Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 25

Kenneth Gluck, the American aid worker with the group Doctors Without Borders who was kidnapped near the Chechen town of town of Starye Atagi on January 9, was freed in the late hours of February 3-4, not far from where he had been seized. According to Russian officials, his captors released Gluck as a result of a special operation carried out by the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and that he was released unconditionally and without the payment of a ransom. FSB spokesman General Major Aleksandr Zdanovich said that the FSB had spent several days monitoring Gluck’s whereabouts as he was moved from place to place and, finally, when the right moment arrived, utilized its “capabilities.” According to Zdanovich, Gluck was held by a Chechen rebel group headed by a field commander named Yakub–who in turn, Zdanovich claimed, is a member of the largest unit commanded by the Akhmadov brothers. Zdanovich said that the Chechen rebels had seized Gluck because they suspected him of being a Western special services agent in Chechnya to gather information on foreign extremists and mercenaries fighting on the rebel side. According to the FSB spokesman, a disagreement broke out among the rebels holding Gluck. Because no one could find no proof that Gluck was working for Western intelligence agencies, one group argued that he should be ransomed while another, worried about the Chechen rebel movement’s reputation in the West, insisted that he be released. At this point, Zdanovich said, an “operational combination” was planned and carried out, resulting in Gluck’s release from captivity (Russian agencies, February 4).

Most commentators who have followed Gluck’s capture and release have noted the “strangeness” of the circumstances surrounding both. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why the kidnappers seized Gluck but not the other American who was traveling with him at the time. As for the FSB’s statement that Gluck was freed without “preconditions or a ransom, it should be noted that the Russian authorities have used this same formulation after almost every hostage release in Chechnya, yet it has often come to light afterwards that a ransom was in fact paid. According to Novaya gazeta, Gluck was in fact seized by the Russian special services in order to make the Chechen rebels look bad in the eyes of the international community. The paper noted that almost immediately after Gluck’s capture, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, said that Gluck had been kidnapped because of his own negligence, charging that Gluck had moved around Chechnya without the authorities’ permission. Novaya gazeta also pointed out the fact that not one of Gluck’s captors was arrested (Novaya gazeta, February 5). Other observers have speculated that the federal authorities orchestrated Gluck’s kidnapping in order to influence the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which was set to review Russia’s conduct of the Chechen war. In fact, PACE voted to restore the Russian delegation’s voting rights, which had been suspended the previous year because of concerns about human rights abuses (Moscow Times, February 6; see also Chechnya Weekly, January 29, February 6).

Whatever the case, one positive result of Gluck’s release has been the decision by international aid organizations to resume their work in Chechnya. The office of UN High Commission of Refugees announced that it would continue its mission in the North Caucasus. Gluck’s own organization, Doctors Without Borders, expressed great relief at his release, but said that it would still have to decide whether to resume its humanitarian work in the region. Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Chechen administration, predicted that Gluck’s release would speed up the return of international aid agencies to Chechnya and that the kidnapping had forced the Chechen authorities to review the issue of providing security for foreigners working in the republic. Vladimir Kalamanov, Putin’s special envoy for human rights in Chechnya called the Gluck affair “a serious warning” against “unsanctioned” travel around Chechnya, which, he said, “borders on being criminal and discredits other organizations that are successfully and purposefully working in Chechnya” (Russian agencies, February 5).

Meanwhile, a passenger bus was blown up yesterday in Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital. Sources within Yaztrzhembsky’s office said that some of the bus’s passengers died in the blast, though the exact number of dead had not been yet determined. Nine people were wounded in the incident. Also in the capital, unknown gunmen opened fire with high-caliber weapons on the building of the republic’s State Committee for Publishing Houses, Printing and the Book Trade. The committee’s head, Lecha Bakanaev, told the Interfax news agency that the gunfire destroyed furniture and office equipment. In a separate incident, gunmen fired on a unit of the Itum-Kalinsk border detachment, wounding one serviceman. Meanwhile a large explosive was discovered in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar. The bomb, which was located in a VAZ-2106 automobile and consisted of 3 kilograms of plastic explosive, two 125 mm artillery shells, 7.62 mm cartridges, nails and ball bearings, was safely defused by bomb disposal experts (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 6).