Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Russian Rights Activist Battles On In Chechnya

Kheda Saratova is one of a handful of human rights activists left who continue to risk their lives in Chechnya.

By Gregory Feifer - RFE/RL, August 31, 2010

Nothing about Kheda Saratova's demeanor indicated the nature of her work when I first met her in Grozny five years ago.

She was escorting a group of rights activists to her native district of Shatoi, a lush stretch in the Caucasus Mountains in which some of the most protracted fighting in Chechnya had taken place.

Sunny and smiling, her elegant features crowned by dark bangs under a head scarf set back on her head, Saratova betrayed none of the hell she'd lived through. Not only had she survived both Chechen wars, but she took a job investigating the grim violence that characterized those conflicts: disappearances, torture, and murder that would otherwise have remained unknown.

Grozny was just beginning to be rebuilt and piles of rubble that were once buildings had been cleared from the city center. But violence was continuing and Saratova was taking us to a tiny village in the mountains where residents had been attacked by unknown men in armored personnel carriers.

Some of Saratova's relatives had been appointed officials in Shatoi, where family connections are most important, and she had arranged for local police commandos to accompany us. It was typical of the way she operates: using friends and acquaintances among the local authorities to help Chechnya's countless victims.

Today, Saratova is still doing similarly grim work, heading a human rights organization she recently founded called Objectiv.

Kidnapping, Ransom, And Murder

When I spoke to her recently, she'd spent three days negotiating the ransom for a kidnap victim, a 24-year-old man she says was abducted two months ago by soldiers because his businesswoman mother earns a relatively good income. She says they're demanding $30,000 for his release.

"They're former rebels, not the kind who fought for an idea [of independence], but those who easily switch from fighting for one side to the other," she says. "Today, they occupy official positions and spend their time kidnapping, demanding ransoms, and murder."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has overseen the astoundingly fast reconstruction of his region, thanks to vast amounts of money from Moscow. He's built Europe's biggest mosque, Western-looking cafes line Grozny's main street, Putin Avenue, and residential skyscrapers are going up.

But Chechnya's apparent calm hides a frightening reality. Rights groups say the security forces are carrying out a brutal campaign against the families of the few remaining insurgents, abducting relatives and burning their houses. Locals say many are beaten and some killed. They say weapons are often planted next to their bodies, enabling the security forces to claim they've killed more militants.

Saratova says such actions are driving young men into the militants' ranks. "When they see evil, of course they'll want to join the rebels."

She says she doesn't think Kadyrov knows the extent to which his forces are involved in violent crime. "However much we criticize him," Saratova says, "he's done a lot to improve life, at least on the surface."

Saratova adds that "the people around" Kadyrov "are undermining him, not ordinary Chechens," most of whom want peace. "We who know the price of war, who buried our friends and loved ones with our own hands, are ready to do anything to hold onto peace," she says.

'No One Needs My Truth'

Life for the very few Chechens brave enough to document abuses in their region was always risky. But the kidnapping and killing of Natalya Estemirova in Chechnya last year sent shock waves though the human rights community. Memorial, the preeminent rights group for which she worked, shut its Grozny office for six months.

Today, Saratova is one of the very few people in Chechnya not afraid to speak as freely as she does. She says many Chechens say they agree with her, but implore her to keep quiet. "No one needs my truth," she says.

"Every night I go to sleep telling myself I'll leave Chechnya the following morning. But every morning I get more calls from victims, relatives of kidnapped people, and I just can't leave," she continues. "I'll either end up going crazy, or something will happen to me."

She adds matter-of-factly: "People are killed for telling the truth. If they kill me, they kill me. But I love my homeland, why do I have to flee?"

Burying The Dead In Grozny

Saratova was married to a policeman and raising their 1-year-old son when the first war began in 1994.

On a visit to Moscow when the conflict broke out, she made her way back to Chechnya's neighboring region of Ingushetia before walking three days back to Grozny against a stream of refugees fleeing the city.

Finding her apartment empty, she believed her family members had been killed. When she later found them where they were taking shelter in a village outside the city, "I couldn't stop sobbing," she says.

Saratova buried friends and acquaintances before the first Chechen war ceased in 1996; none of her family was hurt. Soon after war began again -- when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched an invasion in 1999 -- Saratova's husband left her.

At this time, Saratova began taking in elderly women, mostly Russian, who lived in her apartment block and had nowhere to flee the fierce shelling of the city by Russian forces.

"I never in my life would have thought I'd know what real hunger is in this day and age, but I did," she recalls. "Once for three days I ate absolutely nothing."

During the lulls, Saratova helped her neighbors bury the dead.

Risking Everything

When a television journalist asked Saratova to smuggle videotapes across the border into Ingushetia, she jumped at the chance to help the outside world understand what was happening in her homeland. "I naively thought there would be someone who could press a button and end the war if he only knew what was going on," she says.

Sneaking out of the city on foot, she hitched rides for several days before giving the tape to a researcher from Amnesty International. Hoping to continue helping her war-ravaged region, Saratova soon joined Memorial, which opened an Ingushetia office to document the violence across the border in Chechnya.

Saratova began traveling across Chechnya to document abuses, mainly casualties from the military's so-called clean-up operations. She often worked with Estemirova, with whom she shared a room. "Day in and day out," she says, "we'd cross into Chechnya under fire to visit villages under siege, where people were fleeing."

To pass numerous military checkpoints, the women invented stories about rescuing relatives. Sometimes they brought along their small children, hiding videotapes in their backpacks. "It was horrible," Saratova says. "Sometimes now I can't believe that was me doing that."

Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, has worked with Saratova in Chechnya for a decade. She says Saratova was heavily pregnant with her second son in 2003 but insisted on taking her to document torture cases and disappearances. "She took me on some totally crazy travels in the mountains," Lokshina says, "when all I could do was think she was going to pop."

Finding Hope

Saratova says Objectiv, her current organization, serves as a "24-hour emergency service" assisting anyone who has "been injured, abducted, tortured, found, anything -- and needs our help."

But she says Estemirova's death last year was "very difficult for me to bear because back then we miraculously didn't die, when it was really dangerous."

Memorial has curtailed its activities in the region, placing more burden and risk on the very few people like Saratova who still report on abuses by the local authorities.

Among the alarming recent developments is the rise of abuses against women. Kadyrov promotes polygamy and in 2007 he violated Russian law by issuing a decree banning women and girls who were not wearing head scarves from entering schools, universities, and other public buildings.

Men have begun harassing women on the streets deemed not to be covered enough. And women are increasingly being abducted and forced into marriage.

Unlike Saratova, Lokshina believes Kadyrov does control his local security forces. "I'm Moscow-based and I can afford to say much more [than Saratova]," she says.

Despite the shared gloom over Chechnya's past and present, Saratova says the fact she can reach some government officials today is already an improvement.

"I hope very much there will be more of that," she says. "There are very few of us Chechens. We have to find a way to live together peacefully."

Source: RFE/RL


Window on Eurasia: Balkars Again Push for Their Own National Republic in North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 30 – Angered by what they see as the ethnocratic approach of the Kabard majority which dominates the Kabardino-Balkar Republic (KBR) and frightened by Circassian calls for the formation of a single republic for that nationality, the Turkic Balkars are again calling for the formation of a Balkar Republic within the Russian Federation.

The numerically small Balkar nation is unlikely to achieve its goal: Indeed, moves in that direction would not only lead to the demise of the KBR but also to the dismantling of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, another binational state but one in which the Turkic-speaking Karachays outnumber and dominate the Circassian Cherkess.

Consequently, Moscow will do whatever it can to prevent the Balkars from achieving their goals even though there is a very real possibility that some in the Russian capital may view the Balkar effort as a useful countermove to the Circassian one, especially given Moscow’s nervousness about instability near where the Sochi Olympics are scheduled to take place.

That is especially true because Turkey, although currently home to five million Circassians, is offering itself as the leader of the Turkic-speaking world and thus may now rein in Circassian activists there if it appears that the Turkic-speaking Balkars and Karachays are being mistreated.

Both the 80,000 Balkars and the 140,000 Karachays, the two Turkic peoples in this region, are minorities within a region dominated by the Circassians. Both were deported by Stalin at the end of World War II, and when they were allowed back, they were again combined with Circassian groups.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, some in both groups pressed for their own national republic. The Balkars pushed especially hard in 1996 and then again in 2006, but in both cases, Russian officials came down hard on them, and the movements appeared to dissipate. Now, however, the Balkars are again making demands.

In March, the Council of Elders of the Balkar People called for the formation of a Balkar Republic, but on May 31, the Supreme Court liquidated that organization, arguing that the appeals of the Council violated the KBR Constitution and threatened inter-ethnic peace in that republic (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20272).

But the Council appealed, and the Russian Supreme Court set aside the KBR court’s decision, an action that led the Council itself to step up its demands for an independent republic and the KBR prosecutors to initiate yet another case against the Council and its members for “extremism.”

Last week, the Council announced that it was beginning the organization of an all-Balkar congress, one that presumably would involve Turkic speakers not only from the KBR but across the North Caucasus, to discuss what to do next in order to achieve “the self-determination of the Balkar people” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/173346/).

Council leader Oyus Gurtuyev said that the call for such a meeting follows meetings in “all” Balkar population points which decided to “delegate plenipotentiary authority for the defense of the interests of the Balkar people to the Council of Elders of the Balkar People,” a claim that it is plausible but impossible to check.

Gurtuyev said that his group had been “forced to take this step” after “several bureaucrats” of Balkar nationality had written to North Caucasus Plenipotentiary Representative Aleksandr Khloponin saying that the Council does not “reflect the general opinion” of the Balkar nation.

In other comments, Gurtuyev said that the Council had formed an alliance with the Karachayevo-Balkar Elbrus organization, the Balkaria group, and the Peasant Union, Having “decided to consolidate [their] forces in order to put before the government issues which agitate our people.”

Gurtuyev and other speakers stressed that the group would always act within the law, was not being funded from abroad, and was interested in negotiating over pressing issues rather than simply striking a pose. But many of the issues that the group is concerned about – such as control of or access to pasture land – are so explosive that even raising them threatens to spark violence.

Indeed, one Council leader said something that would guarantee that: He said that if the powers that be don’t meet Balkar demands, then the Balkars “will ask the federal center for self-determination or inclusion in Stavropol kray,” a move some Russian nationalists might favor but one that would call into question all administrative-territorial divisions in the region.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Report: 100 Russian skinheads attack concertgoers

By David Novak, The Associated Press -- MOSCOW — Scores of bare-chested skinheads attacked a crowd of about 3,000 people at a rock concert in central Russia on Sunday, beating them with clubs, media reports said.

Dozens of people were left bloodied and dazed in the attack, television and news agencies reported, and state news channel Rossiya-24 said a 14-year-old girl was killed at the concert in Miass, 900 miles (1,400 kilometers) east of Moscow.

Fourteen ambulances were called to the scene, the channel said, citing witness accounts. The motive for the attack was not known, and authorities couldn't be reached for comment. The ITAR-Tass agency said local police had refused comment.

Many of Russia's top rock acts were attending the "Tornado" rock festival, the agency said.

Russia has an ingrained neo-Nazi skinhead movement. Attacks on dark-skinned foreigners in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been relatively common in recent years. The January 2009 murder of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasiya Baburova prompted a Kremlin crackdown on ultranationalists, who were blamed for the killings.

In April, a Moscow court banned the far-right Slavic Union, whose Russian acronym SS intentionally mimicked that used by the Nazis' infamous paramilitary. The group was declared extremist and shut down. Then the group's leader, Dmitry Demushkin, told The Associated Press it tried to promote its far-right agenda legally and warned that the ban would enrage and embolden Russia's most radical ultranationalists.

Russia's ultranationalist movement is so deeply embedded in the country's culture that militant groups have sprouted up around Russia to fight it. Anti-racist groups regularly spearhead attacks on ultranationalists, sparking revenge assaults in an intensifying clash of ideologies.

Neo-Nazi and other ultranationalist groups mushroomed in Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse. The influx of immigrant workers and two wars with Chechen separatists triggered xenophobia and a surge in hate crimes.

Racially motivated attacks, often targeting people from Caucasus and Central Asia, peaked in 2008, when 110 were killed and 487 wounded, an independent watchdog, Sova, said. The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights estimated that some 70,000 neo-Nazis were active in Russia — compared with a just few thousand in the early 1990s.

Source: Yahoo News

Related Issues

Saturday, 14 August 2010

How the Russian-Georgian War Has Changed the World - Interview with Paul Goble

(This interview was published on VOA News in Russian, 10 August 2010)

On the second anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war Yulia Savchenko talked about the consequences of confrontation and conflict lessons with Paul Goble - political scientist, a former specialist on ethnic minorities the U.S. State Department, and now a researcher with the Diplomatic Academy of Azerbaijan.

Yulia Savchenko: This is the second anniversary of the Georgian-Russian conflict of 2008. Different people have taken different things from this conflict. What do you think Georgia has learned from the conflict?

Paul Goble: Different people in Georgia have learned different lessons. Many, except perhaps the president, understand why the conflict happened. On the eve of the fighting, he clearly showed that he had misinterpreted the rules of the game in the international arena as well as misinterpreted remarks of the US President and Secretary of State. He interpreted their statements that the US always supports its friends as meaning he could do whatever he pleased. Since that time, he has used the threatening posture of Russia to distract attention and silence his opponents. Whatever else, Georgia in the future needs to show more creativity in dealing with the new environment than it did earlier.

Others have learned from the conflict. Russia’s neighbors now can see that Moscow is not constrained in showing who is the boss in the region even to the point of using force. No one thought that was the case, but now these countries have no guarantee that it won’thappen again. This has changed their perception of their own defensive needs and of Russia more generally.

That is only one of the ways Russia suffered as a result of the war. While Vladimir Putin and his team have proclaimed their victory, many Russians recognize that his decision was ill-conceived as well The Russian army did not do well, with poorly trained soldiers shooting at each other. As a result, Russia does not look as strong as it did. Instead, it looks like a weak bully. That is a very dangerous situation for any country to be in.

JS: And what this conflict has taught the United States?

PG: The US certainly has learned a few things. Perhaps first of all, we have had the lesson driven home that when we deal with other countries, we must always be sure that our statements are not misinterpreted. Clearly Saakashvili heard things from Washington that Washington did not in the end intend. U.S. policymakers need to be clear about what the US will and won’t do, regardless of a desire to show oneself supportive and friendly. Another lesson I hope we have learned is that Moscow today is not prepared to live by the rules. To go forward, Russia will have to work hard to reassure the US and others that it will behave as countries are supposed to.

JS: Two years ago, after the clash between Russia and Georgia, you testified that you support the principle of national self-determination. Do you think the Obama administration will follow this advice, especially in the wake of the International Court’s decision on Kosovo?

PG: I believe in the right of nations to self-determination. I believe that Abkhazia has demonstrated its ability to translate this right into reality. The situation regarding South Ossetia is much more problematic both because of the existence of North Ossetia, its own relations with the Russian Federation, and its geographic position as a kind of dagger aimed at Tbilisi.

In many respects, the step that would most disturb Moscow would be if the West and the US in particular were to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Imagine what it would mean if 27 NATO members had embassies in Sukhumi. That would open the question of the recognition of republics now north of the Russian Federation border.

I do not exclude such a development. It would be more interesting if Georgia has recognized Abkhazia. Abkhazians, of course, would likely seek to find a way to prevent that if only because of the obvious undesirable consequences for Moscow. Consequently, it won’t happen soon. But if these states remain recognized only by a few states, this will be the beginning of an era in which there may be many partially recognized states.

Thinking ahead to the tenth anniversary of the conflict, I hope that at that time we will be able to discuss this crisis more soberly with fewer comments about Russian aggression, more foreign embassies in Abkhazia. I don’t know whether an American one will be among them, but some kind of reconciliation of all parties is likely, if only because living in a world where all past crimes are constantly at the center of attention is so very difficult.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

[AW] Articles on 2008 Russo-Georgian War and Abkhazia

On the anniversary of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, experts here share their thoughts on the August war insofar as it affected Abkhazia. The views expressed in commentaries are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of Abkhaz World.

Why Can Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili Not Emulate Willi Brandt?
By Liz Fuller | Special to Abkhaz World
British scholar who joined Radio Liberty as Caucasus analyst in July 1980

The Impact of the War in Georgia on Russian Public Opinion
By Stephen D. Shenfield | Special to Abkhaz World
Independent researcher and translator

The Georgia War and its consequences
By Alexander Rahr | Special to Abkhaz World
Program Director for Russia/Eurasia, German Council on Foreign Relations; Berlin

The Abkhazian paradox and the Montenegrin model
By Laurent Vinatier | Special to Abkhaz World
Senior Research Associates, Thomas More Institute, Paris


Two year anniversary of August War 2008
By Irakli Khintba | IISS - The International Institute for Strategic Studies
Lecturer in political science at the Abkhazian State University, and a fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes; Sukhum

The ghost of the Soviet Union
By Sergey Markedonov | IISS - The International Institute for Strategic Studies
Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program Washington, DC


Abkhazia and the Caucasus: the west’s choice
By Neal Ascherson | openDemocracy
Journalist and writer; London


Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Review: Let Our Fame Be Great

Journalist Oliver Bullough delivers a detailed, moving history of the too often overlooked people of the Caucasus.

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus By Oliver Bullough Basic Books 528 pp., $28.95

By Bob Blaisdell / August 3, 2010

Perhaps the best way to begin is to be honest. What if we just admit we don’t know much about the Caucasus, that we’re confused by the term “Caucasian,” that we’re not sure who those defiant people are and why we should admire their long resistance to Russian invasion? If that’s our first step, then the second should be to pick a copy of Let Our Fame Be Great, a most compelling history of the region by British journalist Oliver Bullough.

Bullough begins by explaining that this region, spanning the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, was, for more than a thousand years, like an inland island, little subject to outside influences.

“Dagestan was not considered entirely Muslim until the late sixteenth century,” writes Bullough. “Chechnya was also late to Islam, and the last Chechens probably did not convert until the late eighteenth century. Some Ingush were still pagan until the 1860s.”

It even took bearish Russia until the late 18th century to break through the geographical obstacles and start attempting the takeover of the Caucasus piece by piece, meeting plenty of defiance from the poor, mostly illiterate, independent peoples – who, on the whole, grouped themselves within each people by family units, and understood nothing of what states or nations meant: “The long absence ... of a foreign ruler or a foreign religion allowed the mountain customs to continue largely unchanged into the modern age. Communities were governed by councils of elders, and land was held in common by each village.”

As for the recent, post-Soviet violent history, I cringe in reflex, but until now I must admit that I knew far too little except that Vladimir Putin in 1999 gathered national political power as he crushed the chaos in the Caucasus with military assaults. So the Caucasus are to Russia what the American southwest might have been had the various native American tribes converted to a common religion and been able to continue frustrating the US and Mexican invaders. From the czars to Stalin to Putin, resistance in the Caucasus to Russian governance and customs has resulted, Bullough argues, in exile or genocide of the natives.

As Bullough dashes and darts us through the amazing and forgotten episodes of the region, we see that this is a book of discoveries, not a textbook, a personally driven but impressively researched history-adventure. The “Fame” of the title? It’s ironic: the peoples, so conscious of themselves, so culturally and family oriented that their fame continues to speak loudly to themselves, have been dismissively written out of Russian history. This Russian obliviousness to its own history of repression used to surprise Bullough but now just really ticks him off: “Where once the Balkar and Karachai nations had been written out of existence, now the fact that they had been written out of existence was itself written out of existence.”

Bullough divides the book into four sections, and each is compelling. The history of the Circassians, for instance, who had lived in the region along the eastern coast of the Black Sea for hundreds of years, began losing their independence and freedom in 1764 with the arrival of a Russian army. Thus began Russian policy, which through czars, dictators, and presidents, has been remarkably consistent. The native peoples were usually welcome to completely submit (“Why should we?” – “You’re under arrest for daring to ask!”) and be subject to exile to deserted regions or, if they insisted on defending themselves, they could taste the might of the Russian military.

It sends chills up Bullough’s spine that Sochi, in southern Russia, in the very region where hundreds of thousands of Circassians were exiled or killed, was granted the Winter Olympics in 2014: “It is not just Sochi that is insensitive to the Circassian claims of genocide, but the whole coast, which – if it remembers the nineteenth-century war at all – celebrates it as a victory, not as the squalid campaign of attrition and slaughter that it really was.”

The Chechen wars, the despicable Chechen acts of terrorism in Moscow and Beslan, the amazing Russian demolition in the 1990s of Grozny – it’s all reviewed by Bullough. He’s appalled by the Chechen terrorism, which he covered firsthand as a reporter, despite his great sympathy with the plight of the vast majority of the population. Since 2000, about 20 percent of the Chechens have applied for asylum. While they love their land, it is a literal minefield. Bullough fears, however, that European assimilation will not be easy for the anarchic Chechens: “The law-abiding, orderly Austrian system could not be more alien to a Chechen man raised on the concept that ripping off the state was a duty and a pleasure.”

As cultural history filtered through the eyes and heart of a bright and earnest young writer, the book most similar to this one – as fresh and vital, admiring and frustrated – is Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey,” about another group of variously associated peoples without a sovereign homeland. Bullough concludes:
“[T]he history of Russia’s conquest is one of tragedy for the people of the mountains. The Circassians, the mountain Turks, the Ingush and the Chechens have all suffered horribly just so the map of Russia could be the shape the tsars, the general secretaries and the presidents wanted it to be.”

Bob Blaisdell edited “Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education.”