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#18 - JRL 7126
Financial Times (UK)
April 1, 2003,
Chechnya Conflict
Life in a climate of violence
There are slim grounds for hope by a population that has suffered hardship and terror
By Andrew Jack

A news report on the conditions in Chechnya, broadcast on RTR, a Russian state television channel, last month said far more about the state of the country's media than it did about the situation on the ground.

As the sun shone, a correspondent suggested that all was returning to normal in the republic. He illustrated his point by showing footage of him being stopped in his car by a traffic policeman to show his driving licence - a normal enough event of administrative arbitrariness that might have taken place anywhere in Russia.

What he failed to report was the distinctly exceptional level of security in the conflict-torn republic; the extremely constrained circumstances in which journalists can operate there; the continued widespread devastation; and the climate of violence, with military clashes by day and disappearances of Chechens by night.

In the past few months human rights groups have reported little change in the number of violations perpetrated against Chechens. While heavy fighting with federal armed forces is extremely rare today, frequent exchanges of fire still claim dozens of lives each month. So, too, can more exceptional but dramatic events.

Akhmed Kadyrov, the head of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, has been the subject of several assassination attempts, while others among his officials have been killed. Three striking incidents in particular in the last past few months - the shooting down of a military transport helicopter; the Dubrovka theatre siege; and the destruction of the Kadyrov headquarters in the capital Grozny - have illustrated the continued determination of the critics of the present regime.

But after a long period with little concrete sign of policy change from Moscow in spite of international and some domestic criticism, the efforts of the Kremlin did begin to shift last year to concentrate on its concept of a political resolution to the problems of Chechnya.

More than three years after President Vladimir Putin launched a hardline policy to bring the republic firmly back under Russian control, the rhetoric is certainly changing. In the past few weeks he invested considerable effort in conciliatory words as part of measures to encourage support for a referendum on a new constitution for the republic, held on March 23.

The outcome itself - with a turnout of almost 90 per cent with 96 per cent voting in favour - was little surprise. The question is, what difference it will make?

Lord Frank Judd threatened to resign as head of the joint Russia-Council of Europe working group on Chechnya the referendum took place as scheduled, after a visit to Chechnya convinced him that the conditions were not yet ripe for a vote.

Few were aware of the contents of the constitution; the mechanisms were not in place for a serious political discussion on the issues; and the security conditions were such that the council - along with a number of other international organisations - decided it was too dangerous to send observers to watch the vote itself.

Despite a nominal ban on campaigning by the authorities, a tightly-controlled local media and the widespread use of schools, community councils and government bodies to encourage a "yes" vote gave little doubt to ordinary voters about the way Moscow wanted them to lean. No organisations in favour of a "no" were even registered to lobby against.

Many Chechens argue that the constitution is largely irrelevant to their daily lives. In theory, after all, the Russian constitution to which they are already party guarantees their human rights. In practice, it clearly makes little difference.

In many ways, the entire process has been handled back-to-front. The Kremlin pushed for Chechen support of a new constitution which offers none of the concessions of Russia's other ethnic republics. So far, it has only promised to add a subsequent treaty holding out hope of unspecified greater autonomy.

Troop withdrawals, the elimination of military checkpoints, amnesties for rebel fighters and material compensation to those who have suffered from war damage were offered as incentives to vote in favour. But such gestures have yet to be met with action, while most Chechens have so far seen few signs of improvement to their daily lives.

Perhaps most delicate of all, the Kremlin now considers it has a mandate to push ahead with regional presidential and then parliamentary elections as soon as the end of this year. Yet the new constitution has automatically excluded any figures with separatist inclinations. Few efforts have been made to foster the emergence of a broad group of potential leaders - and a presidential system is arguably in any case inappropriate to Chechnya's system of rival teips or clans.

The result could be the swift election of Mr Kadyrov as president, who would then be in a position to use his resources to ensure support for a sympathetic - but unrepresentative - pro-Moscow parliament. Recent polls suggest his own ratings stand at only about 16 per cent within Chechnya, suggesting his candidature would be unacceptable to many.

There are some modest grounds for hope. The mere fact that the Kremlin is investing so much effort in a political process - however flawed - suggests a new-found commitment to end the conflict, and a willingness to begin to study improvements. Efforts in the last few weeks to extend contacts with the Chechen diaspora, and notably members of the former "independent" Chechen parliament, point in this direction.

Above all, ordinary Chechens are fed up with their miserable conditions. Most lived in hardship during their periods of quasi-independence over the past decade, and in terror during periods of Russian control. What they want - above all - is peace and stability. That is why, despite the flaws, many were willing to support the referendum: any chance of positive change seems better than none.

But if Chechens have given a cautious new mandate to Russia, the onus must now be on Moscow - and not simply the local administration - to deliver. That means a need to withdraw troops, reduce human rights' violations, and take measures to significantly improve the standard of living. The burden is considerable. The penalties for failure are worse.

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