Issue No. 309 - February 21, 2003
2. Serbia and Montenegro: TROUBLES WITH
by Milos Jeftovic
3. Russia: PAYING FOR SILENCE
by Valeh Rzaev
The overall situation in
the Chechen Republic is unstable, worsening with each day. Nevertheless,
the Russian government, along with the temporary Chechen administration,
constantly talk about the stabilization of the socio-political situation
in the republic. They have prepared a legislative framework for conducting
a referendum regarding the Constitution and governmental elections. At
the same time, they maintain that by March 2003 conditions will be established
allowing the Russian military to return to the barracks and the MVD of
the Chechen Republic to take the responsibility for controlling the situation.
The reality of the situation is much more grave. Lately, the situation in the mountainous regions has intensified. From the beginning of the war, the Chechen rebels have had absolute control in the mountains during the day; by night, they become the rulers of the Vedensk and Nozhai-urtov regions. The Shatoisk and Itum-Kale regions have up until now been considered loyal to the federal rule and there have not been any full-scale searches of villages. The federal military is ever present.
But the situation in the Shatoisk and Itum-Kale regions noticeably worsened by the end of 2002. There was an attack on policemen from the Novosibirsk OMON, who were holding down the post by Bashin-Kale. A few people were killed. Upon arriving on the scene, the Chechen police discovered that representatives of the Russian forces carried out the attack. A confrontation ensued between the Chechen police and Russian soldiers. This event was not described anywhere. The letters written to the victims' relatives said that they were killed in a confrontation with Chechen rebels. If it hadn't been for the quick response of the Chechen police, the locals would have been blamed for the entire situation, which could then be used as an excuse for full-scale searches in the surrounding villages.
In mid-December of 2002, a landmine exploded near a microbus traveling on the road out of the village of Ushkala, killing two and injuring several passengers, who were residents of Itum-Kale. The Russian forces blamed this on an act of terrorism on rebels. The villagers, however, are well aware of the fact that the road is controlled by Russian soldiers, who are stationed only a few hundred meters apart. Besides, the representatives of Russian forces appeared on the scene minutes after the explosion.
In mid-January 2003, a grenade exploded in the hands of a Russian soldier by accident while in the market of downtown Shatoisk. As a result of the explosion, the soldier and several of his friends were injured. The city was immediately blockaded, and searches were conducted. Fourteen Chechen policemen and soldiers were disarmed and arrested. They were later released, but badly beaten.
Police actions by the Russian military were activated yet again in the regions of Shatoisk and Itum-Kale. In mid-January 2003 temporary federal forces were stationed along the entire route between Grozny and Itum-Kale. They carefully screened all passing cars and stopped all those that appeared suspicious to them.
The humanitarian situation remains critical. Most mountainous villages, including regional centers, of the Ifumkal and Shatoisk regions lie in ruins. People do not have basic living conditions. There are no hospitals or medical centers and no work. People are absolutely ungoverned and unprotected from the tyranny of Russian soldiers.
Many villages lack schools, which forces children to walk to schools several kilometers from home. In Itum-Kale and several other villages, students are still educated in tents. There is a lack of textbooks and of qualified teachers and the educational process itself has become more of a formality. People are lacking food and clothing. Additionally, life in the mountains is a lot more difficult and dangerous than in the valley.
The federal forces are causing damage to the natural and architectural reserves in the mountains. As a result of fire in the years 2000-2002, a number of architectural statues aging 800-1000 years were destroyed. Bombing and artillery fire have caused irreparable damage to the reserve's forests and unique fauna. In November 2002, Russian soldiers deliberately set fire to the mountain forests, which burned for nearly a month. Almost twenty thousand hectares of valuable forest burned, as did anything else living in it.
Most ancient architectural monuments of mountainous Chechnya are located in the so-called border zones. According to some statistics, they are destroyed and dismantled on a regular basis, yet the workers of the reserves are denied access to repair them, despite pleadings to soldiers and the temporary administration.
The situation in the valley
regions of Chechnya is no less difficult. There are regular searches conducted
in various populated regions, but especially frequent in Grozny, Argun,
Urus-Martan, in the villages of Old Ataga, Czoczan-Urt, and also in the
suburbs of Grozny. More often than not, these searches lead to the arrests
of innocent people, some of whom are released on bail, some of whom disappear
without a trace. Lately, there have been cases of people being made human
explosions. Grenades are tied to a person and are detonated. After this,
it becomes impossible to identify the person; only pieces remain.
One of the most perfected ways to attack peaceful populations in Chechen regions is through kidnapping. Armed people in unidentifiable camouflage uniforms drive up to someone's house and take a family member. While doing this, they do not present any form of identification or accusation. The arrested person disappears and is not listed in any records among the dead or the living. Relatives consider themselves lucky if they are able to buy back the corpse. Trade in live and dead bodies has become epidemic among the Russian soldiers.
Despite the constant presence of Russian soldiers, the crime rate in the republic remains grave. Robbery, kidnapping and murder have become everyday activities in today's Chechnya. Russian soldiers turn out to be involved in many criminal activities.
The situation in Grozny also remains grave. The explosion of the Chechen embassy, which caused the death of more than 100 people, deeply shook Chechen society. But each day, there are more people questioning whether the rebels were involved in this explosion. No one in the area saw the cars that were supposedly used to blow up the embassy. The bomb crater that was formed after the explosion could not have been that of a car with explosives. Thirdly, residents of the western parts of Grozny report seeing rockets flying in the direction of the embassy. Some of the survivors of the explosion insist that there were no cars and that the explosion was the result of something falling from above.
The events that took place by the embassy create the most pessimistic and gloomy atmosphere in Chechen society. Most of the residents of Chechnya do not believe that this war will ever come to end, causing people to flee, if only for the sake of their children. The tendency to migrate from the republic only grows stronger with each day.
Reconstruction in Grozny continues at the same tempo as before. A few houses are restored after a very long period, but most of the city's regions are in ruins. The roads are completely torn and streets are cluttered with heaps of garbage.
It was announced that at the beginning of 2002, there would be a noticeable reduction in the number of Russian checkpoints in Grozny. Their number remains the same. The only difference is that in many places they have been moved from the center of the roads to the shoulders. Russian soldiers continue to demand money from drivers. Failure to provide a bribe means being hauled off to the station. In order to earn some money, the Russian soldiers establish temporary posts on any main road. After the embassy explosion, the Russian checkpoints were increased, but without achieving any stabilization of the situation. On the contrary, especially on weekends and holidays, drunk soldiers cause real traffic jams by blocking traffic or aimlessly open fire at night. To this day, Grozny has a nighttime curfew. Without warning, Russian soldiers shoot people who appear in the street in the hours of darkness. Almost every night, late passers-by are killed or injured. Russian snipers sit on the roofs of tall buildings; their actions are never predictable.
On New Year's Eve, the Chechen police arrested a Russian soldier who was attempting to place an exploding device under the New Year's tree located in the center of the city.
On Jan 14, 2003, there was an attack on the central market in Grozny. The attack was carried out by armed people dressed in camouflage driving in armored vehicles. Witnesses claim them to be mostly Russian, but Chechen soldiers were seen as well. They blocked off the market and began detaining all males from the ages of 16 to 50. After this, they looted the storage rooms, carrying out various expensive goods. At the same time they detained three women and three young people. Residents protested, but there are still no suspects and nobody knows what happened to the people detained by the attackers.
Given this background of events, peace and stabilization talks seem even stranger, as do talks about possible terms for a referendum.
The actual situation only gets worse with each day. Any attempts to solve the political problems are doubtful to bring peace and stability to Chechnya.
* Written by correspondents in Chechnya, Dispatches from Chechnya is 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 www.idee.org. To receive Dispatches by email, please contact IDEE at email@example.com
• • •
The most recent Balkan tour
of Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal
Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), left authorities in Belgrade disturbed.
She came with a stick and left as angry as before.
Even gaining another certain traveler to the Hague, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vojislav Seselj, who was one of the strongest presidential candidates last autumn garnering more than 20 percent of the vote, did not make her happy. Similarly, Belgrade authorities cannot be happy with the Hague's dangled small carrot—the arrests and indictments against four Kosovar Albanians. That action may only temporarily appease a Serbian public highly displeased with the Tribunal, convinced as it is that Serbs are the only "real target" of the Tribunal.
Carla del Ponte stated harshly that she was displeased with Belgrade's cooperation with the Tribunal, especially that state authorities are not allowing access to archives and documents that she deems important for the Tribunal's work, especially in the process against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Del Ponte doesn't hide that 30 to 40 more persons from Serbia are under investigation and that her primary goal is to persuade the Serbian government to arrest the former war commander of the Bosnian Serbs, General Ratko Mladic (who, among other things, is charged with the most horrific crimes in Srebrenica where thousands of Bosniaks were massacred). He is said to be in hiding on Serbian territory. Del Ponte is also asking for Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin and Corporal Miroslav Radic, who are charged with the massacres of Croatian civilians after the Serb occupation of Vukovar in 1991. Additionally, the Tribunal is asking Belgrade for another six indicted officers in Serbian military and para-military units.
Belgrade authorities, now under the total control of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, take small comfort in that fact that the U.S. has signaled that the pressure will stop once Mladic, Sljivancanin, and Radic are arrested. According to Western diplomatic sources, that message was delivered to Serbia by American envoy Pier Rissar Prosper in January, thus marking the beginning of the U.S. "exit strategy" from the Hague project.
However, a stubborn del Ponte still demands both access to the archives and the arrests of those who have been indicted. Belgrade authorities were given a small breathing space until June, when they have to comply with American demands to get its help for this year, $110 million. The American Congress also decided to give Kosovo $85 million, and $25 million will go to Montenegro. In both other cases, there are not any conditions.
There is an impression that Belgrade was partly confused by the discrepancy between Prosper and del Ponte's statements. There are analysts who point out that recent arrests of four former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army mean a last-ditch effort of the chief Tribunal prosecutor to persuade the Serbian government to cooperate.
Del Ponte welcomed the announcement of Radical leader Vojislav Seselj that he would go to the Hague voluntarily. He was announcing it the whole month before his indictment was made public on February 14. However, this extreme right-wing nationalist does not want Belgrade authorities to "earn" anything from his departure. Seselj threatened that no-one was allowed to arrest him and that he would go voluntarily without asking for any guarantees from the current government. He also set February 23 for his farewell political gathering in Belgrade before flying off the next day.
Seselj was charged with organizing para-military Serbian units that committed war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. He is also charged with ethnic cleansing in Serbia itself, not only war areas.
However, amid all his bombastic announcements, Seselj also introduced several serious statements, especially regarding who will follow him on the list of indicted. Some of those people are now part of new Serbian government. If his claims prove to be true, democratic authorities in Serbia will face serious problems.
There are also problems with witnesses in the process against Milosevic, especially with former chief of ex-military counter-intelligence service (KOS), General Aleksandar Vasiljevic. His testimony, lasting several days, opened up many new issues; many of the names Seselj had already mentioned were brought up in court. Seselj and Vasiljevic differ in their evaluations of the role of those persons in the wars, but Belgrade analysts already see them as potential Hague indictees.
Among those mentioned was the name of the former chief of secret police, Jovica Stanisic, a person who went separate ways from Milosevic five years ago and who established good relations with part of the former opposition, now the Serbian government. There is also Milorad Lukovic Legija, the recent commander of secret police special units who, according to witnesses in the Milosevic trial, waged war in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. After changes in Serbia in October 2000, Legija was hailed as a hero by Djindjic because he refused to fight protesters in Belgrade. There are now signs that these actions will be forgotten. Frenki Simatovic, a former commander of special police forces, is also under investigation. Tribunal witnesses claim he participated in all wars in the former Yugoslavia.
The recently retired commander-in-chief of the Yugoslav army, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, has already been interviewed in the Tribunal's offices in Belgrade four times. Sources close to his defense team say that there will be more interviews. General Pavkovic has been asking the Serbian prime minister for "political protection" since 2002, trying to shield himself from the Hague in exchange for his support in Djindjic's political fight with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. General Pavkovic gave his open support to Djindjic in the summer of last year when a committee tried to uncover a scandal of illegal eavesdropping on then Yugoslav President Kostunica. As a result, Kostunica's support dwindled by several points.
Two police officers, Sreten Lukic and Zoran Radisavljevic Guri are increasingly mentioned as candidates for trial in the Hague. Both are also officials in the administration headed by Prime Minister Djindjic. If some are indicted for war crimes, it will be a heavy blow to Djindjic, who has a hard time maintaining his thin majority in parliament. Informed sources in Belgrade say it could still be fixed somehow, but the real problem is the demand to arrest General Mladic, who del Ponte says is hiding in Serbia. Authorities, however, deny it, saying they don't know where he is.
Djindjic has been working on restructuring the Serbian secret police, which was behind Serbian para-military forces during ex-Yugoslavia's wars, for months. He removed some high-ranking officials in order to, as he claims, prevent leaking of sensitive information about actions being prepared or executed by secret police. The prime minister is especially dissatisfied with the fact that the Security-Information Agency (BIA, as the secret police is now called), although under the immediate control of prime minister, is unable to secure usable information about the movements and hideouts of indicted war criminals.
When Djindjic and Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic take over all power in the newly formed community of Serbia and Montenegro, Djindjic will be in a position of being the only official responsible for extraditions. It will enable the Tribunal and international community to more easily exert pressure on Belgrade's authorities. The prime minister can no longer use the argument that Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica is opposed to extraditions.
• • •
The Moscow press uncovered
a scandal in January. Little audio-video stores in Moscow were selling
pirate CD-ROMs with the complete data of all MTS mobile phone users for
MTS is the leader in wireless communications in Russia, in terms of both quality of service and number of users. The disclosure of private information-passport numbers, home and electronic addresses, home phone numbers, taxpayer ID numbers and phone bills-about almost 18 million people predictably caused a shock. From now on, any bandit who has this disk can guess subscribers' income from the bills they run up and, having all of their personal information available, can find them and victimize them accordingly.
An immediate internal investigation was begun at MTS, while the press suggested another possible culprit. Journalists have deduced that the information leak may have come not from within MTS but from special services agents who were given unlimited access to the databases of MTS and other mobile telecommunications providers during the hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theatrical Center when that information was necessary to listen in on the conversations of the terrorists.
It should be noted that I saw pirate CDs with information on subscribers to MTS and other telecom companies. Not only that, there were CDs with information on car owners, owners of expensive home and so on available as well. It is still unknown how that information came into the hands of the pirates, but in a country where capitalism is triumphant, probably everything can be gotten a price. Considering the frenzy of state and private organizations to count and register everything that moves, including people, it can be assumed that similar databases are held by banks, insurance companies and clinics that take this information from every one of their clients.
I still do not know whether or not the security service for a bank has the right to take down my passport information, even after asking several lawyers. Every company that has a security service considers it a scared duty to record the passport information and other personal information, including the names of family members, of everyone enters their premises although, in my opinion, this violates laws protecting privacy.
Besides the legal fine points of personal privacy, the MTS scandal is interesting for another reason. For the last three or four years, rumors have circulated among mobile phone users that their bills, based on the length of their conversations, are being inflated.
A mobile phone dealer told me the story of his customer, a lawyer, who suspected that he was being unfairly billed. He decided to catch the phone company in the act. He put $50 in his account with the company, then took his mobile phone to a notary, who placed a seal on the telephone. Then he put it in a safe deposit box in a bank. Two weeks later, in the presence of the same notary and a bank employee, he took the phone out and called to find out his balance with the company. After entering his personal code, he discovered that his bill was $46.87. According to my informant, the lawyer took documentation of his loss to the head of the phone company and was given an expensive new cell phone and a year's unlimited use good throughout Russia.
I cannot vouch for the truth of this tale but, last year, MTS launched a PR campaign emphasizing their "honesty and transparency of payments."
An acquaintance of mine who worked for several years for the BeeLine wireless communications company, the second largest such company in Russia, also experienced improper dealings as their customer. Besides charging for services that were out-of-order for long periods of time (call forwarding, caller ID and so on), they made strange billing errors, such as sending him a bill for $47 by SMS and simultaneously mailing a bill for $52. That problem could not be cleared up by customer services, because no one could explain how it could happen. After lengthy discussion, one manager admitted that it could be a technical error. When he obtained a list of the calls he was charged for, he was surprised to find several listed that he had never made.
Often these companies' advertising is so confusing that it can be called deceptive. For several months, BeeLine had a massive print and broadcast advertising campaign claiming that calls were billed by the second. Two months later, customer dissatisfaction was so great that the government issued BeeLine an official warning and imposed a hefty fine. Only one of the company's billing plans featured by-the-second billing, although the ads gave the impression that that was always true. It is easy to imagine how many people were deceived, hearing their claims from sunup to sundown.
A week ago, I fell under the influence of the advertising of the Moscow firm Alttelekom and bought a new Siemens mobile phone. In the advertisement emblazoned all over Moscow, it was claimed that every customer who bought a Siemens telephone would get a discount and a gift. The price indicated in the contract made me happy too. But when the bill came, I my happiness faded. It did not look anything like a discount, and a manager, with his company's ad right in front of him, had to spend a long time explaining away the gift. It seems that the price shown for the telephone in the store's display window did not include 20% VAT and 5% sales tax, although a tiny sign was hung in another part of the window explaining that. It was just hard to see it. After a long squabble with the manager, I received a small gift, but left indignant over their deception.
Who knows how many people were ensnared by that advertising?
Experienced users of Russian mobile phone services say that they all cheat. And they all misrepresent themselves in advertising. Corbina Telecom, known for its nice prices and clear connections, claims to have no monthly subscription fee in one payment plan. I called them and found out that their minimum charge is for 100 minutes a month, which means that I have to pay no less than $18 per month. So there is no subscription fee but there is a minimum monthly payment nonetheless. If I had switched to Corbina without a close inquiry first, I would have had a fuss, nervous strain and at least three wasted hours in store for me. Moreover, not one manager warned about the pitfalls hidden behind the ads. That is left to the customer, who has to conduct a sophisticated inquiry, almost an interrogation.
The only mobile phone company I have not heard accused of dishonesty is Megaphone. But the quality of their connections is so bad that reaching someone on one of their phones in the middle of the afternoon is almost a feat of heroism.
It would be naive to think that it is only phone service where billing practices are questionable. Phone card users also frequently find themselves in unexpected adventures. Those cards are issued by various Internet providers that specialize in IP-telephone services. I have a close acquaintance who has tried almost every card in Moscow. He told me about his first attempt to trace time that had disappeared from his account.
He had bought a Banana card and called his brother, who lives abroad. There was no one home when he called. When he terminated the call, he was amazed to hear an automated voice inform him that he had used 46 seconds on his brand new card. He was convinced that he should pay only for time he spent talking, and not for dialing. So he called customer service at Ugoltelekom, the issuer of the Banana card, where it was explained to him that, indeed, he pays only for time spent talking. After a long conversation with a very polite manager, he was refunded his lost time. The next day, the exact same thing happened. This time 22 seconds disappeared. When mistakes repeat, they become rules. When he asked his friends who used the card, he found out that that mistake occurred with them as well.
The same thing has happened to the users of dozens of other cards too. The head of a major telecom company admitted to me that it is common practice. The fierce competition in the market forces companies to reduce their rates continually. Endless rate reductions are impossible, of course. So, while charging low rates per minute, companies add 20-40 seconds' charge to each call. If an alert customer notices, he most likely will not pay attention to such a small difference. If someone complains, the lost time is credited back. Most people do not notice.
Comparing others' opinions and experience to my own, also extensive, opinions and experience, I made the unhappy discovery that an honest company would have a hard time surviving. Even if you could prove the guilt of the telecom company and bring it to court, it would not be likely to do any good. To prove a case in court, it is necessary to have documentation and statistics that could never be gotten out of the very companies that are cheating you. Their computer programmers are paid well and make sure that there is no documentation. Thus, there will be no lawsuits. Nonetheless, if some noise is made about the situation, the state bodies that oversee the industry will be pressured to set things straight. But now I am letting my naiveté show again.