Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Like Stalin In Another Era"

Anne Nivat, the journalist and writer who has done more than almost any other Western correspondent to obtain and publish on-the-ground information about the conflict in Chechnya - often in the face of threats and violence from the Russian authorities - has written a two-part assessment in Le Monde Diplomatique, here and here, of the current state of the republic. Although she notes a superficial appearance of a return to normal, she also observes that this deceptive situation conceals a much more troubling reality. The Russians are counting on continued violence, and the resignation of the local people. From the article:
After crossing the Chechen border we took a minibus to Grozny. Snow was falling and the radio was playing Russian hits. It seemed that every car had its radio on at full volume, as though blasting people with sound would help them forget. Mobile phones arrived here about two years ago and now everybody has one, but people prefer to receive rather than make calls because of the cost. Chechnya is regarded as a jammed zone. Megafon, the only authorised phone operator in the Chechen Republic, is thought to have links with the secret services. Scores of disgruntled users sometimes protest in front of the firm’s Grozny headquarters and chant “Megafon steals!” Customers’ phone credits occasionally disappear overnight.

Brand-new Leader petrol pumps belonging to the Kadyrov family have sprung up along the main road. Spruce redbrick houses stand beside shot-up ones with battered corners and blasted roofs. Road signs and advertising hoardings have sprouted at major crossroads and next to pockmarked buildings. The name Grozny is written in huge, freshly painted letters at the entrance to the city. Inside the city, the traffic lights are working even though many drivers are afraid to stop.

Minutka Square is still the same pile of concrete debris. Nothing has been rebuilt. We emerged from the tunnel and drove down Victory Avenue, formerly Lenin Avenue. On the left, on a huge red marble pedestal is a life-size statue of Akhmad Kadyrov wearing a papakha, the traditional fur hat, and holding worry-beads. Two soldiers with Kalashnikovs stand guard over the statue 24 hours a day. We passed the pale blue Orthodox church on our right - one of the first religious edifices to have been rebuilt - and arrived in the centre of Grozny, where the bazaar was in full midday swing. It is still surrounded by dilapidated buildings, and the covered part has been partly rebuilt of plywood, but the traders continue to set up their stands. We had passed through 11 checkpoints since leaving Sleptsovsk, three times fewer than two years ago.


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It is rare now to hear the sounds of war in Grozny at night but between 2000 and 2004 they were a constant background noise. The columns of tanks, often several kilometres long, are fewer and there are not so many reports of the terrible clean-up operations, the zachistki. But the time has come to settle scores: Chechen pitted against Chechen, brilliantly masterminded by Moscow. The capital appears to be bustling with activity but it is all facade, like the reconstruction of Victory Avenue and the empty words of the newly elected politicians, obsessed by their allegiance to their pro-Russian boss - “Like Stalin in another era,” say the locals.
Nivat investigates the role of religion in the Chechen conflict:
There is a final question on a key point in Russian propaganda: the role of religion in the conflict. Most Chechens reply: “There is no role.” They continue to practice Islam “as before” with the great moderation beloved of the Sufi tradition.

“They blame Islam, the Islamists and the fundamentalists,” explained Lida Iusupova, “but why are only Muslims labelled extremists? Why don’t they call the skinheads marauding around Russian cities Orthodox fundamentalists?”

Melnikova said: “The religious factor is being manipulated. Since 1999 the Kremlin has accused the Wahhabis and the fundamentalists so as to cover up the real culprits they would have to fight and arrest. Meanwhile the situation is worsening each day. The assassination of Maskhadov has radicalised the conflict and it can only get worse. The army doesn’t seem to want the war to end; it’s as though it suits them. And Putin’s decision after the Beslan disaster to appoint regional governors - who were previously elected by universal suffrage - shows just how useless our government is.

What is the connection between the method for electing governors and the international war against terror?”
Read it all.
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