Grozny: March 2004
The situation in the Chechen Republic cannot be divorced from that of Russia, whose society is mired in a deep political and spiritual crisis and whose politics is marked by the total defeat of pro-democratic reform supporters. Russiaís economic impasse, lack of freedom of speech, chauvinism and anti-Semitism, followed by a mass anti-Chechen hysteria, social stratification, mass impoverishment of population, social antipathy, the strengthening of the police regime and its influence over the lives of people: these are just some issues affecting todayís Russian society.
The defeat of democrats during the parliamentary elections demonstrated the limitation of civil society in Russia to affect public opinion. The unchallenged candidacy of President Putin during the presidential elections only reinforced societyís feelings of hopelessness. The recent terrorist attack in the Moscow subway, whose organizers remain unknown and at large, and President Putinís speech in response to it led to an escalation of abuse and violence against the non-Slavic population and reinforced chauvinistic sentiments both in Moscow and in other regions of Russia. Not only fascist organizations, but deputies of the Duma call for Chechens living in Russia to be deprived of their citizenship rights and to be deported to Chechnya.
All of these factors affecting Russia continue to negatively impact already complex and tragic Russian-Chechen relations.
Previously, the referendum and presidential elections in Chechnya had already negatively affected the situation. No conditions for any form of elections exist in war-stricken Chechnya. Optimistic expectations by Kremlin and pro-Russian Chechen politicians about the referendum and elections stabilizing the political and war situation in the Republic after the presidential elections were not justified. [For a description of the situation before and after the referendum, see Dispatches from Chechnya, nos. 30 and 31, from April and May 2003. Ė Editorís Note.]
The general situation in the Chechen Republic continues to deteriorate as the days go by.
After becoming president of Chechnya in October 2003, Akhmad Kadyrov became a genuine dictator towards the general population. The Russian military continues to wreak havoc and unlawfulness on the Chechen population and recognize no authority, and especially not Kadyrovís.
Despite the fact that large-scale combat operations ended a long time ago, small-scale clashes, the mine-war, and attacks on Russian military convoys continue. This in turn paves the way for federal forces and internal affairs officials to suppress local population.
Despite an announcement in March 2002 that there would be a significant reduction of Russian checkpoints in Grozny, in reality their number is the same. The only difference is that most of them have been moved from the central streets to the periphery. Russian soldiers still continue to extort money from drivers through any excuse and if there is any resistance Russian soldiers threaten to take drivers into custody and detention. In order to earn money, Russian soldiers set up makeshift checkpoints on any section of a major road.
Cases of disappearances continue up to this day in Chechnya. People clad in camouflage without any badge or insignia on their uniform appear in the middle of the night and take away men without issuing any accusations and take them to undisclosed locations in Russian armored personnel carriers that donít have any license numbers. Cases of abduction-for-ransom by federal forces have increased as well. Such abductions particularly occur to those who are well off or own a business.
Russian forces open fire on innocent civilians for no particular reason and cause numerous casualties. A recent shooting caused an uproar when Russian snipers fired on a car with innocent people and then on Chechen police cars. In Itum-Kal, a drunken soldier-contractor shot a Chechen policeman and a local resident for absolutely no reason. Such cases are not uncommon.
For all such actions, legal charges are rarely filed against the Russian soldiers and in most cases the acts go unpunished.
In order to force militants into turning themselves in, Russian soldiers take their relatives hostage, drawing upon the experience gained during the nineteenth century Caucasian war.
The overall situation in the Republic and its capital remains crime-ridden. In spite of the large military and police presence in Grozny, the level of crime, including theft, armed robbery and murder remains high. Recently, most punitive functions have been taken on by Akhmad Kadyrovís personal security detachments, headed by his son, Ramzan. They are even crueler towards locals than the federal forces and death squadrons are now operating.
As for the political situation, any activity on behalf of parties and social organizations that is not fully in line with Kadyrovís administration is for all purposes banned and can be fatally dangerous. Censorship has a strong hold over the mass media and any article that is not favorable to the current government or military could cost the author his or her life. Socially active people, journalists, and scientists are constantly subject to threats by both federal forces and militants.
Despite the fact that almost three years have passed since large-scale military actions stopped, the republicís capital and other residential areas that were destroyed during the war are still in ruins. A few buildings have been rebuilt in Grozny and individual department buildings of universities have been repaired, along with some schools. However, the residential neighborhoods of Grozny are still destroyed. While Russian television periodically broadcasts optimistic pictures of large-scale reconstruction of Grozny, only a small number of residential buildings have been reconstructed in the past three years.
Billions of rubles worth of oil is exported from the republic annually and the money allocated by the federal government for reconstruction purposes is not even a tenth of the oil revenues sum. However, Russian officials continuously emphasize that the reconstruction of Chechnya is funded by the Russian budget.
Most of the money that is allocated for the reconstruction of the republic is embezzled in Moscow. The money that makes its way to Chechnya is then embezzled by local officials. Chechen officials from higher echelons of power are compelled to pay both Russian soldiers and field commanders so that they can work in relative secure environment.
The population of Grozny ranges from 350,000 to 450,000 by various sources. Almost 70-80 percent of the population work force remains unemployed and has no source of income. Most familiesí source of income comes solely from pensions, received by elder family members. Workers that deal with reconstruction in the city complain about nonpayment of their salaries. Although there is a regular supply of money for pensions, residents receive their pensions with a three-to-four month delay, and oftentimes only could get them for certain percentage of their pensions.
Tens of thousands have returned to Chechnya in order to receive compensation for their destroyed housing. However, people are forced to get dozens of unnecessary documents and papers, which is very difficult, given the current situation. Therefore, most of the citizens are compelled to give 30-70 percent of the compensation to the officials to get any compensation for their destroyed homes.
The number of refugees returning from Ingushetia back to Chechnya has increased. In most cases, their return is prompted by pressure from the federal and local officials, not by any improvement of the situation in Chechnya. Many refugee camps have been demolished and the rest await a similar fate. Most of the camp refugees have stopped receiving humanitarian aid and electricity and gas have been cut off. Representatives of the local administration claim that no refugee will be forced out of Ingushetia, yet they do everything in their power to force people to leave their territory.
Overall, Grozny remains a ruined capital. Most of the districts within Grozny do not have electricity, nor water. The roads are in bad shape and are not being repaired. Oftentimes, gas in the city gets cut off, which becomes a real disaster for the cityís residents. The heating system does not work in the city and there is no hot water. Grozny residents are compelled to heat their half-destroyed homes with the help of gas heaters which often results in fires. Many houses and apartments occupied by hopeless residents are in critical and emergency conditions and have a high risk to fall apart at any minute.
The streets are littered with high piles of garbage that usually produces poisonous gases and stench during the warmer periods.
The drinking water is no less of a threat to the health of Grozny residents. Most people get their water from water wells, which are located far from their homes. The water in such wells often contains admixture of gasoline and often mixes in with sewer water. The consumption of such water is dangerous to peopleís health, but to this day, one could hardly dream of supplying the residents with clean and uncontaminated water. The northern regions of the city receive water tanks and people have choice but to buy water, while at the same time waiting for their turn in long lines.
Medical services are still on a low level. Most medical facilities are in a half-ruined condition that does not allow for any serious surgeries and operations. There is a lack of medical equipment and supplies. Upon going into the hospital for treatment, patients are required to pay for everything, although the treatment itself is supposed to be free of charge. There are many ill people with various forms critical chronic diseases within the republic, yet there are no conditions provided for treatment of these patients. In order to be sent to other regions of Russia for treatment, one has to pay large sums of money to the officials of the ministry of health, but they are usually unable to arrange anything. The republic receives a large amount of medication in the form of humanitarian aid. However, this medicine is commercially sold in pharmacies and city markets.
The ecological situation in the city remains critical. Black smoke from oil wells hovers over some parts of the city, particularly in the northern regions. The hunt for oil continues, as does oil processing, which has irreversible effects on peopleís health and result in serious malformations and diseases in the population. This oil black market is controlled by Russian soldiers, who receive a set percentage of final sales. In some cases, they just destroy the equipment and burn oil wells.
All in all, the situation in Grozny remains critical in all aspects. Complete reconstruction of the city and stabilization of life in the republic are possible only in the case of active participation and financial aid from Western Europe and U.S. This, in turn, is only possible, if an end is put to the military conflict in Chechnya and if its status and relations with Russia are established.