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North Caucasus: Growing Instability Keeps Aid Out Of Chechnya

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Chechnya has obvious humanitarian needs, and the international community -- led by the European Union and the United Nations -- has made available significant funds to meet them. However, growing instability in the region and fears for aid workers' physical safety are instead pushing support efforts further afield. RFE/RL spoke today with Philippe Royan, the head of the EU's humanitarian aid office in Moscow, who said the recent return of most refugees to Chechnya has made it harder for aid to reach them.

Brussels, 30 September (RFE/RL) -- The EU has spent years lobbying Moscow to ease access for aid workers to Chechnya.

But Philippe Royan said today there have been few results. Furthermore, he added, what little progress had been achieved has now been eroded by growing instability in the North Caucasus. Chechnya and its environs are becoming an increasingly dangerous place for foreigners.

Permits to enter Chechnya remain fairly easy to get. Travel within Chechnya is also relatively free. The trouble, Royan said, is that foreign aid workers do not want to risk it.

This problem is not only confined to Chechnya. Royan said foreign aid workers feel at risk in Ingushetia and North Ossetia, too. He said a June raid by suspected Chechen separatists in Ingushetia is forcing international aid organizations to consider moving their offices farther afield: "In June, the UN were considering withdrawing from Nazran [in Ingushetia] back to [the North Ossetian capital] Vladikavkaz [out of fear] that on the night of 21-22 June, when the rebels retreated -- if they had wanted, if they had planned to pass through houses where expatriates were staying -- they could have taken along a number of hostages, and probably nothing could have stopped them."

The Russian branch of the EU's humanitarian aid arm ECHO -- which also assists Moldova and the South Caucasus -- is currently based in Moscow.

Royan said the organization would like to be closer to Chechnya. The EU is the biggest single donor in the republic, disbursing 26.5 million euros ($32.6 million) in 2004. The funds are spent through UN and other aid agencies.

But Royan said that after the hostage drama in Beslan, even Vladikavkaz would not be a safe base.

He said the question now is not about looking for the best place, but the place that is the "least dangerous":

"In the plans for 2005, we were expecting the United Nations to take a position, a decision: 'Do we open -- yes or no -- a UN representation office in Grozny? Do we have -- yes or no -- a UNHCR (eds: UN High Commissioner for Refugees) protection team in Grozny?' [A positive decision would have pleased] Russian authorities, [who have been] asking for it for years now," Royan said.

Such a possibility, however, appears increasingly remote.

Royan said this will displease Russia, which argues the situation in Chechnya is normalizing and that aid agencies have no reason to operate out of Ingushetia or North Ossetia.

He added that Moscow never granted ECHO permission to open an office in Ingushetia, precisely because they wanted all aid offices to base themselves in Grozny.

He said Russia appears to want the international aid community to act as "messengers" that the worst of Russia's conflict in the republic is finished. They say the Chechen fight for independence is over and the only remaining problem is international terrorism.

The European Commission, however, will not authorize a move to Grozny. Royan said the security situation in the region is worsening and the conflicts are becoming more and more difficult to understand. It is also getting harder, he added, to know where the threat is coming from.

It's a situation, he said, that presents aid agencies with a dilemma: "So on the one hand there was a discussion about 'Should we go closer to the beneficiaries [by] opening a representation office in Grozny,' and on the other hand [we debated] 'Is it still safe enough to stay in Nazran, shouldn't we get a bit farther [away] and keep some distance from the Chechen republic?'"

Meanwhile, Royan said, the aid effort is becoming a "remote-controlled operation" for foreigners. Needs assessments -- necessary to allocate funds -- are being done from a distance. The results are questionable, and frustrating for ECHO, which is forced to stay in Moscow.

Royan said the case of the kidnapped Dutch aid worker Arjan Erkel is a good case in point. Erkel, who worked for the French group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontiers [MSF]), was kidnapped in Daghestan and held for 20 months until a ransom of 1 million euros was paid.

Royan said Western aid workers increasingly fear being targeted by hostage takers: "Everybody, basically, is aware in the Caucasus that an MSF worker is worth at least 1 million euros -- that's what was paid after 20 months. So you can imagine that an MSF expatriate is a bit, not reluctant, but not... Some would say that the situation is more difficult today than when Arjan was still detained."

Royan said another recent concern is that aid workers could become the victims of indiscriminate killings by forces who want to keep foreigners out of Chechnya.

He stressed that aid money for Chechnya is not a problem -- there is no evidence of "donor fatigue." The problem is security.

Ironically, this means that the tens of thousands of Chechen refugees who have in recent months been forced to return from their camps in Ingushetia and Dagestan end up even worse off.

"It is the same problem we had from the start of the last Chechen conflict," Royan said. "There are a lot of things to do, there are a lot of things we could do, we just don't have the partners to do it because they don't have access possibilities for monitoring and needs assessment. It's the same problem. And now, when a good part of the beneficiaries have moved from Ingushetia back to Chechnya -- even from Daghestan -- the problem becomes bigger, because the more beneficiaries we have in Chechnya, the more difficult it is to help them."

Royan said aid agencies and other international organizations could start large-scale reconstruction work in Chechnya virtually overnight -- but only if the security situation permitted it.
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