The war in Chechnya has largely dropped off the world's television screens and newspaper front pages, but the battle between Chechen separatists and Russian soldiers continues. Russian officials say they are winning the struggle and that conditions in Chechnya are improving. Yet eyewitness accounts reveal that the situation is as dangerous and explosive as ever.
Moscow, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- While on a visit to Turkey this week (Feb 13), Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said only a "few" civilians had been killed during the 17-month-old war in Chechnya. Rushailo called the civilian deaths "isolated cases" and said the situation in the republic had significantly improved.
Rushailo's casualty statistics and optimism don't match the views of Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen politician who has never been suspected of having sympathies with the rebels. A few days before Rushailo spoke in Ankara, Khasbulatov told RFE/RL that according to data he collected directly from villagers some 100,000 people have died in Chechnya from war-related causes.
Moscow's official, rosy portrayal of a successful campaign against what it calls "Islamic terrorism" in the beleaguered republic is belied by frequent eyewitness accounts of high civilian casualties and continued deaths of Russian soldiers. The problem is that most of these accounts don't get into the news -- either in Russia or abroad. A year-and-a-half after it began, the war in Chechnya has faded from television screens and dropped off the front pages of most newspapers.
Tatyana Kasatkina works for Russia's Memorial human rights organization. She was in the Chechen capital Grozny last month and describes it this way to our correspondent:
"It's Berlin after 1944-45. A destroyed city in ruins. That was [my] impression of Grozny. There are few people on the streets and [they are] mainly in the center. There's no safety at all. You can get off a bus and be shot dead by a sniper. You're walking on the street and don't even know if you'll get home [safely. During] these endless 'cleansing' operations [by the Russians] children are taken away, men are taken out of their homes, people are robbed. Of course, there is real danger and you can always see fear and despair in people's eyes."
Russian military spokesmen admit the situation is the republic is not idyllic. Last week, the military said, Russian soldiers in Grozny were shot at an average of more than 10 times a day. Within a 24-hour period this week (Tuesday-Wednesday), checkpoints set up throughout the republic by Russian forces -- many of them on Grozny's outskirts -- were shot at 22 times.
Russian officials have repeatedly promised to investigate alleged human-rights abuses committed by their troops in Chechnya and to prosecute those found guilty of crimes. But a report released this week (Tuesday) by the Human Rights Watch monitoring organization says Russian officials have in fact done very little. The report notes one particularly blatant failure by Russian prosecutors, who suspended an investigation into a massacre of 60 civilians in the Grozny suburb of Novye Aldi a year ago.
Diederik Lohman, the Human Rights Watch representative in Moscow, tells RFE/RL that only some 38 possible cases of criminal abuses of civilians are now being investigated by Russian officials.
"That's very, very little, especially when you take into account the enormous amount of human rights abuses that Human Rights Watch, Memorial, or the press has documented. In fact, we should speak about thousands of crimes against civilians but only 35 or 38 are being investigated."
Just how many civilians have been killed -- either deliberately or by stepping on landmines or catching stray bullets -- is unknown. While Interior Minister Rushailo this week spoke of "isolated" cases, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman for Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, had earlier set the number of civilian deaths at 700.
RFE/RL sought to clarify this discrepancy with Yastrzhembsky this week, but the spokesman did not respond to our calls.
The fate of many Russian soldiers in the republic is hardly better than that of local inhabitants. According to official figures, of the estimated 150,000 troops who have served in the region, about 2,500 have so far been killed. But the non-governmental Mothers of Soldiers Committee says that its grassroots monitoring adds up to almost 7,000 dead.
According to official figures, too, more than 20 Russian soldiers died in the past two weeks alone, while three rebels were killed. Russian armored personnel carriers are said to strike rebel-laid land mines as a matter of routine. Last week, a group of paramilitary policemen were killed by a bomb hidden in the wall of a bathhouse, where they were taking a break. The war continues to grind on.
Last month (Jan 22), the Kremlin announced it was substantially reducing the number of Russian troops in Chechnya, and Putin signed a decree turning over control of military operations to the Federal Security Services, or FSB.
The move came a week before the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly was to review Russia's human-rights record in the republic and decide whether or not to restore Moscow's voting rights. Nine months earlier, the assembly had suspended the Russian delegation's voting rights because of perceived major rights abuses.
The assembly did agree to restore voting privileges to the Russian delegation. But whether or not there has actually been a reduction of Russian troops in Chechnya remains a mystery. There is no mention of a reduction in the presidential decree and some military officials have denied it.