Chechnya Starts the New Year on a Tense Note

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 4

After numerous statements by various ministers in Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s government regarding the victories that they scored in 2008 in Chechnya (http://www.grozny-inform.ru/), 2009 began with unpleasant news streaming in from outside the republic for Chechen authorities.

The Russian justice system released from prison a colonel in the Russian Army, Yuri Budanov, who was accused of rape and premeditated murder of the Chechen girl Elza Kungaeva. Budanov was released early because of his exemplary behavior and acceptance of guilt (http://www.svobodanews.ru/news/russia/2009/01/17.html?id=481163). In December 2008, the court of the town of Dimitrovgrad satisfied Budanov’s appeal for an early release, but the Kungaev family demanded its repeal and because of that the court’s decision was delayed. However, without waiting for the official review of the appeal filed by the attorneys of the victim’s family and in circumvention of the procedural requirements, Budanov was still released early (http://www.rusnovosti.ru/news/?/20090116/10/34387).

In Russian legal practice, such decisions usually cannot be taken by the judges independently, as is customary in developed democratic countries, and therefore it is possible to conjecture that the release was sanctioned by Moscow.

In Chechnya, news of Budanov’s release was treated as the collective humiliation of the many people who suffered in that dirty war. A number of protest demonstrations took place in the republic and many public statements were made by human rights activists, politicians and public figures in Chechnya, who demanded the repeal of the court decision granting Budanov early release from prison (http://www.rosbalt.ru/2009/01/16/610298.html). However, even more unpleasant for Budanov may not be the protest demonstrations, but the fact that several individuals filed complaints with the Prosecutor General’s Office alleging that Budanov committed other crimes that are not yet charged the court of rule when he was commanding a Russian army detachment in Chechnya in 2000. The relatives of victims are willing to testify today with regard to other murders committed, they claim, by Budanov personally (http://www.rosbalt.ru/2009/01/13/609491.html). On the same wave of popular resentment came another news report, according to which the remains of several dozen people killed extra-judicially were discovered in the area of the village of Tangi-chu in Chechnya’s Urus-Martan district of Chechnya, where Budanov’s unit was deployed (www.echo.msk.ru/news/562809-echo.html). The statements by Tangi-chu residents to this effect may not allow Yuri Budanov to dot the “i” over the Chechen war for a long time.

Another unpleasant news report for the Chechen leadership was the murder of the 26-year-old Chechen asylum seeker Umar Israilov in the capital of Austria, Vienna. The news was alarming for Grozny not because he was killed but because the Austrian police managed to capture one of the possible accomplices, who drove two assassins in a getaway car to the victim’s location. Israilov was known as one of the handful of those who denounced Kadyrov within the walls of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It should be noted that Strasbourg agreed to consider Ismailov’s case against Kadyrov, in which he describes crimes committed against him personally and provides details of many extra-judicial reprisals against the residents of Chechnya that he witnessed (RIA Novosti, January 17). Even though the current investigation is considering other versions behind the killing (http://wek.com.ua/article/1151/), the main version is that the murder was based on political motives.

In the past Israilov fought on the side of the Chechen resistance movement, but in 2002 he was captured and in 2003, after numerous humiliations and torture, he was finally persuaded to repent and serve in Kadyrov’s personal security detail. In 2004, he managed to leave Chechnya undetected and arrived in Austria, where he received refugee status. According to his father, who is also a refugee in Europe, his son warned him that he had appealed to the police with a statement explaining that he had been experiencing pressure to withdraw his case against Kadyrov from the court, and that recently this pressure had escalated to assassination threats.

Many international human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Memorial) called on the Austrian authorities to carry out a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding Israilov’s murder. All of these organizations considered him the star witness against Kadyrov (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/01/14/austria-bring-killers-chechen-exile-justice).

It is noteworthy that similar actions against Kadyrov (including filing lawsuits in courts, refusal to contact with hum, or unacceptability of his policies in Chechnya) are always accompanied by loud and scandalous murders: the assassination of Movladi Baisarov in Moscow; the shooting death of Ruslan Yamadaev; and the disappearance of Salikh Masaev (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=18734). To an increasing number of people this looks like a consistent policy aimed at exerting pressure on those who refuse to cooperate with the Chechen leadership and force them to stop their criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya. A growing number of Chechen refugees in the West began to talk of the alleged existence of a so-called “execution list” of ethnic Chechens who left for the West primarily seeking asylum (http://www.kavkazcenter.net/russ/content/2009/01/16/63411.shtml).

This latest murder of a Chechen refugee raises many questions about the host country. First of all, is the state capable of guaranteeing security to refugees who fled from the persecution of the Russian authorities? One can only recall the murder of the prominent Chechen politician Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in the capital of Qatar, Doha, the assassination of the former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko as well as a series of killings in Azerbaijan and Georgia, including the December 2008 murder of the representative of the Chechen resistance movement in Istanbul, Islam Janibekov. The number of Chechen refugees who fled their homeland during the second Russian military campaign and were subsequently murdered abroad are now in the dozens, and an absolute majority of these killings occurred in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.   

Meanwhile, Kadyrov held a traditional parade in his ancestral village of Tsentoroi, which increasingly resembles a military base. While addressing the military and police (who refers to themselves as “Kadyrovtsy”), Kadyrov called for a merciless war against banditry. By invoking this obscure term, he probably meant the actions of the resistance movement. As before, he also stated that everything was in order and that the only remaining task was to defeat a handful of militants in order to finish off separatism once and for all.

In 2008, according to the Chechen law-enforcement authorities: “324 members of gang formations were detained, 61 militants annihilated, and 93 members of gang formations were convinced to give themselves up” (www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/chechnya/1111767.html), which yields the aggregate number of 478 people. This figure stands in stark contrast to the claim by Russian authorities that the number of militants was several dozen in January 2008 (http://www.ng.ru/ngregions/2008-01-28/13_kavkaz.html).  At the same time other figures are quoted for the entire North Caucasus, according to which not less than 315 militants suspected of participating in the illegal armed formations were arrested, 231 were killed, meaning that for the entire North Caucasus there was a total of about 546 militants (http://52.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/north-caucasus-itogi_2008). This implies that about 90 percent of all insurgent losses took place in Chechnya. This estimate is unrealistic because the bulk of the casualties were in Ingushetia and Dagestan, where the losses among both the militants and law-enforcement authorities were at a level higher than in Chechnya. Similarly, the assertion by Deputy Chechen Interior Minister Muslim Isaev at a ministry staff meeting that “in 2008 there were practically no crimes of extremist nature in Chechnya” is trifling (http://42.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/net_extremizma).

Thus, it is plausible that most of the aforementioned figures represent crude propaganda, and such figures are cited every time there is some sort of an event. For instance, if it is necessary to praise the police for its exceptional performance, the number of militants killed and detained is inflated tenfold. Meanwhile, the political leaders quote more modest figures supposedly showing that the situation has finally stabilized. This is why it is important to use estimates from independent sources in order to come up with rough estimates of what is happening today in the Chechen Republic. As during the years of the Soviet Union, all information today instantly becomes the subject of propaganda by the opposing sides. This information vacuum is further exacerbated by the fact that journalists cannot freely travel in the North Caucasus without being accompanied by the officials dispatched by the authorities in Moscow and Grozny.