Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 10

On March 26, the mass circulation newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, in an unusual development, published lengthy excerpts from an open letter sent to the “leadership of the country and of the Ministry of Internal Affairs” by members of SOBR UPOP–an elite anti-organized crime MVD spetznaz unit–from the city of Cherepovets, located to the north of Moscow. The text of the appeal was unanimously adopted during a recent meeting of the Cherepovets SOBR.

“Until now,” the officers began their appeal, “no [Russian] law exists ‘On a Condition of War,’ and the law ‘On Emergency Rule’ does not reflect the reality that is occurring in the North Caucasus. A war is taking place in Chechnya, but criminal cases are being opened against employees of the MVD and other agencies in relation to the discovery of corpses of rebels that show signs of a violent death. This [is true] even in cases where the rebels are found with weapons in their hands. This even when it is well known that they were killed in a firefight. On what basis is the Russian Procuracy terrorizing the units of the Ministry of Defense, Internal Troops, the MVD and the spetznaz forces who are participating in military actions? And why is ‘peacetime’ legislation being applied to a territory in the grip of war, de facto during a time of war?”

“It turns out,” the authors continued, “that they [the Chechen rebels] are being taken into captivity unlawfully, When the procurators attached to our units discover captured rebels, we have to… let them go. This is idiocy! And periodically some Moscow clerk with a smart face declares loudly that there is no war in Chechnya! Then why do they announce on television that, in one month’s time, there have died and been wounded as many men as served on the crew of the [drowned] submarine ‘Kursk’? The Chechen rebels are more honest in their deeds than the members of our government are. At least they call things by their name: ‘Jihad’–that means war, not a forest fire or a flood.” As can be seen, the SOBR officers are vehemently opposed to any investigation by the Russian Procuracy of alleged war crimes committed by their unit or by other detachments stationed in Chechnya. (These investigations, it should be noted, have been launched by the Russian Procuracy largely due to extremely heavy pressure exerted by the Council of Europe on the Russian government to punish war crimes committed against the civilian populace of Chechnya.) The SOBR authors of the collective letter, for their part, underscore that a real war is taking place in Chechnya, thus implying that a condition of war vitiates the need for any investigation of crimes committed against civilians.

Another key problem, the SOBR authors maintain, is that the MVD leadership “has no concept of the methods of work and the tactics of special units.” Only completely ignorant persons would, for example, “station SOBR [units] at checkpoints.” Another major complaint of the authors concerns the activity of the pro-Moscow Chechen police. “It is not surprising,” they write, “that in Grozny at 7:00 pm a curfew has been established for the ‘federals,’ during which time they can easily be shot at or blown up. And during that time [of curfew] Grozny is simply crammed with [pro-Moscow] Chechen police. If we take a rebel into custody, he turns out to be a policeman. If we take a policeman into custody, he turns out to be a rebel. No one can say what functions these Chechen formations are carrying out (except to provide armed support in feuds between clans and in the tweaking of marketplaces).” “In our view,” the SOBR authors sum up, “these [pro-Moscow police] formations should be disarmed, carefully checked over, and then cut back in number tenfold. A single unit should be formed from those who have proven their loyalty by their work and by their blood.” The remaining pro-Moscow police should be sent “to help women and old men to restore the city, to comb through rubble and so on.” As can be seen, the SOBR authors are outspoken opponents of the process of “Chechenization” that the Kremlin is now promoting: Establishing a pro-Moscow Chechen police force stands at the heart of this program.

The SOBR men then pass on to the issue of their so-called “combat wages [boevye].” “De facto,’ they write, “they have ceased to pay us our ‘combat wages’ though we can take a bullet or be blown up by a mine at any minute. But the clerks who never leave [the military bases at] Khankala or Mozdok de facto receive their ‘combat wages’ in full. But those OMON [police commandos] who served three tours of duty at the checkpoints in 2001 (270 days in all) were paid ‘combat wages’ for only twenty-two days.”

Another sore point for the authors is that the Russian state is not paying a kopeck to support SOBR’s activities in Chechnya. Instead, unnamed private “sponsors” are covering the costs of their bulletproof helmets and vests and other equipment. “Even our special weaponry is acquired with the aid of these same sponsors. And the weaponry is already outdated. Who will buy us new weapons? Our sponsors? And where is the state here? We have seen the newest Russian weaponry in the hands of the Chechen rebels.” The Russian state, the authors complain, does not even pay for such essentials as their “groceries, water, bedding and so forth. Again these are provided by our sponsors…. Thank God, normal people for whom the condition of law enforcement and legality in the country are not a matter of indifference do exist.”

The authors of the collective letter proceed once to direct scathing criticism against the pro-Moscow Chechen administration of Akhmad Kadyrov. “Many billions [of rubles],” they contend, “are being sent for the restoration of Chechnya. But the Chechen administration is drowning in luxury. The impression is created that de facto everything has been bought or sold…. And now tell us the reason why we should serve as ‘cannon fodder’? So that someone can make a profit on the sale of oil, on the ‘restoration’ of Chechnya, or on the arming of the rebels?”

On March 27, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the telephones in its editorial offices were “ringing off the hook” in response to the published letter of the Cherepovets SOBR. A number of individuals connected with SOBR and OMON units stationed throughout Russia telephoned in to support the authors of the Cherepovets letter, though many preferred not to give their names. The newspaper published a few of these responses. Nikolai Gerasimov, an OMON fighter, declared: “We are 100 percent in agreement with the publication. We are sick to death of these postings [to Chechnya].” A Major Volynchikov of a SOBR unit in Lipetsk underscored that “real [military] battles” were taking place in Chechnya. Aleksandr, an OMON officer stationed in Petersburg, wrote that “98 percent of our unit fully support the lads from Cherepovets,” while another OMON representative from Nizhny Novgorod affirmed: “We fully support the demands of the Cherepovets SOBR. We were sent [to Chechnya] from October 2001 till January 2002 and were paid only six days of combat wages.” An officer in the Moscow OMON said: “I fully support the article. I have nothing to add–the situation is catastrophic, precisely as is described.”

It should be noted that the publication of an appeal from the Cherepovets SOBR on March 26 represented the second time this month that Komsomolskaya Pravda had addressed the subject of burning grievances entertained by elite MVD units serving in Chechnya. On March 12, the same newspaper had published a report entitled, “Disturbances in the Elite Units of the Police.” That item had reported that “eight officers of SOBR from the Republic of Komi have refused to go to Chechnya for 180 days.” The leadership of the MVD had recently raised the limit for a normal posting to Chechnya from 90 to 180 days. “Everyone understands,” one of the protestors, SOBR Major Igor Nevzorov, stressed, “that returning from there [that is, after 180 days in Chechnya] we will be potential clients for a psychiatric ward.” Protests have also, the newspaper reported, been made by “the SOBR in Syktyvar, Vorkuta and Uktha.” “This conflict in an elite unit of the MVD,” the newspaper wrote further, “could be called an emergency situation on a local scale if a similar situation did not also obtain in several cities of the Northwest Federal District-Murmansk, Kaliningrad, and Kirov.”

To sum up, perhaps without intending to do so, the SOBR protesters have made the hopelessness of many of the Russian leadership’s current policies toward Chechnya very clear. A real war, the authors emphasize, is taking place in Chechnya. Why then does the Russian leadership want to return large numbers of refugees from Ingushetia, Georgia and so on to a dangerous war zone? The SOBR authors stress their contempt for the efforts of Russian prosecutors, under heavy pressure from the Council of Europe, to apply the strictures of international law to their behavior. In so claiming, they highlight the considerable danger to which Chechen civilians are being subjected. Finally, in their contempt and seeming hatred for the pro-Moscow Chechen civilian administration and police, they demonstrate graphically that a program of “Chechenization” is not likely to succeed. In short, their letters and statements provide additional evidence that the Russian leadership’s present approach to Chechnya has reached a complete dead end.