On August 7, Mikhail Sturshe, a Finnish human rights activist and a supporter of Chechen independence, told Kavkaz-Center that a Chechen vocal group, Zhovkhar, which means “pearl” in Chechen, had sought political asylum in Finland. The report posted on the rebel website said the reason that the group members gave for their decision was that it is impossible to have a normal life in Chechnya nowadays.
Zhovkar is the most famous Chechen female vocal group. Formed in 1993, it consists of female singers and male musicians who accompany them. The news that the band had decided not to return to Chechnya shocked the Russian authorities. Initially, officials in the pro-Russian Chechen government’s Ministry of Culture refused to comment on the group’s flight. After the initial silence, an explanation was found: Chechen Minister of Culture Dikalu Muzikaev told journalists that the six members of the band (four women and two men) who asked for asylum in Finland were in fact not members of the group but simply members of the republican philharmonic society. Muzikaev then admitted that these people were indeed members of the vocal group but that they had quit Zhovkar on their own accord late in July and that their trip to Finland was private and without any connections with the Culture Ministry. According to the minister, these four young women and two young men had asked him to permit them to travel to Finland, but he refused and so they resigned. As for the other part of the group, Muzikaev said it was in Grozny and was getting ready for the “Peace to the Caucasus” Arts Festival.
The Interior Ministry of Finland has officially admitted that six Chechen artists and eleven of their family members have sought political asylum in their country, but the Russian authorities are doing their best to demonstrate that this is nothing serious. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said that no politics were involved in the fact that the artists had asked for asylum in Finland. At the same time, he described the decision of the singers and musicians to stay in Finland as “political adventurism” (Gazeta.ru, August 8). Like Cultural Minister Muzikaev, Kadyrov repeated that only four of the people who requested asylum in Finland really belonged to the group. Kadyrov hinted in his statement that the artists simply wanted to move to a country with much higher living standards.
Dairy Kozak, the Russian presidential representative to the Southern Federal District, also said that “living conditions are not ideal in the Chechen republic” and that “people want to live where the conditions are better.” At the same time, Kozak echoed Ramzan Kadyrov and Dikalu Muzikaev by saying that most of the group’s members continue to work in Chechnya (Gazeta, August 8).
Analyzing the comments of the Russian officials, one can see that all of their statements are almost identical and appear to be well-coordinated. According to the official version, politics played no role in the incident, the artists sought asylum simply because they wanted a better life, and only a few members of the group went to Finland while most are still in Chechnya.
Nevertheless, even Russia’s state-controlled Channel One television had to admit that those who stayed in Finland amounted to almost half of the group. On August 7, Channel One aired a short old video of the group’s concert during a news program, noting that four of the six female singers in the video had escaped to Finland and that the group was now looking for new singers.
“The core of the group whom we met back in 2004 stayed in Finland,” Oksana Chelysheva, deputy executive manager of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, told Radio Liberty (Radio Liberty, August 8).
Regardless of what the officials are saying, it is clear that the flight of the group is a serious blow to both Kadyrov and the Kremlin. Zhovkhar was supposed to play a special role in the upcoming propagandistic event – the “Peace to the Caucasus” Arts Festival. The festival was supposed to serve as further proof that everything is fine in Chechnya. Kavkazky Uzel reported that on July 29, Chechen Prime Minister Odes Baisultanov ordered that preparations for the festival, which is to be held in Grozny in September, get underway. Two thousand dancers and singers from all over the North Caucasus, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will take part in the festival. According to the Chechen Human Rights Information Center, the authorities want to close the largest refugee centers in Grozny and kick the refugees out into the streets in order to have places for the festival’s guests to stay.
Considering the importance of the festival in creating a positive image of Kadyrov’s Chechnya, the stir provoked by Zhovkhar’s flight to Finland may damage the very idea of the “Peace to the Caucasus,” which is aimed at making everybody believe that the Chechen war has ended.