Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 5

Kadyrov’s concession to Gil-Robles “changes nothing,” dissident member of the Russian parliament Sergei Kovalev told Jamestown in a February 13 telephone interview. He said that if one accepted the official figures from last autumn’s Moscow-controlled census in Chechnya, one would have to believe that since 1999 about half a million people had voluntarily agreed to move back into an active war zone. He also noted that it will be hard to prove that the federal soldiers who cast ballots are among those who are in fact eligible to vote even by the loose standards set by Moscow, and that both Russian and Chechen voters will have little access to independent information. It is already clear, he said, that the March referendum will be “falsified.”

Kovalev said that Western governments and inter-governmental bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should refuse to send observers to the referendum “as a matter of conscience.” At a minimum, he told Jamestown, “there must be a ceasefire and negotiations with Maskhadov before any genuine referendum could take place. The West should publicly declare the referendum to be illegal and phony….the conditions for a free expression of the people’s will simply don’t exist.”

The veteran human-rights activist predicted that the referendum would fail to end the current guerrilla war, just as rigged referenda in the Baltic states failed to quench resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1940s. He recalled that he knew the last of the Baltic “forest brothers” to be captured–“that happened in the late 1950s.”

In another prediction, Kovalev said that his pro-Putin colleagues in the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe would seek to have the Polish Deputy Tadeusz Iwinski appointed as British Lord Frank Judd’s successor as the Assembly’s rapporteur on Chechnya. He said that Iwinski’s conclusions from his visits to Chechnya “are far from reality–they would be most acceptable to the Russian delegation.”

Surprisingly, Kovalev said that in spite of violent pressures (including murder) from Moscow, the current Chechen administration still includes “some worthy people” at the local level, who try to defend their townspeople and villagers against marauding Russian soldiers. Mayors and other local administrators still “run the full spectrum,” he said, but the proportion of non-collaborators is shrinking.

After his interview with Jamestown, Kovalev gave a lecture at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty bulletin “Media Matters” quoted him as accusing the Russian authorities of having blacklisted more than 10 foreign journalists–barring them from entering Russia because of their unwelcome articles about the war in Chechnya. Kovalev said that as a Duma member he had sent a written inquiry to the Russian Foreign Ministry about one of these journalists, Petra Prohazkova of the Czech Republic. The Ministry replied that Russian law authorizes it to deny visas to foreigners who are considered to be threats to national security, but refused to provide any further details.

In a talk at the American Foreign Policy Council, Kovalev suggested that the mysterious “death squads” responsible for the kidnappings and murders of Chechen civilians must be centrally organized by the federal forces as a “coordinated general policy.” As reported by a correspondent for the Moscow Times, Kovalev told his audience about investigations of mass graves by his fellow human-rights activists: “Whenever we can identify the bodies, it turns out each grave or heap contains people not from that local area, but instead from all across Chechnya. The bodies belong to people who had been detained at different checkpoints in different parts of Chechnya, yet somehow they are turning up in a grave together, often quite far from where they were detained…This circumstance totally rules out the idea that these atrocities were committed by soldiers who got out of hand: If that were the case, the corpses would be from one area and would be near those troops.”