REALITY ON THE GROUND NOT ROSY.

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 1 Issue: 2

In contrast to these aggressively confident statements by Russia’s political and military leadership, there is the reality being experienced on the ground by the troops of the Russian Defense Ministry and Ministry of Internal Affairs. In the no. 42 issue of Moskovskie novosti, military journalist Pavel Felgenhauer focused his comments on precisely that reality. “The Russian soldiers of the Forty-second Division of the Ministry of Defense,” he noted, “which has been assigned to permanent basing in the republic [of Chechnya], are literally eating the bark from trees in the Chechen mountains in order to stop the unceasing dysentery. There are no medicines available, and the system of water purification has broken down…” Of equal concern, Felgenhauer remarked, was the fact that Russian equipment stocks were running perilously low: “They collected sixty-eight helicopters to use in military actions, but twenty-three have been lost… Over one year of war, they have been able to build only one night-use MI-24N helicopter (which has still not been tested in battle). The Soviet-era supplies of heavy artillery shells are running out, and they have not succeeded in preparing the production of new ones.”

Along with the dwindling of military stocks, there have emerged significant problems with the behavior of Russian forces serving in Chechnya. On October 17, the military daily, Krasnaya zvezda, carried an interview with Colonel Vladimir Chirkin of the aforementioned Forty-second Division. Asked to explain why significant numbers of Russian military contract-soldiers (kontraktniki), a category making up thirty percent of the total Russian force in Chechnya, were being released before their agreed-upon period of service came to an end, Colonel Chirkin fulminated: “Basically these are chronic alcoholics, who are also not opposed to using narcotic substances, and who are simply parasites.”

Chirkin’s comments point to worrisome behavioral patterns emerging among the Russian troops stationed in Chechnya. According to an investigative report appearing in the 25 October issue of the Los Angeles Times, Russian forces based in Chechnya have transformed the kidnapping of local Chechen civilians into big business. During the second half of the 1990’s, certain Chechen warlords, as is well known, formed criminal kidnapping rings. Now the Russian military have dramatically “turned the tables.” In the lowlands, where there are more servicemen and more civilian oversight, ransoms for kidnapped civilians can be as low as $20; in the highlands, however, ransoms can reach US$1,000 or more. The elected State Duma representative from Chechnya, retired MVD General Aslambek Aslakhanov was quoted as explaining: “With or without reason, they [Russian troops] conduct sweeps, take people away, maim them, and then as a rule their relatives have to buy them back.”

Another investigative report, published in the October 15 issue of The Observer (London), shed light on the extensive use of torture by Russian occupation forces at the Chernokozovo prison camp in Chechnya. A series of cover-ups were said to have succeeded in concealing evidence of rampant abuses from representatives of the International Red Cross and of the Council of Europe. The Observer pointedly concluded that the evidence of torture at Chernokozovo “is so systematic that it cannot be the work of a rogue unit only…”

In a related development, on October 26, Human Rights Watch, an NGO with offices in New York, Washington, London and Brussels, issued a massively documented report entitled “‘Welcome to Hell’: Arbitrary Detention, Torture and Extortion in Chechnya.” The report, treating the behavior of Russian occupation forces, is available at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/russia-chechnya4