Thursday, July 13, 2006

De Waal: "Easier to deal with North Korea"

Author and journalist Thomas de Waal, who is Caucasus editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, was recently refused a visa to visit Russia in connection with the publication of one of his books. He has covered the conflict in Chechnya since 1994, and his reporting evidently displeased the Kremlin to the point where it decided to ban him completely. In today's Financial Times, de Waal reflects on the short-sightedness of Moscow's Caucasus policies, noting in the aftermath of Shamil Basayev's death:
Now rid of such a major enemy, Vladimir Putin, Russian president, and his advisers will be full of confidence that their policy in Chechnya is finally working. At first glance, the situation in Chechnya is indeed much improved compared with the situation a few years ago. The level of violence has fallen, some basic services are operating, rebuilding work has begun and Chechnya has a few new signs of ordinary life, such as a mobile phone network. All this is very precarious, however, and there are many reasons to be anxious about the future of Europe's most volatile and violent region.

First of all, the big reason for relative peace is sheer war-weariness. Chechens have suffered a catastrophe in the past decade-and-a-half, seeing their main city bombed to ruins, tens of thousands of their citizens killed and wounded, young men tortured and disappeared. They now face mass unemployment and intractable health problems. If they no longer support armed resistance or dream about independence it is not because they have started to love the government in Moscow. Their alienation and bitterness is still real and strong.

Second, Mr Putin has won his provisional victory in Chechnya by relying on an extremely brutal local Chechen government, led by the 29-year-old former boxer Ramzan Kadyrov, who has monopolised all power and enforces his writ in gangland fashion. Mr Kadyrov's security services are comprised mainly of former rebel fighters, whose loyalty could change instantly should his own chequered career come to an end. The reliance on one group is extremely divisive, as other Chechen politicians of authority have been marginalised or exiled, excluding them from a role in a post-war rehabilitation process.

Third, although Moscow says that the violence in the region is caused by "international terrorism", it does everything in its power to block international debate and monitoring of the real situation on the ground. Examples of this are legion. No international organisation has any office in the north Caucasus with a mandate to hear human rights complaints from locals. One international aid official working in the region told me he had found it easier to deal with North Korea than with the Russians over Chechnya.

In a very rare public dispute with a major government, the International Committee of the Red Cross has suspended its visits to detainees in Chechnya because the Russian government will not give it unrestricted access to places of detention. A recent investigation by Memorial, the Russian human rights organisation, suggests why: Memorial's researchers uncovered grisly evidence of torture chambers run by the Kadyrov government.
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