimes they re-ignite and black smoke from the oil descents onto the fields. Aside from this, the constant search for oil has also taken a tragic toll.

There are thus few reasons to speak of the possibility for any stabilization or amelioration of the republic’s situation; a republic that still lies in ruins still remains under the circumstances of never-ending war.
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Dispatches from Chechnya is written by correspondents in Chechnya and distributed in English by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), a non-profit organization founded in 1986, dedicated to the promotion of democracy and pluralism in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For more information about IDEE, its programs, and the situation in Chechnya, visit the IDEE webpage at To receive Dispatches by email, please contact IDEE at [email protected]. Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota, Co-Directors, IDEE.