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Chechnya: Human Rights Defenders Denounce Russia's Rekindled War

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia is stepping up its military activity in Chechnya following the downing of a military helicopter on 3 November. The Kremlin has been calling Moscow's hostage crisis last month its own "11 September" and says it is waging a war on terrorism. But critics say officials are refusing to learn any lessons from the event. Human rights groups say Russia cannot win a guerrilla war in Chechnya and that further conflict will only spawn more terrorism.

Moscow, 4 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With Russian troops combing the Chechen capital Grozny for rebels today, Moscow is pushing ahead with its self-declared war on terrorism in the wake of last month's hostage crisis.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov today said the country's armed forces should be given greater flexibility to respond to terrorism. That follows his announcement yesterday that the Kremlin was suspending a decision last week to reduce its troops in Chechnya and that troops would now carry out "broad-scale, tough, and targeted" operations in all Chechnya's regions. "In recent days, we've been receiving more and more information that on the territory of the Chechen Republic, and not just there, preparations are being made for committing more terrorist acts. In several populated areas, recruiting is going on, in this case, for suicide bombers, turning them into zombies," Ivanov said.

Chechen rebels yesterday shot down a Russian Mi-8 military helicopter, killing nine and reinforcing a widely held belief that the war in Chechnya cannot be won militarily and that further escalation will only make inevitable negotiations more difficult in the future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year announced the war in Chechnya was over and put the Federal Security Service in charge of military operations in the war-ravaged region.

The renewed campaign comes after 50 Chechen rebels took around 800 hostages for 58 hours in a Moscow theater on 23 October.

The government says the number of troops in Chechnya is a military secret, but estimates put the figure at between 70,000 and 100,000, including personnel from military, security-service, and police agencies. Rebel numbers are estimated at around 2,000.

Several State Duma deputies today voiced their approval of the announcement to suspend the withdrawal of forces in Chechnya.

Military experts say finding rebel groups hiding in the Caucasus mountains will be easier with the onset of winter since rebels cannot use foliage for cover.

Veteran human rights defenders, meanwhile, repeated their criticism of the war at a Moscow news conference today.

Lev Ponomarev, director of the For Human Rights movement, said Ivanov's announcement means, in fact, that illegal arrests and other human rights abuses by Russian soldiers in Chechnya will continue, increasing the likelihood of reactionary terrorism. "Without the start of real peacemaking, we can expect the nightmare of the Chechen war to spread to [other parts of] Russia. The first appearance of this has already taken place in Moscow, and we think it will only be worse in the future," Ponomarev said.

Oleg Orlov is head of the Memorial human rights group, which has taken the lead in documenting the existence of mass graves and recording disappearances and harassment of members of the civilian population in Chechnya. He said the war has actually been intensifying over the last few months and that last week's announcement about a reduction of troops was simply a public-relations move. "How many times has it been announced that there would be a sharp reduction of forces in Chechnya, and how many times has that not happened? It's clear that's completely done for [consumption in] the West and for the Russian voter. It's done as often as our politicians say the war in Chechnya is over and that the only thing going on is a postconflict period of peaceful reconstruction," Orlov said.

Orlov said announcements about an escalation of the campaign in Chechnya were inevitable. "Those who were talking about sending out troops understood that they would have to refuse doing that at some point. They understood that something would happen [for an excuse] -- and here something happened. If it weren't this tragic event [the hostage crisis], something else would have happened. It's completely clear they would have been forced to refuse reducing the number of troops," Orlov said.

Meanwhile, Duma Deputy and former human rights ombudsman Sergei Kovalev said he believes the Kremlin is hoping for a "Chechenization" of the war, in other words, that it will become a civil conflict between pro-Kremlin and rebel Chechen groups. "This very Chechenization has recently been energetically undertaken. It's enough to say that the growing power of [Moscow-installed Chechen leader Akhmed] Kadyrov's structures is being underscored. They are already referred to as the Chechen administration inside Chechnya against which only bandits and terrorists speak out. And a Chechen police force is in fact being created," Kovalev said.

Kovalev said various groups -- regardless of their past actions -- are being drawn into these structures in an attempt to pit them against the rebels. Kadyrov himself fought against Russian forces in the first Chechen war.

Another example, Kovalev said, is the inclusion of the Yamadaev brothers from Chechnya's second city of Gudermes. The two men are known for kidnapping and selling people.

Public support for negotiations has fallen following the hostage crisis. In a poll conducted last week by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), the country's top polling organization, 44 percent of those asked said they supported holding negotiations with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in 1997. Forty-six percent said they supported the continuation of military operations.

A VTsIOM poll in July put the figure at 61 percent for holding talks.

Ponomarev stressed that the numbers indicate roughly half of the population still supports talks.

Kovalev said that despite the fact authorities are saying they will not negotiate with terrorists, including all rebel forces in Chechnya, their ability to begin talks is now actually greater than ever.

He said the government is in a good position because it made clear its intent to show strength during the special-forces operation to free the hostages in Moscow last month. The storming was criticized as heavy-handed, with all but two of the 121 hostages killed in the standoff dying from the effects of the sedative gas used to knock out the rebels in the theater.

Despite all-around criticism of Maskhadov for not condemning the hostage-taking operation more quickly and forcefully, many of those pushing for talks say they must include Maskhadov, who they say remains the legitimate Chechen leader.