Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 140

Russian authorities announced last week that they had arrested a group of servicemen in connection with excesses committed against civilians during zachistki (or “cleansing” operations) conducted by Russian forces in Chechnya earlier this month in the western Chechen villages of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya. Following those security sweeps–along with a similar operation carried out in the nearby village of Kurchaloi–local residents charged that they had been targeted for abuses by Russian troops. Their allegations included extortion, looting, kidnapping, beatings, torture and even murder (see the Monitor, July 5, 9, 12). The Russian authorities, however, appear to be more concerned thus far with finding fall guys to minimize related public relations damage than getting to the bottom of what happened.

Chechnya’s prosecutor, Viktor Dakhnov, announced on July 19 that six Russian servicemen who had participated in the Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya security sweeps had been detained on charges of kidnapping, robbery and exceeding their authority. More thirty investigators were involved in the probe, he said, adding that he hoped that the six arrests would serve as “a serious warning for those who participate in special operations in Chechnya.” The suspects reportedly include five officers of the army and Interior Ministry along with an officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who was among those in charge of the zachistki. The arrests won praise from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which also praised the Russian military command for resolutely condemning such actions and taking alleged human rights abuses seriously (Reuters, July 19).

Immediately following Dakhnov’s announcement, however, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said that it was premature to comment on the investigation, and added that none of the Interior Ministry’s internal troops or other personnel had been charged with any crime. In addition, a newspaper reported last week that while investigators had come up with a list of unit commanders who had committed crimes during the Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya operations, that list was subsequently “significantly shortened thanks to the efforts of the leaders of the counterterrorist operation”–meaning the Russian military command in Chechnya (Kommersant, July 20).

Russian military and law enforcement officials have been at pains to prove that the abuses in the western Chechen villages were not systematic. For example, soon after the controversy over the operations broke out, the acting commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, General Vladimir Moltenskoi, was quoted as saying that the abuses in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya had been widespread. His office subsequently denied that he had made such a comment. For his part, Dakhnov said last week that the investigators had found that Russian forces had committed “individual” but not “widespread” abuses against Chechen civilians during the sweeps in question. Later in the week, Dakhnov also sought to reduce the culpability of the Russian forces for the excesses, saying that investigators had “documentary” evidence that the abuses “may have been provoked by certain local inhabitants.” This latter theory echoed comments President Vladimir Putin made during his press conference at the Kremlin last week, that one of the favored tactics of radical “fundamentalists” in Chechnya is to launch terrorist attacks against federal forces in order to provoke retaliation against the civilian population and thereby turn it against the federal authorities. Such comments apparently angered Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, who said last week that the investigation into abuses should not be limited to the arrest of six servicemen and that “heads should roll” as well among the generals in Moscow in order to “restore the people’s faith” in his administration (Russian agencies, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Mayak, Reuters, July 19; see also the Monitor, July 19).

Human rights activists have pointed out that alleged abuses during the Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya operations are hardly unique cases. The group Memorial posted on its website last week a June 29 letter sent to Dakhnov and others in Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration from a group of doctors of the local hospital in the village of Starye Atagi. The doctors alleged that an “unknown armed formation of federal troops” of more than 100 soldiers–some of them apparently drunk–had arrived at the hospital in armored personnel carriers and other vehicles that same day, after which they first indiscriminately fired on the building and then looted the premises. According to the doctors, the serial numbers of the troops’ vehicles had been smeared with mud, apparently to prevent identification (, July 19). On July 18, 100-150 inhabitants of Raduzhnoe blocked the Djohar-Goragorsk highway to protest incidents that had taken place earlier that day in the village, where Russian forces had carried out a zachsitka. The protesters charged that Russian troops in an armored personnel carrier had kidnapped a local inhabitant and his son, while other Russian troops had fired on a car, whose passengers were later unaccounted for (, July 18). On June 20, Dakhnov said that the special operation in Raduzhnoe was justified because caches of weapons presumably belonging to the rebels had been discovered there (, July 20).