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Russia: Moscow To Help Refugees Return to Chechnya

Russian authorities are having a hard time managing one consequence of their military incursion into Chechnya -- the flight of some 100,000 people from the breakaway republic. The internal refugees' immediate future seems to be in tent camps in Ingushetia. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the fate of the displaced and at the plan of Russian authorities to resettle them in conquered Chechen territory.

Moscow, 5 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow said in August it wanted to deal with the Chechen rebels quickly. It has clearly not achieved that aim. An estimated 100,000 Chechens have fled the Russian military action in Chechnya, creating a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia.

This week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested a solution to the crisis, but implementing his solution may be difficult. Putin said that the displaced Chechen civilians would be resettled in those parts of Chechnya where Russian forces have taken control. Putin today claimed that this area now amounts to one-third of the breakaway republic.

The deputy head of the Federal Migration Service, Yuri Biragov, told RFE/RL that there is only one plan for housing the displaced Chechens, and that is to send them back to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya. He says they will live in hostels, hotels, or other available buildings.

According to Biragov, this solution was favored because it would avoid leaving conquered Chechen regions empty and easy prey for a new Chechen operation. It would also avoid the problem of "rounding up the Chechen refugees from all over Russia" when the military campaign ends.

However, Dmitry Trenin, a military analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Fund, thinks the resettlement plan is not realistic. He told RFE/RL today that it is difficult to foresee how much time it will take Russian forces to gain control over territories on the left bank of the Terek River, where the civilians would probably be resettled. According to him, "There will be neither a complete victory nor a complete defeat -- meaning that the refugees won't be safe from sporadic fighting."

Trenin also sees a strategic reason behind the plan to move the civilians back to Chechnya. He says they can be used "as a sort of human shield," adding that Russian forces would hope that Chechen rebels "would not put their own people in danger."

But until the resettlement, the Federal Migration Service's Biragov concedes, the displaced Chechens will have to make do with tents in Ingushetia "for an unforeseeable amount of time."

Ingushetia is one of the poorest regions of Russia. Officials there have said they do not have the resources to take up all the internal refugees, and they have appealed to federal and international agencies to help cope with the influx.

At the moment, the displaced Chechens are living in five tent camps in Ingushetia. Railway wagons are being added. But according to Russian media reports, many people are still sleeping outside.

Biragov maintains that the situation is "under control," with tents and food trickling in from federal sources and from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. But Russian television reports, quoting local doctors, say the risk of epidemics is rising because food and water, as well as warm clothes, are scarce.

Biragov says that despite these problems, there are no plans to dispatch the Chechen civilians to other regions. He notes that no region so far has offered its help.

Indeed, officials with the Federal Migration Service have confirmed to RFE/RL that many regions are taking illegal action to stop any influx. But they say the measures are being implemented de facto and are difficult to counter.

Last week, the president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, complained that the internal refugees were being stopped from entering other Russian regions bordering Ingushetia. According to media reports, many regions are demanding residency permits on arrival in train stations.

And according to Stanislav Velikoredchanin, a human rights activist from the Rostov region, documents are being checked on trains into the region. He told RFE/RL that people without registration papers are taken off the trains unless they can pay a bribe.

The Stavropol region has reportedly closed off all its borders to prevent refugees from entering. This seems to be confirmed by the head of the local Migration Service, Viktor Dulin. In an interview with the Russian daily MN, he said that Stavropol was still housing refugees from the last Chechen war and cannot accept any more.

It seems clear that Russian authorities were taken by surprise by the size of the refugee flow out of Chechnya. They are likely to face a considerable challenge in addressing that outflow while pressing ahead with their aggressive military campaign.