Lokshina: Grozny is a City of Construction and Fear

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 31

An interview given Tanya Lokshina, head of the Demos human rights center, to Kavkazky Uzel, calls into question a number of the assumptions held by observers from various camps regarding the actual situation in Chechnya. In the interview, which the website posted on July 26, Lokshina, who has traveled to Grozny frequently and was there several months ago, said that “fantastic progress” has been made in rebuilding Grozny. The Chechen capital has “plenty of reconstructed apartment blocks, beautiful roads, avenues, promenades and squares,” she said. “You would not believe the number of cafes that have sprung up across the city, and they are packed with people. You can see how, after an endless war, people now realize to their surprise that they can sit quietly in a cafe for the first time in many years. These are the positives that you cannot fail to see in Grozny.”

On the other hand, one encounters things in Grozny that are “completely absurd,” Lokshina said. “For example, while fountains are gushing in the city, water does not yet flow from taps. There are some very rare exceptions, but there is no water in the homes of the Grozny residents in which I have been. The sewage system does not work. And the local authorities, who think a great deal about gaudy, showy things, are not meeting residents’ most basic needs.” Still, Lokshina said that it is “incomparably easier” to live in Grozny today than it was even six months ago.

Asked whether Grozny residents feel “relatively safe” now, Lokshina answered that they do not, and that an “atmosphere of fear” still prevails in Chechnya. “People understand that they now have the opportunity to speak freely about the crimes that were committed by the federal forces in the republic before 2004,” she said. “You can speak badly about Moscow, but not personally about Putin; you can raise the problems of the Chechen prisoners who are subjected to discrimination in Russian jails. But you cannot even hint at the actions of the local power structures. It is too dangerous.” The only exception to this, she said, is ORB-2, the Interior Ministry unit operating in the republic under direct federal control, whose actions Kadyrov repeatedly criticized and whose commander was recently replaced by a Kadyrov loyalist (Chechnya Weekly, July 26). But local residents will not talk about the kadyrovtsy, Lokshina said. “Local people do not talk about the so-called kadyrovtsy,” she said. “They will talk only if they really trust you and in a very private setting. If a journalist, who is not well-informed about the current situation, naively tries to ask local residents on the street about their attitude toward the kadyrovtsy, they will look at him with amazement and try to get away as quickly as possible. Nothing concerning the local law-enforcement structures is open to discussion.” Asked at the end of the interview about Kadyrov’s popularity in Chechnya, Lokshina answered: “Imagine a correspondent in Moscow in 1937 going out into the street and asking a passer-by if he loved Stalin. How much credence could you put in his answer? Even if some people really did love Stalin.”

Lokshina also said that the number of kidnappings in Chechnya is higher than what is reported. “If we look at the statistical information, even according to the Memorial Human Rights Center’s figures – and they are the only organization carrying out a systematic monitoring of human rights in Chechnya – the number of kidnappings for the past six months was small,” she said. “On the other hand, in informal conversations with police officers, they let it slip that 20-30 kidnappings occur each month that are not registered. No one will give you this information officially.”

Lokshina quoted Magomed Khambiev, the former defense minister in Aslan Maskhadov’s government who is now a member of the Chechen parliament, as saying that around 300 young people have left to join the rebels between January and April of this year. “Bearing in mind Chechnya’s size and the weakness of the resistance, that is a huge number,” she said. “One can assume that many of these young people are leaving for the forests out of despair; they have nowhere else to go.” According to Lokshina, many young people are added to the lists of suspected rebels by security officials who are essentially trying to fulfill quotas, and then become caught in a kind of vicious circle, where they are arrested, interrogated and tortured several times. “They wander off to their relatives and friends, putting their families in danger,” she said. “At a certain moment, a person living in such a situation will think: I am living like an outlaw anyway and may as well go off to the militants, since there is no longer any place left for me in a normal life. I am convinced that many of these individuals who do leave would have stayed at home if they had been left in peace.”