Chechnya (November 1999)
by Humanitarian Practice Network November 1999

Chechnya declared independence in 1991, refusing to become a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In 1994, the Russians went to war with the breakaway republic, but in late 1996 Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya, demoralised and defeated after two years of brutality that had left most of Chechnya’s infrastructure in ruins and some 50,000 Chechen civilians dead. The subsequent 1996 ‘peace agreement’ left the question of Chechnya’s ultimate status open until the end of 2001.

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Chechnya enjoyed de facto independence, and Maskharov was elected president in January 1997. Internationally, however, Chechnya was not recognised. Two events have now triggered the return of the Russian army. First, the incursions by Chechen Islamic militants, led by their most successful guerrilla commander Basayev, into western Dagesthan in August. These were eventually driven back by Russian forces who then bombed alleged ‘bases’ in Chechnya. Second, a series of terrorist attacks in Moscow and south Russia, which killed hundreds of civilians. Russia has now sealed off Chechnya and despatched groundforces in a campaign to ‘eradicate terrorism’.

This second Chechen war has created a large scale human rights and refugee crisis. More than 50,000 Chechens in Moskow, the second largest concentration after Grozny, are threatened and persecuted. And over 200,000 have become refugees, mostly in Ingushetia, with small numbers in North Ossetia and Dagesthan. At least 160,000 others are internally displaced – a number that will rise as Russian troops closed the Ingush border in late October. This is about a third of a total population of around one million.

Like the Kosovars, the Chechens have a high birth rate and therefore a very young population: many of the displaced are children and women, and also the elderly. The majority of refugees in small Ingushetia have (again) been taken in by host families, but the need for food, medical care and adequate winter facilities are desperate. They are also likely to be unmet. On the one hand, supply delivery is encountering many ‘administrative’ and ‘logistical’ obstacles from Russian troops. On the other, aid agencies are very cautious about deploying in this high-risk area: Chechnya became infamous after a spate of murders and kidnappings of aid workers in 1996 and 1997 (including that of Fred Cuny) which led to the total withdrawal of international organisations. International aid agencies, including the ICRC, UNHCR, NGOs and church organisations, are trying to help through local counterparts such as the Russian Red Cross and Russian Orthodox Church, or small Ingush and Chechen NGOs; the latter are sometimes set up by the former national staff of international organisations. But access and implementation capacity are currently very limited and a humanitarian disaster looms.

There are serious problems with Russia’s military action. First, there is no proof that the Chechens are responsible for the terrorist bomb blasts (which the Chechen government has condemned). Moreover, the indiscriminate Russian bombing and shelling of Chechnya is causing mostly civilian casualties. This violates the most basic rules of international humanitarian law. Third, this offensive is more than likely to foster increased hatred and extremism among the Chechens – which dates back this century to the forced mass deportation of Chechens in the winter of 1944, mostly to Kazakhstan. This was so brutal that by the summer of 1948 a quarter of the 500,000 affected Chechen’s and Ingush had died. Pouring more repression onto this existing hatred among Chechen’s – with their own culture of hospitality but also of violent blood feuds – and in a poor republic where there is a large number of unemployed young men, is a recipe for long-term trouble.

International media attention is beginning to spur some international criticism of Russia’s tactics. However, there are various reasons why the international community will not be assertive over Chechnya as it has been over Kosovo.

Criminal gangs thrive in Chechnya. They are heavily involved in smuggling and black marketeering, and have kidnapped foreigners for ransom. This lawlessness poses a potential threat to the oil industry in the Caspian Sea area in which foreign companies have invested. The centre of this activity is Baku in Azerbeijan, but vital pipelines run north through Chechnya and Daghestan.

There is also evidence that Islamic extremists and potential terrorists have found a ‘safe haven’ in Chechnya, although the majority of Chechens resist Islamic fundamentalism. Chechens refer to these people as ‘Taliban’, though they are not necessarily all Afghans. This is a group that Western governments themselves would like to see eliminated. Add to this the desire of the West to rebuild relationships with Russia which were severely strained by NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia, as well as the unwillingness of the West to rock even more the very unstable Russian boat, especially with presidential elections due in 2000 and great uncertainty over the ‘what after Yeltsin?’ scenario.

It is therefore very likely that the Chechen population will continue to be held hostage by its own criminal gangs and extremists, and by Russia’s army. Humanitarian assistance will likely only be used as a substitute for political action.