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Georgia: Rights Groups Say Chechnya Not Ready For Refugees' Safe Return

An estimated 300,000 civilians have fled Chechnya since Moscow ordered the first of two military crackdowns on the breakaway republic nine years ago. Most have migrated to neighboring Ingushetia, where they live in makeshift camps, often in appalling conditions. Others have found shelter in Georgia, which has granted them international refugee status. But now Russia wants to see them back in Chechnya. Activists say it's Moscow's way of hiding its protracted and still-violent conflict from international critics.

Prague, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities this week began conducting a new census of Chechen migrants living on Georgian territory. The census, conducted under the supervision of the Georgian Refugees Ministry, is the third such count in the South Caucasus nation since the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999.

Elders from Georgia's Chechen community are helping to monitor the registration process. Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local rights groups are also participating. Results are expected by the end of June.

Aslanbek Abdurzakov is an ethnic Chechen who heads the International Committee to Protect Human Rights in the Chechen Republic, a nongovernmental organization based in Georgia. Speaking by telephone from the city of Akhmeta, where the main census count is being conducted, he said the registration has encountered no major problems.

"Everything is going normally, without incident. Our organization issued a number of recommendations for the census, which [Georgian authorities] have taken into account. There have been no noticeable complications. People are coming here [to Akhmeta]. Transportation has been arranged for them. They are being carefully registered and there are almost no problems," Abdurzakov said.

A previous census conducted in April of last year showed that 4,200 Chechen refugees were living on Georgian territory, down from nearly 8,000 a year before. This sharp decrease is partly explained by the introduction of tougher, UNHCR-monitored registration rules, which helped expose a number of cases of fake documentation.

Georgian authorities now believe the number of Chechens may have increased slightly over the past 14 months.

Abdurzakov said Chechen migrants currently living in Georgia are now believed to number over 5,000. The Georgian government has issued most of them international refugee documents. But an estimated 100 to 200 newcomers have yet to gain legal status.

A handful of Chechen refugees live in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. But the overwhelming majority of Georgia's Chechen refugees -- 3,800, according to the most recent available data -- have settled in the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area close to the Russian border.

Pankisi is mainly populated by ethnic Chechens known as Kists. Kists have lived in the region for over two centuries and are believed to currently number around 7,000.

The new census comes on the heels of a visit by Russian government officials looking to persuade Chechen refugees to return to Chechnya. But Georgian authorities insist there is no connection between the two events, and say they are legally bound to reregister refugees every year.

Russian Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Yurii Brazhnikov met last week with a group of Chechen refugees near the Pankisi village of Duisi. He said Moscow was committed to helping them return to their home country. "Helping people return to their historical motherland is, without a doubt, the right and important thing to do. [With this in mind], we are in consultation with international organizations. It is a normal process that, strictly speaking, must inevitably be carried out," Brazhnikov said.

Brazhnikov is a member of the commission created last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin to organize the return of some of the 300,000 civilians believed to have left Chechnya since the beginning of military operations there in 1994.

The Russian envoy said Moscow had already agreed with Georgian authorities that candidates for repatriation would be transported by bus to Tbilisi and then flown back to Chechnya. Brazhnikov also said those refugees who would prefer to go back on their own would be given passes to cross the border without being arrested.

Moscow's push to return refugees to Chechnya has raised many questions. Regional experts and rights groups generally believe the move is in line with Russia's official claim that -- despite continuing clashes with armed separatists -- its troops are in full control of Chechnya.

Chechen rights activist Abdurzakov does not believe Russia's attempt to lure refugees back to Chechnya is motivated by humanitarian concerns. He said the Russian delegation gave him no reason to think the refugees would be returning to a safe and secure situation.

"Judging by the answers I got from [the Russians], I am inclined to believe this amounts to a political farce. They want to hide from the international community what the situation in Chechnya really is. They are trying to conceal the ongoing chaos that prevails in Chechnya. They need those refugees back to show the international community that the Chechen case is closed. This is made all the more clear by the fact that we all know there is an information blackout in Chechnya at the moment," Abdurzakov said.

The Kremlin recently conducted a controversial referendum in the breakaway republic, in which 96 percent of voters appeared to favor keeping Chechnya as a subject of the Russian Federation. The vote raised a wave of objections from separatist leaders, rights groups, and liberal Russian politicians. They say the referendum, which included votes from federal troops stationed in the republic, was a mockery and did not represent the views of the population.

Earlier this month (6 June), the Russia State Duma approved an amnesty for Chechen fighters who lay down their weapons by 1 September. Three previous amnesties have failed; it is expected that this one will as well. Moscow says only a few dozen separatists have surrendered so far.

The amnesty denies pardon to Chechen fighters suspected of committing "serious crimes" against federal troops. Critics say this stipulation ultimately means that any separatist guerrilla may be subject to prosecution regardless of his role during the war.

Rights groups have also denounced the law as a covert attempt to amnesty Russian soldiers suspected of atrocities committed against civilians. More than 100,000 civilians are believed to have died in Chechnya since 1994.

The refugees in Pankisi are reluctant to return to Chechnya unless Russia can guarantee their safety. But Abdurzakov said Moscow has offered no such promises. "I personally asked [the Russian delegation] to have Moscow guarantee the personal safety of the returnees. Should they do that, I would personally actively support the return of refugees. But we have received no such guarantees. Brazhnikov, the head of the delegation, himself said no one is in a position to offer such guarantees. We received no guarantees and were told it could not be otherwise. We have people in and around Chechnya and the latest information from them shows that the situation there remains unstable. Combat operations are under way, notably in the mountains, and full-scale military operations could resume at any moment in the 70 percent of Chechen territory that Russia claims is under its control. People have absolutely no guarantee that they will be safe after they return to Chechnya," he said.

The UNHCR also believes conditions have not been met to assure Chechen refugees of a safe return. Catherine Bertrand, the UNHCR representative in Tbilisi, said that as long as the situation in the war-torn republic does not improve, Georgia remains bound by the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. The convention prohibits signatories from expelling or returning a refugee who does not pose any threat to national security to a country "where his life could be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."

"The position of the UNHCR is very clear. The repatriation of refugees should be made on a voluntary basis and, as we generally say, should be performed in safety and dignity. And we -- that is, the UNHCR as an institution -- does not think that the safety of people can be guaranteed in Chechnya at the moment," Bertrand said.

Bertrand said only half-a-dozen Chechen refugees last week agreed to meet with Russian envoy Brazhnikov to discuss the conditions of their possible return. "As far as I know, none of them has said he wants to return home in the short term. And as far as the Georgian authorities are concerned, I am pretty sure they have no plans to repatriate them forcibly," the UNHCR official said.