Freedom in the World 2004 - Chechnya [Russia]

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7
Status: Not Free
Population: 1,200,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Muslim [majority], Russian Orthodox
Ethnic Groups: Chechen (83 percent), other [including Russian and Ingush] (17 percent)


In 2003, the inhabitants of Chechnya continued to be victimized by a debilitating, long-term civil war that has included acts of terrorism, disappearances, and war crimes perpetrated by various parties to the conflict. Human rights groups estimate that over 150,000 fatalities have occurred since war in Chechnya began in 1994, and hundreds of thousands have been wounded and displaced.

A small Northern Caucasus republic covered by flat plains in the north-central portion and by high mountains in the south, Chechnya has been at war with Russia for most of its history since the late 1700s. In February 1944, the Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakhstan under the pretext of their having collaborated with Germany during World War II. Officially rehabilitated in 1957 and allowed to return to their homeland, they remained politically suspect and were excluded from the region's administration.

Following election as Chechnya's president in October 1991, former Soviet Air Force Commander Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed Chechnya's independence. Moscow responded with an economic blockade. In 1994, Russia began assisting Chechens opposed to Dudayev, whose rule was marked by growing corruption and the rise of powerful clans and criminal gangs. Russian president Boris Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops into Chechnya by mid-December and attacked the capital, Grozny, precipitating a lengthy conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives. As casualties mounted, Russian public opposition to the war increased, fueled by criticism from much of the country's then-independent media. In April 1996, Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile.

A peace deal was signed in August 1996, resulting in the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Chechnya. However, a final settlement on the republic's status was put off until 2001. In May 1997, Russia and Chechnya reached an accord recognizing the elected President Aslan Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate leader.

Following incursions into neighboring Dagestan by renegade Chechen rebels and deadly apartment bombings in Russia which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants, then-Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin launched a second military offensive on Chechnya in September 1999. Russian troops conquered the flat terrain in the north of the republic, but progress slowed considerably as they neared heavily defended Grozny. Amid hostilities, Moscow withdrew recognition of Maskhadov.

Russia's indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets caused some 200,000 people to flee Chechnya, most to the tiny neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. After federal troops finally captured Grozny in February 2000, the Russian military focused on rebel strongholds in the southern mountainous region. Russian security sweeps led to atrocities in which civilians were regularly beaten, raped, or killed. Russian forces were subject to almost daily guerrilla bomb and sniper attacks by rebels. The renewed campaign enjoyed broad popular support in Russia fueled by the media's now one-sided reporting favoring the official government position.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Moscow defended its actions in Chechnya as part of the broader war on global terrorism, asserting a connection between Chechen separatists and terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden. No connections have been proven.

Prominent Russian and Chechen leaders met in Liechtenstein in August 2002 to discuss a peace plan. However, progress toward peace remained elusive, as Chechen rebels have continued to engage in guerrilla warfare against Russian troops. In an ordeal covered live by Russian television, a group of Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater on October 23, 2002, taking 750 people hostage. Over 120 hostages died, most from the effects of a sedative gas that Russian troops used to incapacitate the rebels. Russian authorities reported that all 41 of the rebels had been killed.

Reliable estimates suggest that at least 5,000 Chechens, mostly civilians, died as a result of the conflict in 2003. Independent military analysts believe approximately 1,200 Russian troops were killed during the year. In addition, rights groups estimate that an average of 50 people disappear each month, usually as a result of abductions believed to originate with Russian forces.

While some 85,000 Russian troops are estimated to remain in Chechnya, in 2003, Russian officials attempted to demonstrate to the international community that authority is being ceded to Chechens. In an effort to deflect international criticism and Political Rights and Civil Liberties: domestic unease about the protracted conflict, Russia's government seeks to transfer significant responsibility for policing and governing to Chechen leaders who favor remaining part of the Russian Federation. In 2003, this strategy came in two stages: a highly-touted and highly tainted referendum and an election to determine Chechnya's executive and legislative leadership.

The March 23, 2003 referendum on a new Chechen constitution took place in the absence of open and free media, with opponents of the referendum and opponents of its questions effectively silenced. Russian government social and humanitarian agencies were mobilized to pressure Chechens to participate. On the day of the vote, Russian soldiers and Chechen police forced villagers to take part in the vote. Ballot security was put in the hands of the Russian military, which transported ballots to and from polling stations. Such direct involvement by the Russian military placed the accuracy of the ballot tabulation under question. According to current law, Russian military and police personnel serving on the territory of any Russian political entity are entitled to take part in a local vote.

Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration said results indicated a voter turnout of 85 percent, with 96 percent of voters in favor of ratifying the Kremlin-backed constitution. Yet an independent survey of voter sentiments conducted by the Russian rights group Memorial found that 80 percent of the indigenous population opposed the referendum. Local rights groups reported largely empty polling places, contrary to official local state-radio reports, which claimed long lines of voters.

After the referendum, Russian authorities moved quickly toward presidential and legislative elections, which were held on October 5, 2003. A poll conducted by the independent Public Opinion polling group in the summer of 2003 showed only 14.4 percent of the population favoring the Kremlin-backed candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov. When the official results were tabulated, Kadyrov was said to have won with 81 percent of the vote and a voter turnout that was said to be nearly 88 percent. The absence of leading alternative candidates, the disqualification of a leading competitor by the courts, the resignation of rival candidates after Kremlin pressure, and reported physical threats paved the way for Kadyrov's tainted victory. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the elections for not offering voters significant choice and the U.S. government judged them as "seriously flawed." Journalists who monitored the election reported sparse participation and many virtually empty polling places.

Kadyrov is a former mufti who served as the civilian administrator of the region before the elections. There are numerous credible reports that he and his associates are involved in corruption and the diversion of Russian aid for private gain. Chechen, Russian, and international monitoring groups worry that the transfer of some authority to Kadyrov will empower brutal and corrupt leaders and will result in a further deterioration of human rights.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The resumption of war in Chechnya in 1999 led to the total evisceration of the political rights of Chechens. Residents of the republic currently do not have the means to change their government democratically. Claims by the Russian government that they were returning the region to democratic rule by means of a March 2003 referendum lack credibility. The referendum was orchestrated by the Kremlin, with no opportunity for debate, widespread vote rigging, and official results that indicated a voter turnout of 85 percent and nearly unanimous support for a new constitution. According to domestic and international analysts, the results were heavily doctored. The subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections of October 5, 2003, did not resemble a competitive democratic political process. Candidates representing a genuine alternative were not on the ballot, and other pro-Russian candidates were forced off the ballot as a result of political pressure and intimidation. Political debate was stifled in an atmosphere of repression and censorship. Moreover, the official election results are believed to reflect widespread falsification. Under the authoritarian rule of President Akhmad Kadyrov, there is no party pluralism and politicians who advocate Chechen state independence are unable to work openly and freely.

The previous presidential elections in 1997 – conducted by separatist authorities – were characterized by international observers as reasonably free and fair. President Aslan Maskhadov fled the capital city in December 1999, and the parliament elected in 1997 ceased to function. In June 2000, President Putin enacted a decree establishing direct presidential rule over Chechnya, appointing Kadyrov, a Muslim cleric and Chechnya's spiritual leader, to head the republic's administration. The new "elected" president is linked to a network of criminal Chechen groups and is denounced by Maskhadov and separatist Chechens as a traitor. Some pro-Moscow Chechens distrust him for his support for the republic's independence during the first Chechen war.

The disruptive effects of the war severely hinder news production and the free flow of information. Russian state-run television and radio broadcast in Chechnya, although much of the population remains without electricity. The local administration of President Kadyrov effectively controls all other broadcast and most print media, which predominantly reflect official viewpoints. There are three licensed television broadcasters, whose content is pro-regime. The Chechen rebel government operates a Web site with reports about the conflict and other news from its perspective. The editors of an independent weekly, Groznensky Rabochy, left Chechnya in 1999. The paper is now edited in Moscow and has limited distribution in Chechnya amid increased government restrictions on media coverage of the conflict. The paper's editor reports that there is widespread self-censorship by reporters who fear violent reprisals from rebels and pro-government forces.

The Russian military imposes severe restrictions on journalists' access to the Chechen war zone, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the Russian government. Few foreign reporters are allowed into the breakaway republic, and when they are allowed entry, access is restricted by military and police authorities as journalists covering the war must be accompanied at all times by military officials.

Most Chechens are Muslims who practice Sufiism, a mystical form of Islam characterized by the veneration of local saints and by groups practicing their own rituals. The Wahhabi sect, with roots in Saudi Arabia and characterized by a strict observance of Islam, has been banned. Since the start of the last war in 1994, many of the republic's schools have been damaged or destroyed, and education in Chechnya has been sporadic. Most schools have not been renovated and continue to lack such basic amenities as textbooks, electricity, and running water.

Some charitable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in humanitarian, cultural and social issues are allowed to operate. An important but small Western-supported NGO, the LAM Center for Complex Research and Popularization of Chechen Culture, conducts activities in Russia to promote inter-group understanding and makes small grants to a small network of embattled NGOs. However, associational and trade union life is dominated by pro-regime organizations and any groups and NGO activists that are viewed as sympathetic to the cause of Chechen independence are subject to persecution. In the face of the ongoing conflict, some Chechen NGO activists have left the region and are now working among refugees in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

Amid widespread conflict, the rule of law is virtually nonexistent. Civilians are subject to harassment and violence, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions, at the hands of Russian soldiers. Senior military authorities have shown disregard for these widespread abuses. There are worries that the new police and security structures under the control of President Kadyrov are likely to contribute to additional widespread rights abuses. According to a report in Britain's Guardian in October 2003, Kadyrov has assembled a well-paid private army of 4,000 former rebels, policemen, and hired guns. Chechen rebel fighters have targeted Chechen civilians who have cooperated with Russian government officials or who work for the pro-Moscow administration.

Extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other war crimes are rarely investigated and even more rarely punished. In an unprecedented development, on July 25, 2003, a military court in Rostov-on-Don, Russia found Russian Colonel Yuri Budanov guilty of kidnapping and murdering a Chechen woman and sentenced him to 10 years in a maximum security prison. The court concluded that Budanov was sane at the time he killed the 18-year-old woman three years ago. In December 2003, a Russian military court initiated the trial of four soldiers for murders alleged to have been committed in the Shattoi region of Chechnya in January 2002.

Russian troops engage in so-called "mopping-up" operations in which they seal off entire towns and conduct house-to-house searches for suspected rebels. During these security sweeps, soldiers have been accused of beating and torturing civilians, looting, and extorting money. Thousands of Chechens have gone missing or been found dead after such operations. In 2002, Chechnya issued new rules for troops conducting sweeps, including identifying themselves and providing a full list of those detained, but rights activists have accused federal troops of widely ignoring these rules. Human rights groups report the ongoing operation of illegal filtration camps by Russian authorities and Kadyrov's security forces. The camps detain and "filter" out Chechens suspected of ties to rebel groups, with filtration often used as a euphemism for murder.

While precise estimates by independent monitoring agencies are unavailable, close approximations suggest that at the end of 2003, there were nearly 100,000 refugees in camps outside of Chechnya. Many were living in appalling conditions in tent camps, abandoned buildings, or in cramped quarters with friends or relatives. They are under intense pressure to return to their war-ravaged conflict zone despite ongoing concerns for personal security, as well as a lack of employment and housing opportunities. There were tens of thousands of additional internally displaced persons inside the region and well over 100,000 additional long-term homeless.

Travel to and from the republic and inside its borders is severely restricted. After the resumption of war, the Russian military failed to provide safe exit routes from the conflict zones for noncombatants. Bribes are usually required to pass the numerous military checkpoints.

Widespread corruption and the economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity. Ransoms obtained from kidnapping and the lucrative illegal oil trade provide money for Chechens and members of the Russian military. Much of the republic's infrastructure and housing remains damaged or destroyed after years of war, with reconstruction funds widely believed to have been substantially misappropriated by corrupt local authorities. In the capital city of Grozny, the long-term conflict has devastated civilian life, with over 60 percent of all buildings completely destroyed. Much of the population ekes out a living selling produce or other goods at local markets. Residents who have found work are employed mostly by the local police, the Chechen administration, the oil and construction sectors, or at small enterprises, including cafes. There are signs of an emerging struggle between what is referred to as the "Kadyrov clan" and other corrupt economic interest and criminal groups.

While women continue to face discrimination in a traditional, male-dominated culture, the war has resulted in many women becoming the primary breadwinners for their families. Russian soldiers reportedly rape Chechen women in areas controlled by federal forces.

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