Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: 2005 Rafto Laureate Says First Step Toward Chechen Peace Must Come From Moscow

Lidiya Yusupova (official site) Lidiya Yusupova, a lawyer from the Chechen capital Grozny, on  6 November is set to receive this year's prestigious Rafto human-rights prize. Yusupova has spent the last five years heading the Grozny office of Russia's Memorial rights-watchdog group. During that time, she has documented numerous atrocities against civilians committed by both Russian and Chechen security forces, including disappearances, summary executions, torture, and rape. She has also helped victims navigate the republic's nascent, and largely dysfunctional, judicial system in hopes of bringing to justice the perpetrators of violence. She told RFE/RL that it is the Kremlin -- and not the Chechens -- who must take the first step toward peace.

Prague, 4 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It has been nearly 11 years since Russia launched the first of its two wars in Chechnya. In that time, Memorial has estimated that up to 75,000 civilians have died, both Russian and Chechen.

Yusupova has headed Memorial's Grozny office since 2000, following the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999. Since she took the position, Russia has declared a formal end to hostilities and ushered in what it called a postconflict stage of "normalization," with elections and the adoption of a new constitution.

But in fact, according to Yusupova, very little has changed.

"The situation has moved a little in another direction," Yusupova said. "But the effect has stayed the same. The human-rights violations and state-level terror is still there. There's an outer shell where they've created certain state institutions in the republic -- we now have a judicial system, a system of law enforcement. But beyond all that, there's been no stabilization in the republic."

Yusupova was speaking from Bergen, Norway, where on 6 November she will become the 19th recipient of the Rafto Prize for human rights.

Past recipients of the award include Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and Iranian rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, both of whom went on to become Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In 1995, the Rafto Prize went to the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, whose work defending human rights within the Russian military took on special urgency during the first Chechen war (1994-96).

Ten years later, Chechnya has devolved from an official military conflict to a guerrilla war involving Russian troops, pro-Moscow Chechen forces, criminal bands, and separatist groups whose agendas have grown increasingly extremist.

Yusupova -- who also won the 2004 Martin Ennals Award for human rights -- said some of the players have changed, but the violence remains the same.

"All the methods we've seen from the federal forces -- I mean Russian -- still exist: mopping-up operations, extrajudicial executions, illegal detentions, robbery, harassment," Yusupova said. "But today it is done, at some level, jointly -- I emphasize, jointly -- by representatives of the Russian forces and Chechens who have been selected from a number of local Chechens, people who now get their directives from the federal center. So the people involved have changed to a certain degree."

Rafto Foundation Chairman Arne Lynngard said this year's award will serve to remind the world that, at a time when Iraq and Afghanistan have diverted much media attention, Chechnya remains one of the world's most entrenched and devastating conflicts.

Lynngard praised Yusupova and Memorial for continuing their work under nearly impossible conditions. The rights group is one of very few still operating in Chechnya.

"I think it's Russia that needs to act, to ensure the security of the population of the North Caucasus and the population of Russia. It should take that first step to put in place the measures that could create some stability, through political means, peaceful means, and not through state terror against the population." -- Yusupova

"We think that Lidiya is a very brave woman," Lynngard said. "She felt, in the year 2000, that since she was an educated person, she had a special responsibility to stay behind and use her resources to help the situation for the civilian population of Chechnya. So she was one of those who remained, and didn't escape from Chechnya."

Lynngard said the choice of Yusupova is also important because it comes at a time when many governments that were once critical of the Chechen conflict have come to accept the argument of Russian President Vladimir Putin that Chechnya is part of the global war on terror.

Europe has continued to express concern about Russia's brute force in the republic, but Putin this week used strong language to rebuke EU leaders for being "soft" on terrorism.

In a press conference in Amsterdam on 2 November with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Putin referred to separatist fighters as "beasts in the guise of human beings," and said European leaders who defend them "want to be more Muslim than the Prophet Muhammad."

Yusupova said Putin's rhetoric shows the Kremlin's sense of impunity regarding Chechnya. And, she added, the West is unlikely to answer back.

"His statement says it all. It says everything about the position Muslims hold in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus, and how they are regarded by the government," Yusupova said. "This should be enough for the West to understand what's going on. In fact, I think the West understands perfectly what's going on. But there's another aspect to it -- there are common economic and political interests."

The conflict appears intractable. Chechen separatist leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev said on 3 November that Russia's policy of violence was impelling all the peoples of the North Caucasus to respond in kind, and militant operations like last month's attacks in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, were only set to spread further afield. He also said there was now no chance the separatists would be the first to step up to the table for peace talks.

Yusupova said that -- as the dominant power in the conflict -- it is Russia that should make the first move toward peace.

"And today the strong side, the side with the power, should make the offer, make the first step toward negotiations," Yusupova said. "In this situation, I think it's Russia that needs to act, to ensure the security of the population of the North Caucasus and the population of Russia. It should take that first step to put in place the measures that could create some stability, through political means, peaceful means, and not through state terror against the population."

Yusupova said that until such a resolution, violence will likely continue to grow -- in Chechnya, the North Caucasus, Russia, and beyond. "Anywhere in the world," she said, "the response to terror is terror."

Crisis In Chechnya

Crisis In Chechnya

RFE/RL's complete coverage of Russia's war-torn Republic of Chechnya.


An annotated timeline of the Chechnya conflict.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.