Issue 9 - Article 15

Chechnya (November 1997)

November 1, 1997
Jim White, ICPAW

Many humanitarian agencies believed that the end of war and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya in the fall of 1996 would allow greater freedom for relief operations in the republic. During their 21 month long military operation in Chechnya, the Russian army and Ministry of Interior forces had shown little regard for international humanitarian law or the work and neutrality of aid organisations. In most cases, relief agencies would only be allowed access to areas of conflict days or even weeks after attacks. Many relief organisations therefore left the region, frustrated by the Byzantine Russian bureaucracy and rampant human rights abuses, and by the intolerable security conditions.


Russian and Chechen rebel forces alike perpetrated dozens of deliberate acts of violence and intimidation against aid workers, including assaults, kidnappings and murders. Ransom payments and night-time robberies of residences netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for criminal groupings ‘freelancing’ outside their military duties or for bandits taking advantage of a lawless state. Russian and Chechen commands systematically accused the other side of having committed the crime or charged that all relief workers were in the employ of foreign secret services. The few criminals who were caught were temporarily detained by authorities and then released unpunished. But as dangerous as Chechnya was during the war, it became even more so after the Russian withdrawal.

On 17 December 1996, six ICRC workers were assassinated as they slept in their hospital compound. American relief consultant Fred Cuny and his three local staff members had previously ‘disappeared’ while details of the Chechen murders of Finnish aid worker Matti Aho were also released. Now the message was understood. We do not respect your work. We want aid workers out of Chechnya. The ICRC murders caused a withdrawal of all international aid personnel from Chechnya and the neighbouring republics and a suspension of most programmes. The event also stopped short an expansion of UN programmes, just as Russian Federal authorities had finally granted permission for them to work inside Chechnya. Promises by both the Russians and Chechens to bring the culprits to justice remained empty. Nor did the security situation improve after the January 1997 elections made former rebel commander Maskhadov president. For some aid groups, the suffering of the Chechen people out-weighed the threat to their staff. They renewed their programmes in Chechnya. Most agencies allowed only their local staff members to carry out operations within the republic.

Rule of law has yet to be restored in Chechnya, despite the introduction of Moslem Shariat law which punishes kidnappers and murderers with execution. President Maskhadov appears unable to control his former comrades-in-arms or his own administration. Several charismatic field commanders retain their own armies, while deputies make statements contradictory to those of their President. Maskhadov’s inability to consolidate power stems from the very clan-driven, socio-political dynamics. Himself from a smaller, less influential clan, Maskhadov cannot mobilise much political and military power. So he finds himself struggling against his Vice President, Vakha Arsanov, and Deputy Prime Minister, Movladi Udugov. Violence toward foreigners, especially the spate of kidnappings in spring and summer 1997, has been categorically dismissed by the Chechen leaders as Russian provocations, but it appears that forces within the Chechen government itself are implicated.

Both Arsanov and Udugov have been accused by recently released (and highly credible) Russian journalists of running a crime and kidnapping cartel. Government sources send out contradictory messages. President Maskhadov attempts to bring back badly needed humanitarian aid through offers of governmental security guards for convoys and the appointment of a former field commander as NGO Security Liaison. At the same time Udugov publicly denounces international and local NGOs as spreading ‘Western influence’ and has local aid workers detained and questioned about their activities. The obvious tensions within the government give credibility to rumours that a coup may be imminent.

Several organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have unsuccessfully attempted to influence the situation. The OSCE advisory group has always seen facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid as a basic component of its mandate. Head of OSCE Advisory Group for Chechnya, Rudolf Thorning-Petersen would find it difficult to persuade aid organisations to return even if security were better, given the rocky relationships his predecessors had with the agencies working in the region. Many NGOs felt OSCE kept vital security information from them and turned a blind eye toward human rights violations out of fear their office would lose the confidence of either the Russians or Chechens. Despite these obstacles, OSCE is clearly trying to create a role for itself as a coordinator of aid delivery, where none existed before, perhaps to fill the void left by their waning role as negotiators in Chechen-Russian relations.

In Chechnya today, security, not aid work, dominates talks between humanitarian organisations and the Russian and Chechen authorities. Several aid organisations have hired armed guards, causing a philosophical rift between agencies and leaving some more exposed than others to further violence. International aid workers do not live or work within the republic and have pulled-back further in neighbouring Ingushetia and Daghestan. There are currently 13 aid workers being held for ransom in the North Caucasus, presumably in Chechnya; four French, two British, two Russians, one German, one Slovak, one Yugoslav and two Hungarians. The disappearance of the Cuny group and the ICRC assassinations go unsolved. The murderers of Matti Aho live in their homes in the Shali district, unperturbed by either Chechen or Russian law-enforcement bodies, despite both entities knowing their identities and whereabouts. With no progress by the Chechen government in the return of hostages or the arrest of killers, tens of thousands of Chechens continue to suffer from a lack of potential development and humanitarian assistance. At a time when the Chechen republic is seeking international acceptance of its de facto independence, a first step towards normalisation would be the recognition of international humanitarian law and abiding by it. Until that happens, aid workers in and around Chechnya will remain very unsafe.


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