By Usman Dikayev and Petr Janouch, special to Prague Watchdog
The year 2006 marks the final return of Russia among the world’s superpowers. After the turbulent and chaotic 1990’s of Yeltsin’s era, President Putin started his charm tour in 2000; in six years he’s managed to keep his promises to the country’s power structures and a population plagued by instability, poverty, crime and persisting sentiment to the Soviet years. Russia is taking over the presidency of the world’s elite G8 group.
Although seemingly distant from the events in its southern regions, Russia’s return to fame will certainly have repercussions in Moscow’s attitude towards the people and situation in Chechnya and neighboring republics. They will undoubtedly downplay the human and humanitarian side of the Chechen conflict by feigning amnesia about the tragic consequences of a decade of war.
The prepared closing of the remaining camps in Ingushetia may be seen as the first active step in this direction. Russia will chair this elite club, but the several thousand officially displaced people will be a rather ugly blot on the image of the new/old world leader. In his first New Year interviews, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that natural resources are to be the key issue of Russia’s G8 presidency and he kept reiterating his country’s superiority in this field. It will therefore be interesting to see whether Chechnya will appear on the agenda of the G8 meetings and how it will be addressed - as a land of continuous human tragedy or as an important natural resource-rich region in the Federation.
Due to the major focus on insecurity and on-going large-scale human rights violations in Chechnya, the continuing displacement is often a marginalized aspect of the tragic events of the past decade. About 200,000 are still banned from their homes within the republic due to heavy destruction of houses; so far the widely advertised compensation program has not brought any significant results and only provides more opportunities in the immense corruption network. This leads to increases in rentals and property costs in Grozny and Gudermes, the two most economically attractive locations.
Despite a rather decent rate of return from the neighboring regions of North Caucasus, around fifty thousand Chechens may still be living in Daghestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. This number includes all those who intend to return to Chechnya.
The number of Chechens who sought refuge abroad is unknown since for statistic purposes they fall under the category of Russian citizens. However, up to 95% of asylum seekers to Europe from Russia actually do come from Chechnya. With Russia topping the new asylum-seekers lists through 2003 and 2004, it is estimated that the total number of Chechen refugees in Europe will be between 100,000 and 150,000.
Towards the end of 2005, the federal migration authorities announced the closing of spontaneous settlements in Ingushetia, which was actually anticipated by the displaced IDPs themselves. It’s not important when this will take effect as anyone familiar with the modus operandi of Soviet and Russian authorities knows that once they decide on something, it will be implemented sooner or later; timing is of secondary importance.
It’s also not difficult to predict how the decision will be implemented. Motives are more important than deeds and the end justifies the means. This initiative is another obvious step toward presenting the situation in Chechnya as being finally settled. Stability will be proven by displacement ceasing to exist. At the same time, many will agree that the funding cut signals ultimate rejection of responsibility for the thousands of displaced families as a result of the Chechen conflict.
Ingushetia – next door recourse
Starting in late 1999, the numbers of displaced people west of the Chechen border grew steadily so that it reached the level of the local population of Ingushetia. It was clear from the outset that many of those streaming out of Chechnya would return as soon as possible to be close to their homeland and to protect their property from being looted. Also, most believed that the war would soon be over.
And hundreds did indeed begin returning in 2000. The process reached a new stage with the adoption of a federal return plan in May 2002 that was aimed at closing all tent camps. This was started in June by bulldozing two camps in Znamenskoye in Northern Chechnya, and six months later the Iman camp in Aki-Yurt. The greatest return boom came in the second half of 2003 and throughout 2004, with heavy psychological pressure being applied. A constant deteriorating security situation marked by frequent hostilities from Chechnya culminated with Basayev’s incursion into Ingushetia in June 2004. The ensuing agitation and simmering conflicts between Chechens and the local populace were used by many Ingush to threaten and push more Chechens out of the republic.
The process of return changed from individual (underway after the heavy fighting was over) to massive in 2003-04 due to enormous pressure by the authorities who daily sent out several dozen trucks with IDP property. But by 2005 it was back to individual movements again as the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya became easily passable.
It would be highly misleading and an exaggeration to present the developments of the past few years as a sign of stabilization in Chechnya, which Russian and Chechen authorities have so anxiously attempted to do. For the majority, their decision to return was not motivated by any rosy prospects in Chechnya. Rather it was the decreasing difference in the general security situation in Ingushetia and Chechnya combined with weariness of living in makeshift conditions. This along with just plain homesickness plus promises of government compensation for lost housing compelled the IDPs to return and try to restore their lives.
After living in Ingushetia for several years, the IDPs created new connections in their adopted environment, mainly in the camps and settlements, and the decision whether or not to return was often made in groups. Return of one related and/or respected family could spark off a wave of departures.
It is important to realize and acknowledge that the war in Chechnya has become a modus vivendi. People are dying and disappearing the same way they did five years ago even though the methods of the perpetrators have changed, as have the perpetrators themselves. And understanding has changed accordingly. Insecurity has become a part of daily life: count your family members and neighbors each morning and just be glad that no one is missing.
Camp closure – a tested scenario
At the time of the biggest influx of Chechens to Ingushetia, when the situation was far from under control, and the Russian government was heavily criticized for the living conditions of displaced Chechens, a most remarkable reaction came from one of the then deputies to the federal Interior Minister, who wondered why everyone carried on about the situation in Ingushetia since half the Russian population lived in similar conditions.
Only two years later, in May 2002, a federal plan on camp closures was adopted stating that no Russian citizen should live in tents. This sudden concern for the displaced was further demonstrated by emphasizing their substandard living conditions. The scenario is rather simple - all one needs is an independent expert on unacceptable living conditions, preferably an impartial state authority. In the case of Ingushetia this role was played by the Sanitary and Epidemiology Department (SES) and fire department, who basically confirmed what the humanitarian organizations have been saying for years, namely that the living conditions in terms of water, sanitation and fire safety are absolutely unacceptable. If you’re lucky you get a few NGOs onboard who will gullibly support your claim, as has been the case with several settlements in Ingushetia. The “independent expert” recommended closing down the locations where the IDPs were living. In a civilized country, the migration service would face thousands of lawsuits for providing unfit accommodations. But in Russia, the tenants bear the consequences and move out.
It is worth mentioning that in Chechnya over twenty thousand are living in government managed temporary accommodation centers with living conditions worse than in most settlements in Ingushetia. The SES experts, and international organizations as well as a variety of government officials, have long been drawing attention to the fact that the sanitary conditions in some of these centers are comparable to living in garbage dumps. However, because housing and assistance there is free, this is a strong pulling factor for IDPs and refugees. But once the authorities decide to evict people from these centers (leased by the migration service whose contracts on some will expire this year), SES experts are most likely to be invited again to formally bless the decision. The inhabitants will become virtually homeless as well as deprived of their subsistence, food from the government.
What next in Ingushetia?
The announcement about the closure of all remaining camps actually means that the Ingush branch of the migration service will no longer sign rental contracts with owners whose homes have been used for IDP housing. Consequently, all per capita and housing utility funding from the state will be terminated. This may mean eviction of the IDPs by the financially deprived homeowners.
The closings concern 67 spontaneous camps and will affect around 8,000 IDPs, i.e. approximately one-third of the current IDP population in Ingushetia. Since the authorities have long pretended not to see the remaining two-thirds, from an official point of view, the 67 camps will host the last IDPs in Ingushetia.
It is highly unlikely that funding cuts will inspire all IDPs to return home. Some will surely stay, paying the same amount to homeowners that the authorities used to pay. There are already smaller spontaneous camps set up now where tenants pay several hundred rubles per month for rent, gas, and electricity. Even settlements so far subsidized by the federal budget have “illegal” families paying rent as its become quite a profitable business for the homeowners (as well as local migration officials).
Ingushetia will follow the example of Daghestan with no federal funding for IDPs. Only a few collective housing centers still survive through paying families and most of the displaced are now living in rented apartments.
The end of 2005 also brought news of the Emergencies Ministry's plane taking about 140 refugees from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge to Daghestan. The repatriation from Pankisi began in May 2005 when ten families were relocated. According to a scenario well-tested in Ingushetia camps, the returning families received basic allowances for the trip, minimum assistance upon return, and maximum promises of how they would be taken care of once back home.
Living conditions in Pankisi are not great but thanks to mainly humanitarian assistance, they’re still better than in many parts of Chechnya. Yet home is on the other side of the mountain. In a lose-lose situation, it doesn’t make much sense to wonder how voluntary a particular decision was. As with the vast majority of Chechens, the Pankisi refugees had also been longing to return home. The promises and prospects sounded attractive and one eventually gets fed up with living in temporary conditions. So a free flight to Makhachkala was a bonus.
As for the high number of Kists (ethnic minority on the Georgian side of the border) on the plane, these were Russian citizens who used to live in Grozny and other parts of Chechnya prior to their displacement. So their presence onboard was fully justified. Whether they will return to Pankisi or not is another matter.
Let it be reiterated that, similar to Ingushetia, it would be erroneous to regard the decision to return as an acknowledgement of a perfect life in Chechnya, even if this is exactly what the authorities want us to believe; the motivations are much simpler. The refugees are tired of temporary conditions and cannot wait to go back to their homes, once again naively believing the government’s promises. Unfortunately most of them will again experience frustration in that the government has once again forgotten what they promised.
Waiting for Europe
The two broader issues for 2006 is whether the international community will continue supporting the humanitarian operation in North Caucasus; and if anything will change for the Chechen refugees in Europe in light of Russia’s continuous media campaign and G8 chairmanship. Some European governments have already started looking for justifications for not granting asylum to Chechens. The key issue here has been the internal flight alternative and possibly no need for international protection. In other words, Russia is a huge country and many Chechens actually live in different parts of it already.
According to the Refugee Convention, a person can be granted asylum based on well-founded fears of persecution if sent back. But how can you prove that you will be persecuted if the main fear is arbitrariness and impunity of the mighty? Some countries realized this all too well and generously offered protection. Ironically, the lowest rate of recognition is reported from former communist countries whose citizens enjoyed the generosity and protection of the West until 1989. These countries should therefore be more generous having close-range experience with persecution.
Nowadays it is of vital importance to remember that the fact that some IDPs and refugees are returning to Chechnya from neighboring areas should not make European governments change their attitude, even if pressure from Russia will most likely increase. The hordes of Chechen refugees have thousands of individual stories of fear and anxiety. They are not represented by the most prominent people on Russia’s wanted list, such is Akhmed Zakayev in the U.K., whose embarrassing extradition farce has not been forgotten by the officials in charge, or Ilyas Akhmadov in the U.S., for whom an extradition claim is being prepared. Let us hope that the two-year old statements by the then Moscow-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov that anyone who refuses to return to Chechnya is a criminal and terrorist will still sound as ridiculous in 2006 as they did when they were made.
Regarding future humanitarian funding, the two largest donors, the EU and USA, have long had problems justifying to their taxpayers that a G8 country is in need of international humanitarian assistance. A recent announcement by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office on their future funding plans already signals a funding decrease, which is linked to their humanitarian mandate. The authorities are hoping for more substantial financial injections from abroad and hoping for more long-term, development-oriented investments, as there are allegedly no more emergency needs. How could there be in a G8 country? The contribution by the second biggest donor to the region, the United States, will also likely be decreased given the humanitarian aid needed in the country's flooded south.
These issues raise several important questions, to which we need to find answers throughout the year. Whatever picture the Kremlin paints, European governments should not be fooled, but should try to get a better understanding of the situation on the ground. One of the first questions to ask could be: Why is it so difficult for journalists as well as (EU and US funded) humanitarian organizations and government fact-finding missions to enter Chechnya if the situation is allegedly so calm.
In return, the questions to the governments should be: Will additional funds aid in Chechnya’s restoration or will 2006 be the final alibi year for the international community in handing full responsibility to the new G8 leader? Will EU countries continue in their somewhat peculiar application of the Dublin standards with some refugee groups being more likely to be returned to the first-safe countries than others, and some receiving refugee status more easily than others? Will this mean that Chechens can start grouping again at the Polish border or even that international protection for them will be lifted because the road home is allegedly open and free?
The international community has shown a strange weakness for merely watching humanitarian catastrophes and nodding in horror. This was the case with Rwanda as well as the Balkans, where timely action would have saved thousands of lives, although these regions and situations are not comparable. The activities regarding Chechnya have so far been ample in humanitarian assistance, but largely unimpressive in terms of political understanding, negotiations and action. Russia’s intensified charm tour linked to its return to the top international stage will hopefully not lead us to intensify our nodding, because, as Soviet history shows, if you nod too long, your head will fall off. Let it be said that the Chechnya of 2006, however changed during the past six years, is still one of the most dangerous places on earth to be in. And this is unlikely to change in the near future.
Usman Dikayev and Petr Janouch are Prague Watchdog's irregular contributors.