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Chechnya: Are Russia's Claims Of Improved Infrastructure Correct?

Vladimir Yelagin, the Russian minister for Chechen affairs, says the task of rebuilding a peaceful way of life in the war-torn republic is proving a difficult task, but credits the federal government with making certain advances. As RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports, however, some lawmakers say little if anything has been done to restore a sense of normalcy in the devastated region.

Moscow, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With much of Chechnya's economic, cultural, medical, and educational infrastructure destroyed by many years of war, Russia's federal minister for Chechen affairs says that rehabilitating the republic is a "slow and difficult" process.

Speaking to reporters on 26 February, however, Minister Yelagin said the federal government is doing everything possible to restore normal life in the republic, which has been devastated by two successive wars with Russia.

Yelagin described the government's achievements last year in helping to rebuild Chechnya: "Electricity is supplied to every corner of the Chechen republic. Now the only problem is to connect it to the consumers' [homes]. The railroad is functioning well -- according to the Chechen republic's standards. Six railroad terminals have been restored. Last year, 30,000 children more than the year before went to school, and six new schools have been built. Health care is working both in the [capital] Grozny and in the regions. Of course, we need to keep this sphere under serious control."

According to official Russian figures, Chechnya now has 454 schools with some 200,000 children in attendance, three universities, and 19 technical institutes, which together comprise an additional 16,000 students. Moreover, Yelagin says 53 hospitals, 32 clinics, and 175 maternity wards are functioning regularly.

A government committee on the reconstruction of Chechnya said nearly 2,500 homes were built or repaired in the republic in 2001. The government also said it created some 60,000 jobs and paid some $80 million in pensions to 172,000 Chechens.

Yelagin said the republic now has about 617,000 residents, some 150,000 of whom live in Grozny.

But some parliamentary lawmakers dispute Russia's claimed accomplishments in the breakaway republic. Aslambek Aslakhanov, the State Duma deputy representing Chechnya, says ongoing war makes it almost impossible to verify if official figures like Yelagin's are correct. Speaking in Moscow recently, Aslakhanov said he does not believe that Russian authorities have done anything to restore quality of life in Chechnya.

"When [authorities] speak about figures and say that so much has been built [in Chechnya], I answer that I want to see it. As an example, I can tell the story of a firm that won a tender [to build some houses in Chechnya]. The head of the firm told me that they had built 200 houses. But when [I asked him] in which region they built them, [he answered] that he had forgotten what the region was called," Aslakhanov said. "I think that if a person has built 200 houses in a certain place, he must have been in that place at least 20 times. How is it possible that this person doesn't know the place's name? This is the reason why I don't believe [anything is being rebuilt in Chechnya]."

Official Russian sources put the 2001 federal budget for reconstructing Chechnya at some $461 million. Yelagin said the federal government's reconstruction plans in 2001 were 80 percent fulfilled. The minister vowed to improve Russia's record further in the year to come, tightening control over spending in order to eradicate any traces of misappropriation. Yelagin said the Chechen government, having monitored the spending of roughly half the funds, found some $16 million was unaccounted for and another $30 million was spent improperly. Together, those amounts account for just 10 percent of the budget.

But Aslakhanov claimed that closer to 80 percent of the 2001 budget funds allocated for Chechnya disappeared: "Unfortunately, representatives from [Chechnya's pro-Kremlin government], [like Prime Minister Stanislav] Ilyasov and [President Akhmad] Kadyrov, have to come here [to Moscow] very often. This happens not because they miss Moscow, or because they want to enjoy themselves here, but because it is impossible to solve any problems there [in Chechnya]. This happens because you have to go to all the different [Russian] ministries and offices [to get anything done]. You don't need to have 26 ministries, which [eat up] the money given with difficulty [by the federal government]. [It is better to] give this money directly to the Chechen republic, so the [local] control structures can check how the money is spent. I understand that 20 to 30 percent of budget funds can disappear -- this usually happens when you build something -- but I don't understand [the disappearance of] 70-80 percent of the money. And this happens when [the money] is spread out between 20 or 25 or 26 ministries."

Yelagin said the success of rebuilding Chechnya's infrastructure is hampered by the still-difficult security situation in the republic and the continuation of what he called "special operations" by Russian troops. In this sense, Yelagin said, the situation has improved little since he took up his post at the end of 2000.

A report released today by New York-based Human Rights Watch accuses Russian troops of committing arbitrary detentions, torture, and extrajudicial executions during a series of so-called "security sweeps" in 2001. Aslakhanov said the continued Russian military presence in Chechnya has brought life in the republic to a standstill and makes any federal claims of structural improvements irrelevant.

"Human rights are not respected at all [in Chechnya]. [A person] cannot go to someone else's house during the cleansing operations. Students cannot go to their lessons and children cannot go to school. People that have a job cannot go to work. And the so-called passport controls can last one week or two weeks. Furthermore, it is impossible to transport building materials or other things," Aslakhanov said. "[The military] surrounds everything; they even block vehicles transporting vegetables and fruits."

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree instructing his cabinet to adopt a budget for Chechnya. Ilyasov hailed the decision as an important step that will allow the Chechen government to use taxes collected in the republic to help restore the Chechen economy.

Yesterday, the topic of how to rebuild normal life in Chechnya was discussed by the Russian Security Council. Putin told the Council that the situation in Chechnya has in large part stabilized, and that it is now necessary for local and federal bodies to work together to "rebuild normal life in the Chechen republic." Putin also urged authorities to begin work on an acceptable Chechen constitution, which he said would pave the way for "democratic elections" in Chechnya.