Whatever disagreements there may be either within Russia or abroad about the political future of Chechnya, one would hope that all could agree on protecting civilian refugees, including women and children, from being forced against their will to return to a shattered, crime-ridden war zone. But Russia’s elite has a deeply entrenched habit of sacrificing the well-being and even the lives of rank-and-file Russian citizens to the elite’s political interests. Unfortunately, the West has sometimes cooperated with this practice–as when the British and U.S. governments handed over unwilling Russian war refugees to the Stalin regime at the end of World War II.
With the Kremlin now enjoying a greater monopoly of power than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dangers to Chechen refugees in Ingushetia are growing. The latest threat came on January 16, when Stanislav Ilyasov, the Putin administration’s minister for Chechen affairs, told Putin at a Kremlin meeting that all the refugee camps in Ingushetia would be closed by March 1. According to Agence France-Presse (quoting a report from the Russian news agency Interfax), Ilyasov accused the United Nations and non-government organizations providing humanitarian relief at the Ingush camps of “creating a disturbance and hindering the process” of closing them.
President Vladimir Putin, however, appeared publicly to disagree with his aide. He told Ilyasov, “You only think they are creating a hindrance. Maybe they are creating less than ideal working conditions for you, but they care about the people who live there. You have to take that into account.” Even if those words are only intended for foreign consumption, charitable groups and human rights activists will be quoting them as they try to slow down the juggernaut now aimed at the refugees.
That will not be easy. The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Aleksandr Chekalin, Russia’s deputy minister of the interior, as saying that the March deadline “is not a bluff but an objective that must be carried out.”