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Russia: After Gluck's Release, Agencies Wary Of Resuming Chechnya Aid

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Last month's kidnapping in Chechnya of Kenneth Gluck, an aid worker for the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, shocked his and other aid agencies into suspending their operations in the war-torn republic. Gluck was freed yesterday, and RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini asked humanitarian groups how his release would affect their work in Chechnya.

Moscow, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer is urging aid agencies to resume their work in Chechnya as soon as possible. The Kremlin-appointed human rights representative for Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, says that the kidnapping should serve as a warning to foreigners in Chechnya. But for the moment, most of the humanitarian agencies which have worked in Chechnya are still reflecting on what to do now that Gluck has been freed.

While hailing the good news of his release, many agencies say that Gluck's liberation is no proof of increased safety in the republic. They suggest that their decisions will be made independent of Gluck's good fortune.

Almost two days after Gluck's release, in what are still unclear circumstances, the organization for which Gluck works, Doctors Without Borders -- known by its French acronym MSF [for Medecins Sans Frontiers] -- is still preoccupied with getting him back to Moscow safely. Kris Torgeson, a spokeswoman for MSF in Moscow, told our correspondent:

"We're very happy that he's safe, and we're looking forward to seeing him as soon as possible. Right now, it's a matter of logistics, as his travel is being arranged to [the Russian military base in] Mozdok [in North Ossetiya], and on to Moscow and then back home to his family."

But during a short interview only hours after his unexpected reappearance, Gluck said he hoped that he and MSF would continue their work in Chechnya. He also said he had not been mistreated during his detention. But he said nothing about where he had been held for almost a month -- or by whom.

The 38-year-old Gluck, a U.S. citizen, has a reputation as an extraordinarily devoted and outspoken aid worker, who helped Chechen civilians as early as Russia's first campaign in the republic from 1994 to 1996. Last year, he delivered a scathing report on the behavior of Russian forces in Chechnya to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, comparing Russian actions to the "ethnic cleansing" that took place in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Gluck reappeared Sunday morning. He was immediately taken by Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, to the Russian military base of Khankala near Chechnya's capital Grozny. Russian law-enforcement officials say Gluck was freed without a gun being fired in what they call a "special operation," but they provided no details.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin put the FSB in charge of leading the Russian campaign against Chechen rebels, which is now its 16th month.

Russian media have already suggested other versions of Gluck's release. Some newspapers and television reports reject any involvement by the FSB, saying that Gluck was abandoned blindfolded by his kidnappers in Starye Atagi -- the town near which he had been kidnapped by masked gunmen on 9 January while delivering aid. The media reports say Gluck was left on the doorstep of a local doctor, who then contacted Russian authorities.

Whatever the circumstances of Gluck's detention and release, many of the humanitarian organizations which suspended their work in Chechnya when he was kidnapped say that their decisions to resume assistance in the republic are not only related to his ordeal.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, told RFE/RL that the suspension of its work after Gluck's abduction had given it time to work out more effective security arrangements with the Russians. UNHCR has so far sent more than 20 humanitarian aid convoys to the Chechnya region. Today, Vera Sobolyeva, the agency's spokeswoman in Moscow, told our correspondent that the organization was picking up its activities this week with a planned truckload of 5,000 pairs of shoes and jackets -- but that it was pure coincidence that this was occurring just after Gluck's liberation.

"We hope that additional safety measures will be taken [by the Russian authorities] that will allow all the humanitarian organizations in the region to work more efficiently. Our humanitarian coordinator John McAllin is doing everything he can and is negotiating to increase safety conditions -- including [organizing] a system of radio communications for all the international organizations now working there."

Other major international aid organizations tell a similar story. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, has a local staff of almost 60 in Chechnya and Red Cross members from abroad regularly visited detention centers in Chechnya. After Gluck's kidnapping, it began limiting trips by expatriate Red Cross officials to Chechnya. The organization's spokesman in Moscow, Erik Reumann, says that the Red Cross will pick up its activities little by little, but underlined that this would "depending on circumstances" regarding security.

Six Red Cross hospital workers, five of them women, were murdered in Chechnya in late 1996 in a still unexplained incident.

The European Union's humanitarian arm -- known as ECHO -- is not directly present in Chechnya. But it supports several humanitarian projects through non-governmental organizations that suspended their work after Gluck's abduction.

The European Commission's spokeswoman in Moscow, Sylvia Kofler, told our correspondent that the EU was still in the process of consulting with its NGO partners on whether the necessary security conditions are in place for the resumption of aid in Chechnya.

The EU has funneled more than $24 million in humanitarian aid to the Chechnya region since the beginning of the current conflict. Its activities in Chechnya, carried out through the NGOs, include food aid and training in defusing mines.

Kofler said that while Gluck's release was good news, it was not in itself reason enough for humanitarian organizations to resume their work because, in her words, it does not prove that "operational modalities are in place." Kofler notes that from the perspective of those working in Chechnya, "the main thing was that he [was] captured in the first place."

This conclusion oddly coincided with that given by Kalamanov, the Kremlin's human rights representative in Chechnya. Kalamanov said that if representatives of humanitarian organizations do not obey official rules, Gluck's kidnapping "could repeat itself, but with a different outcome."