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Russia: Police Who Serve In Chechnya Bring Trauma Of War Back Home

  • Valentinas Mite

As Russia's 2 1/2-year war in Chechnya continues, Russian police officers are serving alongside regular army troops in the breakaway republic. The police officers' tours of duty in Chechnya are shorter than those of soldiers, and they soon return to their normal law-enforcement duties at home. But even a short tour in Chechnya can leave its mark, and observers say many police officers return home suffering psychological trauma. This, according to Russian human-rights groups, is translating into a new social blight: Police officers who contribute to the growing problem of cruelty, xenophobia, and extremism.

Prague, 27 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the autumn of 1999, when the second war in Chechnya began, Russian police officers have been among the forces participating in the conflict, in everything from traffic regulation to so-called "mopping-up" operations.

The officers' tours of duty are relatively short -- between three and six months -- as compared to regular army troops, who can serve for up to two years at a time. But for the law-enforcement officials, even a short tour in Russia's war in the breakaway republic can leave lasting scars. Returning home to their normal jobs, many such police officers are afflicted by what Russian human-rights activists are calling "Chechnya syndrome," severe psychological trauma that translates into abusive, racist behavior at home.

Russian authorities will not reveal how many police officers are serving in Chechnya at any given time. But rights groups say they believe thousands of police officers have volunteered or been sent to Chechnya, and that many officers from Russia's OMON special-forces unit have already had several tours.

For many Russians, Chechnya continues to be a distant reality. But as soldiers and law-enforcement officers return home from the conflict, they often bring with them lingering traces of the war that have a far more immediate, and disturbing, impact on society: cruelty, corruption, and xenophobia. In growing numbers, those hired as society's protectors are lashing out with violent attacks on foreigners and succumbing to drug and alcohol addiction.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week addressed the issue of growing police brutality and crime. He said challenges faced by the country's police officers were only part of the problem. "Those who enforce the law are part of a society that itself must be more mature. Certain values must be cultivated and implanted into the consciousness of the members of society," Putin said.

Others, however, argue the war in Chechnya, which has been widely criticized for severe human-rights violations and rampant looting and lawlessness on the part of Russian troops, violates the very values that law-enforcement officials should by nature possess.

Sergei Yushenkov is co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party and a Duma lawmaker. He told RFE/RL that Russian authorities have never offered legal justification for the country's military action in Chechnya and continue to turn a blind eye to the outright violations of conventional rules of warfare. Repercussions of this lawlessness, he said, can be felt throughout Russia. "Everybody [serving in the war] understands that unlawful actions are allowed in Chechnya, and they can't understand why this sort of behavior should be forbidden here [in Moscow, or] in other Russian cities and villages," Yushenkov said.

Yushenkov said the state fails twice in the case of law-enforcement officials who volunteer for a Chechnya tour in return for higher pay or affordable housing. He said the government often fails to keep its promises to such "contract" workers, and the officers return home with no pay or special benefits. Such police officers, Yushenkov said, often take out their frustrations on people of the so-called "Caucasus nationality," not only Chechens but Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and others.

A traditional target of police hostility because of their dark complexions, people from the Caucasus have come under even harsher abuse from law-enforcement officials in recent years. Moreover, Yushenkov said, Russian police are unlikely to intervene in the growing number of cases of extremist attacks on such people. The lawmaker described one such incident: "A big group of skinheads -- fanatics, fascists -- carrying metal bars marched through the market [in the Russian city of] Tsaritsyn, beating everyone who came from the North Caucasus. Several people were killed. The police were passive [during the incident], and at the trial many of the skinheads were cleared and released on the basis that it had been only a minor disturbance of public order and not severe violence," Yushenkov said.

Yurii Savenko is president of the Russian Independent Psychiatric Organization. He told RFE/RL that the war in Chechnya has had a lasting impact on the people involved, not least because Russian troops are battling citizens of their own country. The exceptional cruelty of the current campaign -- marked by frequent reports of Russian troops killing, robbing, and raping Chechen civilians -- is highlighted by the case of Yurii Budanov, a Russian colonel on trial for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl.

Savenko said the war in Chechnya has grave consequences for all Russian citizens. "[The war in Chechnya] is a hotbed of disease, a disease that is spreading and has already spread through the whole country -- cruelty is growing, lawlessness prevails, and all ethical principles are being trampled upon," Savenko said.

Savenko said those people who have taken part in Chechen military operations are in dire need of psychological counseling to prevent them from perpetuating cruel behavior at home or succumbing to drug addiction or alcoholism. However, at a time when the Russian defense budget is struggling under the burden of the Chechen campaign and social-welfare programs are dwindling, the state has no funds to support such mass rehabilitation projects.

Lev Ponamariov is the acting director of the All-Russian Movement for Human Rights. He told RFE/RL his organization recently received a phone call from a man from Azerbaijan. The man said he had been detained by OMON officers who threatened to confiscate his documents if he refused to pay a bribe. Ponamariov noted it is a common, and effective, threat against people from the Caucasus, who can risk serious penalties if they are found without their personal identification documents. "In the end, they told him openly: 'We are former contract fighters, and we have returned from Chechnya. We have not been paid according to our contract, so now we are going to collect our money from you blacks [Caucasians] instead," Ponamariov said.

The All-Russian Movement for Human Rights claims that nearly all the officers from Russia's OMON special forces have served in Chechnya, and that many have returned home with what Ponamariov calls the "Chechnya virus." The head of the Moscow branch of OMON told the human-rights group that several dozen police officers have been recently fired from the force as a result of improper behavior. But both Ponamariov and Duma Deputy Yushenkov say contract soldiers like the OMON officers cannot be blamed for their anger at not seeing their contract fulfilled by the state.

Ponamariov said: "The situation is surreal. We have appeals for help not only from Chechen civilians but also from Russian police officers whose human rights have also been violated."