The Caucasus (February 1997)
by Moira Reddick February 1997

The sporadic international and media attention paid to the North Caucasus during the last five years has been almost exclusively focused upon the war in Chechnya. While this war has been the most significant destabilising factor in the region, reactivated historical disputes over land and borders in the other republics have also caused problems, leading to major population flows both within and between states. Such displacement has exacerbated existing demographic and economic pressures, sparking more conflict, which has, in turn, led to further displacement. Many individuals in this region have now experienced double or triple displacement, and, as a consequence, have become increasingly vulnerable. With such a shifting population, any attempt to establish reliable demographic data proves futile and, at worst, can be regarded as a political gesture designed to validate the claims of different administrations. Unfortunately this lack of information affects the efforts of agencies to assess needs and their consequent ability to respond effectively.

Since the cease-fire was agreed in September 1996 there has been no major fighting inside Chechnya. However, the environment in the North Caucasus has continued to be extremely fluid and uncertain. This uncertainty increased towards the end of 1996 in reaction to the belief of many that the cease-fire would not hold and that provocations would occur either in Chechnya itself or within the neighbouring Republics with the aim of preventing the Presidential elections. Despite uncertainties surrounding the election itself – procedures and eligibility for voting and international validation of the election were still in doubt in the week leading up to the first ballot – elections were held at the end of January, and at the time of writing, results remain unchallenged. Maskhadov, Russia’s preferred candidate, appears to have gained an outright victory, by obtaining more than 51% of the vote, obviating the need for a second ballot if the results stand. The election itself was seemingly carried out without violence or obvious rigging, but a final statement on the results will not be forthcoming until the middle of February. A potentially interesting development in the fortunes of the region and one which will not have been received warmly in Russian government circles, came with the announcement by Maskhadov, shortly after the results became known, that he wished to see international recognition of Chechnya. It remains to be seen what impact this change of government will have on this unstable area.

For the international aid community, Chechnya is a highly uncertain environment. In addition to being exposed to the dangers faced on a day-to-day basis by the local population, they also face being targeted by kidnappers motivated by political and financial gain. There have been many security incidents involving humanitarian organisations but, by far the worst was the murder of six ICRC workers at the hospital of Novy Atagi, seventeen kilometres south west of Grozny on 17 December 1996. At the time of writing, no arrests had been made. Although many rumours have circulated as to the cause of these murders, and there has been much speculation as to whether the motivation was local, national or ideological, the authorities have made no definitive statement. Many have maintained that this was a deliberate act aimed at forcing the withdrawal of humanitarian organisations from Chechnya and thereby suspending the supply of aid which was assisting to normalise the situation and create an environment in which elections could take place.

Regardless of such theories, the result of these brutal murders was (and continues to be at the time of writing), the withdrawal of all international humanitarian personnel from Chechnya and the reduction or complete suspension of all humanitarian activities. Although many of the agencies are attempting to implement reduced programmes in essential services, such as water supply in Grozny and the supply of medicines to clinics throughout the country, concern is being expressed about the consequences of this situation for the population. In the case of many agencies (such as the ICRC), the suspension of humanitarian activities has been extended throughout the North Caucasus, affecting both the displaced and host populations of Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia as well as the population of Chechnya itself.

This is only the latest in a series of suspensions of activities and withdrawal of personnel in response to threats or outright attacks upon humanitarian aid personnel or local populations. The awareness by agencies that withdrawal could take place at any moment has hindered effective planning of activities and prevented continuity of approach. The additional dilemma that agencies have faced in this region is whether to assist certain vulnerable populations in case this assistance may be perceived by some as being politically motivated and thus provoke conflict.

In such a highly politicised environment, where international humanitarian aid, administered by neutral agencies, is a new and for some, alien concept, there is a need to establish understanding and respect for agencies and their work. Without such an understanding, ensuring the safety of agency personnel as well as the safety and well-being of vulnerable populations in the region will remain difficult.