Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 133

General Vladimir Moltenskoi, the acting commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, has reportedly admitted that Russian troops committed “large-scale crimes” while carrying out “zachistki”–cleansing or mopping-up operations–in the villages of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, along Chechnya’s border with Ingushetia. Moltenskoi was quoted as condemning those who conducted the operations in the two villages, saying they did so “in a clumsy, lawless fashion, destroying everything and then pretending they knew nothing about it.” Moltenskoi was also quoted as saying that similar crimes had been committed during operations elsewhere in Chechnya. Following the initial reports quoting Moltenskoi, however, the press center for the federal military task force in Chechnya denied that he made such comments (Russian agencies, AFP,, July 11). The operations in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya were carried out in response to two terrorist bombings that killed a total of eleven Russian servicemen. Hundreds of local male residents of the two towns were reportedly detained during the sweeps, which were followed by widespread complaints by local residents that the federal troops engaged in beatings, torture, extortion and looting. The behavior of the Russian troops during the operations in the two towns has already been sharply criticized by Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, among others (see the Monitor, July 9).

Moltenskoi’s comments were not well received in some circles. Unnamed sources in the Interior Ministry were quoted yesterday as warning officials against public statements about what had had taken place in the two villages before the official investigation into the events there was completed. The Interior Ministry sources said that comments by certain politicians and public figures about the illegality of the federal troops’ actions during the Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya sweeps were especially “irresponsible” (, July 11).

Human rights activists, it should be noted, have already said much of what Moltenskoi is reported to have echoed. On July 10, Oleg Orlov, chairman of the board of Memorial, said that while the abuses in Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk were on a large scale–according to Memorial, seven people detained in Sernovodsk and twelve detained in Assinovskaya are still missing–he and his fellow human rights activists were getting similar reports almost daily from other parts of Chechnya. Orlov said that similar “cleansing” operations were carried out in the Kurchaloe and Chernoreche districts last month, while Diederik Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch office in Moscow, said there were unconfirmed reports that at least eight civilians were killed in the village of Alkhan-Kala recently during a special military operation there (see the Monitor, July 5, 9). Aslambek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the State Duma, said earlier this week that five people were found murdered after federal troops entered the village of Kurchaloe. Orlov said that fifty-three civilians were killed in Chechnya in June and sixty in May, and that more than 1,000 civilians had perished since the military operation in Chechnya began in September 1999 (AFP, July 11; Russian agencies, July 10). For his part, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, said yesterday that federal forces may have committed offenses during the sweeps of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya and that such large-scale “cleansing” operations would be replaced by pinpointed special operations against rebel forces and their commanders (Kommersant, July 12; Radio Ekho Moskvy, July 11).

Meanwhile, unnamed military officers were quoted as saying that the operations in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya were typical security operations in which federal troops check local residents’ passports to see if any of them are linked to the rebels while searching for weapons and explosives. “Sometimes they are carried out more harshly, sometimes more gently–it depends upon the operational information concerning the presence of [rebel] fighters in the [given area],” the officers were quoted as saying. They also warned: “We cannot expose our fighters to additional danger. This hysteria could lead to a situation in which unit commanders will simply stop working, fearing an inappropriate response from the locals.” One critic of those who have criticized the Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya operations agreed to speak on the record: General Anatoly Shkirko, former commander of the Interior Ministry’s internal troops, called the controversy around the operations “a link in the same chain” that includes recent antiwar protests in Chechen towns and villages and hunger strikes in camps housing Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. “All of this, directly or indirectly, is coming from [the Chechen rebels],” he said. “And all of it could in the end lead to a new Khasavyurt, which Russia simply would not survive” (, July 11). Shkirko was referring to the 1996 cease-fire agreement between Moscow and Chechen rebel leaders brokered by then Security Council chief Aleksandr Lebed, which many Russian generals have denounced as an act of treason.