The “vanished” grave
By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog
The recent story surrounding a newly discovered mass grave in Chechnya has ended, if not with a complete fiasco, then at least with a partial one: although the grave was correctly identified, no corpses were discovered there. It’s an outcome that was to be expected. The republic’s human rights ombudsman, who eight years after the event suddenly "remembered" one of the most terrible crimes of the beginning of the second war, when Russian forces subjected a convoy of refugees to artillery strikes and rocket attacks near the large village settlement of Goryacheistochnenskaya, more or less played into the hands of the Russian prosecutor's office. For after all, as everyone knows, if there are no corpses there can have been no crime. Russia’s prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, now has every justification for refusing to take the case under his "special control".
None of this would have happened if ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev and his colleagues had carefully and attentively read the reports by independent human rights workers. In early June 2000 those workers were present at the opening of a mass grave which had been found at an asphalt plant, and they gave a detailed description of the people whose corpses were found there and in what condition. A name-by-name, though incomplete, list of those were killed is given, for example, on pages 344-348 of the third volume of the series People Live Here, which was published by Memorial in 2006 and which chronicles the violence in Chechnya. A fairly detailed account of this was published on the organization’s web site immediately after the exhumation of the corpses.
Moreover, for a number of years now Memorial workers have been demanding an objective investigation of what happened. They have sent formal requests to the prosecutor's office, and have taken every available opportunity of repeatedly drawing attention to the tragedy that befell the people who attempted to leave Grozny, Argun, Staraya Sunzha and other populated areas along the “safety corridor” that was designated and promised by the Russian military command. Those areas were, however shelled by Russian troops, and this was brought home with particular clarity in late February 2005, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for the aerial bombing of refugees near the village of Shaami-Yurt, an attack carried out on the very same day and even at the very same time as the shelling of Goryacheistochnenskaya. In other words, the mass grave was no secret, and the grave itself had long ceased to exist.
Then why all the stir? Is it possible that the ombudsman and his colleagues really have grown concerned about the problem of impunity which (and this is a current opinion) if it is not solved now may become the cause of another conflict with Russia, like Stalin's deportation of the Chechens and Ingush? Or, in simpler and more prosaic terms: do the report of the mass grave and the demand for an investigation into the circumstances of its origins merely represent a public relations exercise, a way of scoring political points with regard to something that really worries people, something that keeps them awake at nights?
To these questions there is no simple answer. All we can be certain about is that the government which established itself in Chechnya in the course of a bitter war (and Nurdi Nukhazhiyev is one of that government’s most active supporters) cannot simply brush aside the feelings of local residents. The allegations against military servicemen and members of the security services, the periodically issued figures for dead and missing citizens, figures that are significantly higher than those gathered by human rights workers during many years of effort – these are also no accident. The republic’s Moscow-backed leadership desperately needs the legitimacy it can receive from the people it has been given to “rule”. In its attempts to obtain it, the leadership ever more frequently embarks on a verbal war with its direct employer. The logic of the conflict’s Chechenization is quietly beginning to malfunction.
Until now it has always been claimed that the essence of this policy is the transfer of power to Chechens under Moscow’s control. It is said that without their help no final suppression of the armed resistance and return of stability to the region is possible. But the Russian army and the country’s numerous law enforcement agencies have themselves not done a “bad job” of handling such a task. At any rate, the high level of "success" in the fight against the separatists that is commonly attributed to Kadyrov’s forces was actually attained much earlier – when in the course of bloody “mop-ups” the units of the resistance were flushed out of the cities and villages, and it became more costly for the population to support them. And even today, all significant operations within the republic are conducted jointly by the local and federal siloviki. It is also, I think, easy to see who can manage without whose assistance. One would be foolish to suppose that the Russian armed forces, many million strong and equipped with the latest technology, would be unable to dispense with two or three (how many of them are still left after Kadyrov’s purges?) battalions of local collaborators.
Chechenization was originally conceived for a different purpose. Faced with an escalating guerrilla war and unwilling to enter into talks, the Russian government began deliberately to implement a policy of terror against the entire Chechen population. However, operations of this kind could not be carried out without their costs – above all, in Russia’s relations with the West. The “mop-ups” conducted in towns and villages, the extrajudicial executions and abductions provoked harsh criticism of Russia. The country’s leadership suffered losses, let us say, in terms of harm to its image. No one was prepared to impose economic sanctions, and the Western governments who were most critical (they, as a rule, most of all!) duly continued to buy oil and gas, indirectly financing those same executions and abductions. But, as we all know, compared to one’s image, reality is nothing. Vladimir Putin managed to insulate himself from unnecessary criticism by investing the conflict in the Chechen Republic with the character of a civil war which compelled and in some cases simply allowed some Chechens to commit acts of violence against other Chechens.
If we go back in time, we notice that events in the North Caucasus began to recede from the agendas of such bodies as, for example, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly or the UN Human Rights Commission almost immediately after the start of Chechenization. Along with the politicians of Western countries, who had become tired of conflict and were willing to forget about it at the first opportunity, the independent human rights defenders also took the bait. For them, the Russian military retreated to second place, and the role of chief villain was now played by Ramzan Kadyrov. In particular, everyone tried to avoid talking about what had led him to power, and supplied him with arms and money. And also, incidentally, about the fact that the vast majority of crimes were committed directly by the federals themselves and that almost all of them remain (and, as long as they don’t try to slip off the hook of Chechenization, will probably continue to remain) unpunished...
The present Chechen government finds it preferable to appear as saviours of the nation. Saviours, not from the separatist guerrillas, and not even from the Islamic fundamentalists, but from the federals. There seems not to have been an instance where any Chechen government representative has endorsed the bombing and shelling of convoys of refugees, the actions of the death squads or the use of terror during the “mop-ups” – i.e. violence against the civilian population. On the contrary, they have constantly tried to persuade the people that although the situation was disastrous, it drastically changed when they came to power. And in this, albeit hedged with many reservations, there is a grain of truth. Seen against the background of the majority of Russian generals, even the most odious of the commanders of Chechnya’s present-day law enforcement agencies is a mere imitator, a student, although the deeds of men like these may appear quite abhorrent. Even so, it is their own countrymen that the local law enforcers kill and maim, rather than the representatives of an alien people. Or they simply stand beside those who commit the crimes, nodding their heads with understanding. And also, if we are to try to assess the motives which guide such men, we realize that we are dealing with a position that is morally flawed in the extreme, one that draws the arguments in its own defence from a primitive urge to prolong its biological existence.
The ambivalence of the position of Chechen officials (although they are actually appointed to their posts by Moscow and are under its control in all matters, they argue that they are rescuing the people from Moscow) gives the members of non-governmental organizations a small but real chance of carrying out work that is more effective. During the second war, the NGOs collected an enormous amount of factual material, prepared descriptions of all the major “mop-ups”, recorded the instances of artillery and missile strikes on civilian sites, and compiled lists of citizens who were killed or abducted. In addition, they have succeeded in obtaining a legal assessment of the conflict in Chechnya. For example, in the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the actions of Russian military service personnel are characterized as crimes against humanity. In the assessments of the legal experts there is also another definition: these are war crimes with no statutory limitation. Only one small thing is lacking – the attempt to punish those responsible. And here, for the moment, it is not really possible to dispense with the republic’s present government.
It will not be possible to obtain justice through the Russian judicial system for rather a long time yet. There are no particular grounds for hoping that a special tribunal on the lines of those that were set up for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia will be created. A resolution to this effect would have to be adopted by the UN Security Council, where Russia, assuming that other countries would dare to go along that path, has the right of veto. The International Criminal Court is also out of the question, because the Russian leadership has not yet ratified its statute.
Of all the available mechanisms for the restoration of justice, only the Strasbourg court is available to Chechens. But that court only considers cases of specific crimes against the person and in no way affects the system of killings and abductions that has been created in Chechnya. As a result, the creators of the system and those who have headed it (in particular, the generals who have ordered “mop-ups”) remain outside the court’s jurisdiction. In this situation it may be instructive to learn from the experience of the former Yugoslav republics, where the investigation of crimes was initiated by social activists. So-called “truth commissions” were set up which passed the materials gathered in the course of independent investigations to the international tribunal that was subsequently established. In the present-day Chechnya work of this kind can only be organized with the with the consent of the republic’s authorities.
But will the government play ball? The experience of several judgments against Russian military personnel shows that it may. Thus, Colonel Budanov was convicted after the intervention of President Akhmad Kadyrov. Until then, all the efforts of human rights workers and victims’ lawyers to institute criminal proceedings came up against the court’s unwillingness to pass sentence on a “Hero of Russia” – on various pretexts, including a consideration of his mental state. The same thing happened with the Ulman group. Although members of the NGOs brought the spetsnaz officers before the court, the officers were found guilty only after the republic’s authorities became involved.
However, here again it is evidently better not to be under any delusions. Representatives of Chechnya’s pro-Russian government intervened in these cases only after it became obvious that the federal officials were not going to lose any sleep because of criminals. Moreover, for many months both cases remained a matter of rumour among residents of the republic, and this made it easy to construct the image of a conscientious and disinterested defender. And the fact is that public relations exercises of this kind will continue to be the rule of thumb in Chechnya. People are starting to emerge from the state of shock caused by the war. They are starting to grow tired of official events like the artificially staged “Noah’s Ark” film festival recently held in Grozny. And even the fact that something more resembling life and less akin to war has been established in the republic will not be able to remove the mortal concern from human souls: what is to be done with those who took the lives of others in such large numbers?
In its search for an answer to this question the government will periodically resort to public relations exercises. The NGOs must try to make sure that these exercises do not mimic Nukhazhiyev’s latest effort, which involved the exhumation of a grave that was actually exhumed eight years ago.
Usam Baysayev is an associate of the Ingushetian office of the “Memorial” human rights centre.
www.memo.ru archive photo
(Translation by DM)