Some would like to dismiss Anna Politkovskaya’s hard hitting reports from Chechnya as merely anecdotal rather than statistical. But for obvious reasons we have no rigorous, reliable statistics about state-sponsored kidnappings and other atrocities. The conclusions of this veteran correspondent for Novaya gazeta are based on long and intense on-the-spot observation, and they demand to be taken seriously.
In a February 12 article, Politkovskaya offered her judgment that the last two months have seen a real change in Chechnya—for the worse. “The end of December and all of January,” she wrote, “saw a new wave of kidnappings by ‘unidentified, masked gunmen.’ For about six months before then there had been a downturn in this sordid business, though people were continuing to disappear. But now it has revived.”
According to the families of victims with whom she has met, Chechens are now learning how to tell whether a kidnapping was conducted by federal troops or by Kadyrov’s gunmen. Choking a victim to death rather than shooting him seems to be a trademark of the latter. Also, wrote Politkovskaya, the federals usually leave no corpse behind. Kadyrov’s thugs, on the other hand, “knowing the strict Chechen customs by which the guilt of the murderers is considered tenfold greater if they have not even returned their victims’ bodies, usually try to abandon the bodies in places where they can be found.” Finally, Kadyrov’s men are more likely to make themselves known after a kidnapping so that they can demand a ransom.
According to Politkovskaya, the Society for Russian-Chechen Friendship has obtained several case files from the Kadyrov administration’s interior ministry in which the “presidential security service” was said to have returned kidnapping victims to their families—who then ostensibly refused to file criminal complaints. The files explicitly use the word “ransom.” The reality behind these verbal formulations, wrote Politkovskaya, is a standard pattern: “Immediately after a kidnapping by Kadyrov’s men, there is a demand for a quick payment for ‘handing him over;’ if the family doesn’t collect the amount required, then the victim is either liquidated or transferred ‘to the ROSh,’ as it is called.”
The ROSh is the “Regionalny operativny shtab” or “Regional Operations Staff”—i.e., the main Russian military base at Khankala, just outside Grozny. Once a kidnap victim is in the hands of ROSh, either the sum demanded for his release is sharply increased, or he disappears forever—usually the latter.
In the February 11 issue of Moskovskie novosti, Sanobar Shermatova suggested another reason why the Kadyrov administration has chosen to postpone Chechnya’s parliamentary elections to the autumn. It’s not only that Kadyrov enjoys filling the power vacuum created by the lack of a real legislature, but also that his team needs to do more to make sure that the new parliament will be totally under his control. “Elections for the organs of local government have been scheduled for March,” wrote Shermatova, “and it is necessary to fill these bodies with the maximum number of people loyal to Kadyrov. It is these local organs, in turn, which will then have the assignment of guaranteeing the victories in the parliamentary election of the sorts of candidates that the Chechen authorities need.”