Some of the most suggestive findings and reflections yet published on the phenomenon of kidnapping in Chechnya can be found in a long interview given by Oleg Orlov of the Russian human rights center Memorial to Andrei Riskin of Nezavisimaya gazeta. The full text is in that newspaper’s February 27 issue.
“During the course of 2003,” said Orlov, “we twice noticed a steep drop in the number of kidnappings–in March and in September-October, that is, during the periods of preparing and holding the [constitutional] referendum and then the presidential elections for the Chechen Republic. This leads one to think that the structures which are engaged in kidnapping people are under some kind of central direction. When the authorities need for whatever reason to stabilize the situation, to give potential voters hope for its improvement, the appropriate orders are given and the kidnappings are halted.”
“Who is responsible for most of the kidnappings?” asked Riskin. Orlov said that kidnap victims who had been released often told Memorial that, while captive, they were interrogated about their neighbors’ relations with the rebel guerrillas and about hidden caches of weapons. These are just the sort of questions that would interest the pro-Moscow forces, not the rebels. The findings of the human rights group also suggest that the role of Kadyrov’s gunmen, as distinct from the federal armed services, is growing. More and more often the captors are Chechens rather than Russians, and some of those subsequently released have said that they were held in the village of Tsentoroy, where Kadyrov’s private army is based.
Orlov also discussed a pro-Moscow Chechen force which is not directly under Kadyrov’s command: The so-called ORB-2 (“Operativno-razysknoe byuro” or “Operational Search Bureau”), subordinate to the federal interior ministry. This agency, he said, openly operates an unauthorized prison in Grozny. Memorial has discussed this issue with the federal procuracy, which claims to have repeatedly requested the interior ministry to “legalize” this prison by giving it formal status–but with no result. “Naturally, there are no normal records of detainees there,” he said.
The human rights group’s statistical data on kidnappings are far from complete, cautioned Orlov, because Memorial is unable to monitor the entire territory of Chechnya. He said he believes that he and his colleagues learn of only one-fourth or one-third of all cases. Their figure of 477 disappearances for 2003 was 12 percent lower than the total for the previous year, but the statistics are so imprecise that the difference is within the margin of error.
Orlov found a telling flaw in the official statistics provided by the interior ministry. Last August, he noted, the ministry stated that so far 380 Chechen civilians had disappeared in 2003. But in October they announced precisely the same number. “Can it really be,” he asked, “that during a two-month period there was not one case of kidnapping?”
Memorial has so far learned of thirty-six kidnappings that took place in January of 2004. Of these victims, seventeen were released. The ransom price depends on a family’s wealth; it can be as high as US$10,000. “This business, alas, is thriving,” said Orlov.
Orlov also touched on the question of “zachistki” security sweeps, which he agreed have become fewer but which he said are still conducted as cruelly as ever, “with robbery and extortion.” A relatively new feature is that “during the last two months they have been kidnapping many, many women–more in January than in December. In this case the kidnappers are structures controlled by the federal forces, not Kadyrovites….This is a struggle against the so-called ‘shakhidi’ [female suicide bombers].” Last August, he noted, the FSB directorate for Chechnya stated that his agency is holding the relatives of kidnapping victims responsible for links with “shakhid” terrorism. Thus, Orlov concluded, the FSB has in effect admitted that the phenomenon of female suicide bombings “is not some sort of plague from the Arabs, but the offspring of its own policies.”