About Varvara Pakhomenko
Varvara Pakhomen is an expert at the Demos Centre in Moscow
Articles by Varvara Pakhomenko
Getting rid of presidents in Northern Caucasian republics rarely ends well. An explosion is bad news: when Akhmat Kadyrov was killed in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov came to power. When Murat Zyazikov was replaced in Ingushetia, Basaev immediately attacked and anti-terrorist activity in the republic became much worse. The assassination attempt on Ingushetia's Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has brought Ramzan Kadyrov into the picture once more.
The day of the attempt, 22 June, Kadyrov announced after a meeting with Medvedev that the Russian president had asked him to take charge of counter-terrorism in Ingushetia. He added that the prosecutor's office and interior ministry could do whatever they considered necessary, but that he himself would be guided by the laws of the mountains in dealing with the people who had tried to kill his "brother", the president of Ingushetia. Ramzan Kadyrov had previously said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy that he would personally deal with those who even knew anything about the murder of his father (let alone those that carried it out) - and now they are all dead. The prosecutor's office took no action against Kadyrov after these virtual admissions of extrajudicial executions and we can be sure that they will not take any now.
The issue of how to control the war on terrorism in Ingushetia is becoming critical. Ingushetia is currently among the least economically developed regions of Russia, with the highest level of unemployment, but also with one of the highest percentages of young people in the country. The local authorities - at any rate, during the period of Murat Zyazikov's rule - did virtually nothing to address social and economic problems. For the last few years almost every day has seen the murder of members of law-enforcement organisations or other government representatives. So "controlling the anti-terrorist operation" here effectively means controlling the republic.
Actually the possible unification of Chechnya and Ingushetia has been on the cards for a long time. Or rather the annexation i.e. a return to the protection of its "elder brother", as throughout almost the entire Soviet period.
Ingushetia's Soviet history
The Ingushetia Autonomous Oblast with its capital in Vladikavkaz existed for just 10 years (1924-34) as part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
From 1934 Ingushetia was part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR with its capital in Grozny (from 1934 to 1936 the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Oblast). All that time the Ingush, who with the Chechens belong to the group of Vainakh peoples, shared the fate of the Chechens.
By 1939 there were a total of 92,000 Ingush living in the Soviet Union, while there were over 408,000 Chechens. In 1944 both these peoples suffered a common tragedy - they were declared traitors and deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Approximately a third of the population died in the process and their autonomy was destroyed.
It was only in 1957, after a law on rehabilitation had been passed, that the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic was restored and the Ingush and Chechens returned from exile. According to data for 1959, there were a total of 56,000 Ingush and around 250,000 Chechens living in the RSFSR (and although the total number of them in the Soviet Union reached the figures of 1939 by 1959, only half of the Ingush and Chechens returned home).
About one sixth of the former Ingush lands were not returned to the restored Chechen-Ingush autonomy: the greater part was transferred to North Ossetia. The largest area that became part of Ossetia in 1957 was the Prigorodny region. In 1944 around 30,000 Ingush were living there (almost a third of the ethnic group), accounting for over 90% of the population of the region.
After the deportation of the Ingush, the Prigorodny region and a number of other Ingush territories were settled by Ossetians from the mountainous part of South Ossetia. When the Malgobek and Nazran regions were returned to the Chechen-Ingush ASSR in 1957, the settlers from South Ossetia were not allowed to go back to Georgia. They had to make do with the Prigorodny region and this process continued after 1957 as well. By 1959 the population of the Prigorodny region was 63% Ossetian, 19% Russian and only 12% Ingush. (In 1990, Ingush made up 44% of the population of the region, or 17,500 people). Although the Ingush were not formally prohibited from returning to the region, the authorities de facto not only gave them no assistance, but actually prevented them from doing so. Many of the Ingush who were unable to return to the Prigorodny region, never saw their native villages again and settled in Grozny.
Relationship with Chechnya
For almost 60 years the Ingush remained in the shadow of the more numerous Chechen people. All the major industries, higher education facilities and administrative buildings were located in Grozny. Ingushetia remained a primarily rural area throughout this time, and did not develop in any way. The Ingush intelligentsia was also mainly concentrated in Grozny or in Vladikavkaz. Formally rehabilitated, but still "unreliable", the Vainakhs were hardly ever allowed to take positions of leadership, or work in qualified positions in their own republic - and this affected the Ingush more than the Chechens.
When Chechnya declared independence in the autumn of 1991, the Ingush confirmed at a national referendum that Ingushetia was part of the Russian Federation and no longer belonged to the splinter Chechen-Ingush Republic. On 4 June 1992 the Supreme Council of the RSFSR passed the law "On the formation of the Ingush Republic as part of the Russian Federation". This had a lot to do with the understanding that if they seceded from Russia, the Ingush would lose any hope of getting back the Prigorodny region. In the spring of 1991 the Supreme Council of the RSFSR passed the law "On the rehabilitation of repressed people", which among other things recognised "their right to the restoration of territorial integrity".
However, the first law did not determine the administrative borders of the new territorial formation, and the second ("On rehabilitation") failed to lay down a procedure for the return of the territories. Georgia's claims on South Ossetia at the time of the collapse of communism led to a new wave of refugees into the Prigorodny region. All this effectively planted a time bomb that was to explode less than six months later when Ingushetia became involved in an armed conflict in the Prigorodny region of Northern Ossetia, the consequences of which in many ways still determine policies in the region.
One of these consequences was a wave of refugees. Almost all ethnic Ingush were forced to leave the territory of North Ossetia. Ingushetia, which had a total population of around 170,000 in the national census of 1989, took in 30-60,000 people, which created huge problems for the republic.
It was this week-long conflict that brought the Ingush together, gave them an acute sense that they were a separate people, and that their republic should be an independent administrative entity. So you might say that modern Ingushetia came into being as a result of the clashes with Ossetia when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The border with Ossetia was practically closed for the Ingush after this conflict. At the same time, neighbouring Chechnya had unilaterally announced independence and was leading its own internal political life, keeping its distance from the Prigorodny conflict. To this day the Ingush resent the fact that the Chechens failed to come to their aid at this time.
When the Soviet army general Ruslan Aushev came to power in Ingushetia, it embarked on a political life of its own. It had to demonstrate its independence not only to its neighbours, but to the rest of Russia, which the Ingush felt had treated it unjustly, joining the conflict entirely on the side of their opponents.
President Aushev succeeded in having Ingushetia declared a privileged economic zone. From 1 July 1994 all enterprises registered in the republic were exempted for a year from paying local taxes, and received considerable privileges in paying federal taxes. As a result of Aushev's efforts, by the end of 1994 there was a state concern, Ingushneftegazkhimprom, uniting 14 oil and gas processing enterprises, the first asphalt factory had opened and there were regular flight to and from Moscow.
Refugees from the 1st Chechen War
However, the period of calm was not to last long. In December 1994 the first Chechen war broke out and, although military operations did not spread to Ingushetia, there was a wave of refugees from Chechnya. There are no precise figures, but estimates suggest this was around 150,000 people. The combination of new refugees and those from the Prigorodny region proved an insufferable burden for the republic. Ingushetia became a hub of refugee camps.
After the end of the war in 1996, the majority of Chechen refugees returned home, while many Ingush who had been living in Grozny preferred to stay in Ingushetia and settle down there, closer to their relatives. The Ingush intelligentsia returned, which was important for the subsequent development of the republic, especially as the exodus of the non-Vainakh population was continuing. The population of the capital at the time, Nazran, grew swiftly: in 1989 it had been under 20,000, but by this time it had grown to 125,000.
The second Chechen war meant a new wave of refugees for the republic, bigger than ever before. Approximate estimates show that around 350,000 people left Chechnya at that time. General Shamanov decreed that all regions of the Russian Federation were to close their administrative borders to refugees. President Aushev alone refused to do this, which saved thousands of lives. Ingushetia took almost all the migrants from Chechnya and the population of the republic doubled over several months. Subsequently, the number of refugees dropped to 150,000 over the course of half a year, and remained at this level until the end of 2002.
Humanitarian organisations, both international and Russian, helped the Ingush government to deal with this very difficult situation and until 2007 their missions were based in the peaceful city of Nazran. Their work included the distribution of humanitarian aid, supporting educational projects and giving mini-loans to help small businesses. The Ingush themselves say that there were many positive changes when the Chechens came to Ingushetia. The service sector began to develop - shops, hair salons and sewing workshops opened up and privately-owned public transport became more efficient. However, the large number of refugees also contributed to a rise in crime, and in a country with major employment problems, humanitarian aid tended to corrupt people - especially the younger generation. As the situation in Chechnya became relatively stable, the number of refugees dropped, but there are still quite a lot of them.
Last year a Chechen refugee in the village of Ekazhevo stopped my colleague and me on the street. She had seen that we were clearly not locals (in other words, Muscovites - almost no one else comes here), so she threw on a jacket and rushed out, thinking that perhaps we could help her. She had been living in a barn with her children for almost 10 years.
With the refugees almost inevitably came the insurgents. Anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya were continuing, so militants in Ingushetia were no longer just "sitting it out": after 2002 they started operating from inside the republic. Counter-terrorism became part of life in the republic and led to mass crimes and human rights violations: militants attack police and the military, officials are killed, there are "special operations", in which law-enforcement officers carry out executions without trials and kidnap people.
Originally the armed underground consisted mainly of Chechen rebels, who had moved to the neighbouring republic to escape from federal troops, but later (and to a large degree because of the brutality of the law-enforcement officers), the Ingush began to take a more active role in the underground. Once peaceful Ingushetia is no more.
The Chechen wars exacerbated internal problems, but they also complicated relations between the Ingush and the outside world. The average Russian citizen cannot really tell a Chechen from an Ingush, and neither can the average policeman or any other government representative. Negative attitudes towards Chechens began to be extended to the related Vainakh people, the Ingush. This made it difficult for them to move around and affected their relations with the rest of the country.
The beginning of 2002 was a turning point in the life of the republic: Ruslan Aushev, who had led the country since 1993, resigned. He had called for an immediate ceasefire by federal troops in Chechnya and peace talks. He was accused of sympathising with Chechen insurgents. Former allies within the republic accused him of establishing a dictatorship. In December 2001 Aushev stood down.
In April 2002 presidential elections were held. The FSB general Murat Zyazikov was actively promoted by central government and in the second round on 28 April 2002 he was elected president of Ingushetia. The authorities lost no opportunity of manipulating the elections and made good use of the advantages of administrative office.
On 21-22 June 2004 the republic was stunned when a large group of militants led by Shamil Basaev seized several towns in the space of a few hours, including the cities of Nazran and Karabulak. The militants established checkpoints at crossings, checked documents and shot law-enforcement officers on the spot. This was the largest operation by insurgents in Ingushetia. It resulted in the deaths of 78 law-enforcement officers and escalating internal conflict.
The terrorist act in the North Ossetian city of Beslan on 1-3 September 2004 led to a new escalation of the conflict in the Prigorodny regions. Ethnic Ingush took part in the seizure of the school, where over 300 people were killed and immediately after the tragedy there were calls in the Ossetian media for " revenge on the Ingush".
In the second half of 2007-2008 attacks on uniformed officers and government representatives and acts of terrorism took place almost every day. In the summer of 2007 an additional military contingent of 2,500 Russian troops was sent to Ingushetia to maintain order.
Now there are ever fewer people in Ingushetia: the entire population is under half a million.... This winter a friend who came to Moscow to work told me: "Yesterday I waited about half an hour for a friend in the metro underpass. I saw 15 or so people from Ingushetia. I know the Ingush by their faces. Sometimes I think that over the last year and a half there are more of them in Moscow than in Ingushetia. Whoever you ask about, they're all here. It's all rather strange. But what sort of a life can people have there now?"
At the same time the inefficiency of the local government became a real problem. President Murat Zyazikov's powers were extended in 2005 at the request of the Russian President, but he had no influence on the situation and was unable to solve of the most important problems. He failed to protect people from insurgent attacks or the lawlessness of uniformed officers, to ensure economic development, create jobs, to uphold what the majority of the population sees as their national interests, or deal with corruption.
In 2007 social dissatisfaction in society reached a critical level. There was no democratic system for exerting pressure on the government, so new forms of protest started appearing - mass street rallies, an attempt to revive the traditional legislative body, the Mekkh Kkhel, and the use of various information technologies. The local political opposition took up the movement that had begun at grass roots level with demands to stop the practice of kidnapping people.
Protests continued for over a year and resulted in the replacement of the president in October-November 2008. Murat Zyazikov was removed from his post by a decree of the Russian president. The new president was a native of Ingushetia, career army officer Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.
But in spite of all the changes and upheavals the republic continued to exist. An existence full of resentment and in complete isolation. They can't travel freely westwards to Ossetia because of the conflict that flared up in 1992 when communism ended, and also because of the Beslan incident in 2004. But their relationship with Chechnya is much more complicated. Or rather, much more painful. The Chechens are the people closest to the Ingush, they share a common history, a common life, but... they can't go there anymore, and a return to Grozny for the Ingush is not possible.
The Ingush, who fled from the war in Grozny to their villages, found their apartments destroyed or looted when they returned. They had not been able return to check their homes as often as the Chechens - the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya with its checkpoints became one of the most dangerous places in the entire Caucasus. After the war, when there are no relatives around to help, it is not so easy to rebuild your house. For many, Grozny simply ceased to exist.
Ingushetia, the smallest republic of all the Russian republics, is shaped like a telephone receiver - 50-60 km wide in the southern and northern extremities and not more than 20 km in the middle. Squashed between two neighbouring republics, for the Ingush the border represents the dividing line between home and a hostile outside world.
This is why in Russia today many Ingush have become refugees twice over: first they were forced to abandon their homes in the Prigorodny region and begin a new life in Grozny, then they had to flee again from the Chechen wars. The more traditional rural Ingush did not find it easy to become integrated, even in Chechen society, and to this day Ingush families try not only to marry their daughter to an Ingush man, but to marry their son to an Ingush woman as well. Once in Ingushetia, they are often unable to resettle in rural life after having lived in one of the largest and most developed cities of the North Caucasus.
Magomed left Grozny during the first war and now lives in Karabulak. He only remembers Grozny occasionally:
"Go back there? What have they got there? I was in Grozny recently, on the street I grew up on, where I spent almost all of my childhood. I don't know anyone there now - just one or two families have remained. The people who used to live there are not there any more. I consider myself a local here now."
There are many "locals" here now. Very many. What used to be the Grozny urban intelligentsia (those who didn't move further away) have ended up in small, rural Ingushetia. They live in the town of Nazran, which is essentially an overgrown village, but a peaceful place. Even if former teachers from Grozny universities say with a sigh that there used to be several technical colleges there and now there are five universities, they don't want to go back either. They don't even want to go back to a Grozny that is being actively rebuilt. A Grozny that has ceased to become an anti-terrorist operation zone:
"Is there a feeling of stability there? Of course not. Where could it come from? It's a serious ordeal when a person is living there, going to work and bringing up children, when suddenly bombs start falling. We had to flee to this place, and if we go back, no one guarantees that we won't have to flee again tomorrow. So perhaps we are better off here."
Of course, not all the Ingush left Chechnya. There were some who survived both wars. And some of them didn't. In 2007 the European court for human rights handed down a decision on another "Chechen case" - the Tangieva case. The elderly parents of a friend and colleague were killed together with their Russian neighbour in Grozny, in their own house, during a "clean-up operation" in January 2000. After a few months and with great difficulty, their children were able to take their bodies to Ingushetia and bury them there. They didn't return to Chechnya. Shamil is the only one of the brothers and sisters who remained in Grozny, in his parents' burnt-out house. Now the house has been almost completely rebuilt, but as soon as they can, both he and his relatives want to rebuild their house in their native village in the Prigorodny region.
Ingushetia as a transit point
After 17 years of independence in the shadow of the more famous Chechnya, the Ingush still feel that they are regarded as an add-on and people often don't even know about the existence of Ingushetia:
"On many sites, when you want to fill in the box about where you are from, you write Checheno-Ingushetia. I recently registered on the Classmates [Friends Reunited equivalent ed.] site, and Ingushetia was not there at all. Our towns - Nazran and Karabulak - were classified as part of the Chechen republic, i.e. it didn't even show that this was Ingushetia. So I ended up writing that I was from the Chechen Republic, Nazran".
Chechnya has overshadowed almost everything: by now Ingushetia had become simply a transit point for human rights advocates, journalists and politicians. Planes flew here, there was a hotel, there was Internet, there was running water - but almost everyone was going on to Chechnya. Then it became possible to fly directly to Chechnya, Internet access improved there, and Ingushetia turned into one of the least stable republics in the Caucasus.
People started to talk and write about Ingushetia. At the end of 2007 a paper by the Memorial Human Rights Centre was published, "Whither Ingushetia?" and in December 2008 there was a Human Rights Watch report "As if they've come from the moon! Anti-terrorism, human rights violations and impunity in Ingushetia". Moscow journalists began coming here to report on protest meetings. The local authorities, unaccustomed to so much attention, clearly didn't know what to do about it - journalists and human rights advocates were kidnapped and beaten up, or "deported" to neighbouring Ossetia. Press conferences were organized in Moscow to explain the hostile actions of the slanderers.
In neighbouring Chechnya there are ongoing building programmes, the young president is bringing money into the republic and the job opportunities are better. People in Ingushetia may feel envious of this, but when Ramzan Kadyrov came to power and there was talk of unifying the two republics, the Ingush were almost unanimously opposed. When asked why, they simply said: "Then there will be a war here too. There will be a lot of blood".
Despite the poverty of the region, the Ingush understand very well what is happening in Chechnya. When asked about independence from Russia, they say: "No. We remember too well what happened to Chechnya." They also know how the Chechen law-enforcement officers work: how they came to refugee camps in Ingushetia and took people away, or shot Ingush policemen who tried to inspect them. They also know that if they become part of Chechnya again, then they will be the "younger brother": they won't be able to take any decisions, and they won't be able to return to "their" Grozny anyway - simply because this Grozny no longer exists.
The issue of national self-determination became a hot topic again at the end of last year. The occasion for this was the Federal Law „On organising local government in the Republic of Ingushetia and the Chechen Republic" of 24 November 2008. The republic has disputed territories on all sides, so there was active discussion about how the border with Chechnya would be determined, and most importantly what would happen to villages of the Prigorodny region. The passing of the law practically coincided with the appointment of the new Ingush president.
Kadyrov's pretensions to Ingushetia
One of the main disappointments concerning Yevkurov that I picked up in Ingushetia was that he made no attempt to get the Prigorodny region back. All he did was declare that refugees should be able to return there. The Prigorodny question still comes up in almost every conversation with any resident of Ingushetia. In the past people have even said that if Kadyrov were here in Ingushetia, then perhaps he would be able to get the region back.
Kadyrov's current move on Ingushetia is not his first attempt to lay claim to neighbouring territory. When he was the first deputy prime minister of Chechnya in 2005, Ramzan Kadyrov said that the most important problem for the newly-elected Chechen parliament was to extend the borders. "This question has been dragging on for about 15 years. During this time, the borders were moved by anybody who felt like it, and the territory of Chechnya has been significantly reduced." He emphasised that "...the issue of Chechen native land concerns the whole people. Now the time has come for parliament to investigate."
The Dagestan and Ingush authorities alike expressed their bewilderment over this statement. But back then Ramzan Kadyrov was only deputy prime minister, and it seemed that this was simply the naked ambition of a young leader who didn't have enough power.
The Chechen leadership subsequently acted more cautiously. In 2006 only the chairman of the National Assembly of the Chechen republic, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, expressed an opinion on the territorial claims. He said that a number of Chechen regions were located inside Dagestan, and that the unification of the Chechen Republic and the Republic of Ingushetia was essential, because the division had taken place artificially and without a referendum. Ramzan Kadyrov tried to distance himself from these statements, saying that this was the personal opinion of the Chairman of the National Assembly, and in no way connected with the official position of the Chechen authorities. However, the official who came out with this controversial statement which ostensibly went against the official position of the national leader (not yet the president at that time) continued to hold his post - clearly there were no real disagreements on this issue.
The following year, when he became president, Kadyrov began to declare his ambitions to extend his informal suzerainty in the region. But this time he went about it much more tactfully and at a different level: at a meeting of leaders of North Caucasus regions, the Chechen president proposed to meet each month to discuss common problems.
The future of Ingushetia, Russia's youngest republic, has been much discussed over the past few years. But now, after Ramzan Kadyrov has moved in there, it is time to formulate the question differently: will it now exist at all? They've had 17 years of independence, but to what end? 17 years of living with a feeling of injustice, that they've lost everything and will have to start from scratch. A feeling that all this has to be endured, because things are even worse for their neighbours and that all there is to hope for is that one day this will end.
Kadyrov has come to Ingushetia, but I don't think we should expect that he will bring us money, as he did to Chechnya. He has none of the right connections here yet, nor anyone who is personally obliged to him. He doesn't have a local support system, whereby everyone is obliged to pay tribute to him. The danger is that the Ingush won't get from Kadyrov the things that they like about him - only the things that they don't.
After the August 2008 war in Georgia, people in Ingushetia didn't wonder (as they did in Chechnya): "How come Russia gave independence to these people who only number in the tens of thousands, but not to us, of whom there are a million?!" But they did wonder: "What about the Ossetians? Are they really independent now?" What the Ingush remember is that at the fall of communism in 1992 Ossetians had come from South Ossetia to fight them.
In August 2008 central TV channel correspondents were saying that Ossetia had been, and remains, Russia's outpost in the Caucasus. The Russian Prosecutor's Office was talking about genocide. And yet again the Ingush got the feeling that no one cared about them.
When Zyazikov was dismissed and Yevkurov appointed, many people became hopeful again and some even came back to live in Ingushetia. But now there's Kadyrov.
On the day after the Chechen President's statement, Ruslan Aushev, who had refused all proposals to return to the republic after 2002, announced publicly that he was ready to be the leader of Ingushetia while Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was in hospital, if everything was organised according to correct legal procedures. Aushev also said that the president of the neighbouring republic had enough problems of his own. The Ingush opposition, citing Ruslan Aushev's statement, began gathering signatures to support this course of action. Aushev was forced to explain that he had not called on anyone to take any action.
Kadyrov's reaction was immediate. He described Aushev's statements as inappropriate and incorrect, and announced that it was under Aushev's rule that "bandits of all kinds had made their nests in Ingushetia". Kadyrov believes that Aushev not only took no action against members of illegal armed formations, but had "concealed Maskhadov, Basaev and other heads of bandit groups on the territory of Ingushetia". "We pointed out on several occasions during Aushev's rule that there were militant ringleaders hiding out in Ingushetia, that they were being sheltered. Aushev reacted badly to these reports, and took no steps to fight terrorism as we did in Chechnya". "Today in Ingushetia, the results of Aushev's irresponsible attitude to the problem of terrorism are still making themselves felt," the Chechen president concluded.
Now that Kadyrov is making all these statements after the assassination attempt on Yevkurov, giving orders to the Chechen law-enforcement officers to deal with the terrorist underground in Ingushetia in two weeks, we should remember his speech in 2005 about the poor work of the law-enforcement bodies of neighbouring republics in dealing with armed opposition groups. "Militants feel comfortable in Dagestan and Ingushetia, and some other republics. In my opinion the Dagestan Interior Ministry is particularly ineffective in dealing with them. They relax there, get treatment for their injuries, and then slip across the border into Chechnya, kill state officials and policemen, and leave to go into hiding until the next time". At the same time, Kadyrov claimed there were no ethnic Chechens left among the insurgents in Chechnya itself.
Kadyrov talked about the rebels in Ingushetia and Dagestan in 2005 at the same time as he was making claims on the neighbouring territories.
It seems very unlikely that Aushev will stand in for Yevkurov in Ingushetia now, even temporarily, in which case the Russian authorities will have to make Kadyrov's appointment official. The Kremlin does not look as though it is prepared to do this or that it even wants to. So the issue now is not only whether Ingushetia continues as an independent republic. It's not just a question of whether the Ingush will continue to be loyal to Russia. In the end it's about what Russia decides to do with its policy in the Caucasus as a whole.
 V. Belozerov. Etnicheksya Karta severnogo Kavkaza (Ethnic Map of the North Caucasus). Moscow, OGI, 2005. 304 p.
 In 2007, in connection with the escalating situation in the republic and shots fired at the "UN town" in Nazran, the UN raised the danger level of Ingushetia to 4 points on the 5-point scale, and moved its offices to Vladikavkaz. All other international organizations subsequently followed their example.
 Murat Zyazikov did not wait until the end of his presidential term. In accordance with the new procedure of appointing regional heads, the question of confidence was put before the president of the Russian Federation. The republican parliament was asked to approve the extension for another term.
Nothing out of the ordinary - a soldier deserts his military unit. For anyone who has any idea what our army is like, there is nothing surprising about this. According to official data, around 2,000 soldiers in Russia leave their military units every year. Human rights advocates say that the real figure is at least double that. Statistics show that most soldiers flee the army because of bullying. Only less than a year ago, the Supreme Court vindicated soldiers who deserted for just this reason. Until now the punishment for leaving a military unit, whatever the reason, was quite strict: up to 10 years' imprisonment.
So there would be nothing unusual about the desertion of 21-year-old national service corporal, Alexander Glukhov from the small Udmurt town of Sarapul... if he had not turned up in a neighbouring country and appealed to the president on central television to grant him asylum. Russian soldier Glukhov fled from Georgia to Georgia, or from South Ossetia to Georgia - the interpretation depends on one's political views. So does the name of the disputed area where his division is deployed - Akhalhori or Leningori (the Georgian and Ossetian versions of the name respectively).
While the politicians cross swords, Russian soldiers and Ossetian armed formations remain in the strategically important area that was occupied after the events of August and local residents continue to leave it.
For several months human rights advocates have been raising the alarm over the catastrophic situation which has developed in this region: the vast majority of the population, which until August last year consisted of ethnic Georgians, is running away. The main danger is not the bands of armed Ossetian looters, who are still roaming the region. A much greater danger comes from the impending mandatory issue of Ossetian passports, currently being talked about by the Tskhinvali authorities. There are also concerns that entry to Georgia - which has now been significantly complicated - will be closed completely by the new Ossetian authorities.
In Ossetia itself, they are saying that this region is needed more by Russia than Georgia, which does not have enough people to settle even the territory that was previously under their control. This is why as early as mid-August Russian troops were sent into the region, which is strategically important from a military point of view. Before the war Russian specialists were building a road to link Leningori with the rest of Ossetia, as the remote region could only be reached via the central Georgian highway. They didn't manage to finish building it, so the soldiers, who were transported here in armed and off-road vehicles, found themselves effectively cut of from the outside world.
In August my colleagues and I encountered occasional Russian checkpoints in Georgian villages which were in the final stages of burning down. Then the soldiers stopped us for only one reason, it seemed - to ask for cigarettes or fuel to cook supper. But that was summer, it was +30° and the local Ossetians were still happy to feed the soldiers of the liberating army. It seemed back then that the war was already over, and it would soon be time to go back to Russia.
But time was passing and many were unable to return. Contract soldiers began to grumble: "I served in Botlikh (Dagestan), and received 14-15,000 roubles a month. Things were normal there: they fed us well and the conditions of service were OK. When we were sent here, they promised to pay us $54 a day, but so far we have only received 8,000 rubles a month. We weren't paid the active service supplement either. They tell us that now we're a checkpoint, and we'll be on duty until the spring. We were sent here without our consent, which is against the terms of our contract. When we were sent here we didn't sign anything - we just came when the alarm was raised, and that's it. I want to move back to Botlikh. I don't want to spend winter here. The conditions are terrible."
As well as complaining about the terms of their contract, the soldiers serving in the Akhalgori region told Memorial employees about the harsh daily conditions.
"Our battalion was deployed here in October. We were stationed on a high point near the village of Mosabruni, by the border with Georgia. There are now 14 of us, including our officer. We live in a tent that we recently set up. We were given one oven, and made the other ourselves. We fetched the hay ourselves and made bunks. There are no beds. Previously we didn't have a tent, we slept in trenches, under our jackets. There were problems with food deliveries. When we were on the way here, we didn't eat for a day. A week after we arrived, the food ran out. We were told: "there's no petrol for transporting food". We don't know whether this is true or not, but there was no food for three days. We went to the villages ourselves - the people who live here are quite reasonable and helped us as best they could. We started getting food delivered to us once a day, usually at 1 a.m. Then things settled down, and for a while we didn't have problems with food, but then there was none again for three days. Over the last month, we've been without food for a week altogether. The local shop only sells things for lari. One lari equals 25 rubles. First they only took lari, then we agreed that we could change rubles for lari at the shop".
And this was already November.
Then the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers hotline began receiving calls that on top of inhuman everyday conditions in a number of divisions stationed in South Ossetia, there had been bullying by officers. Soldiers and their parents complained that soldiers were beaten and humiliated, and that some officers took weapons away from soldiers asleep at their posts, and then demanded 2,500 rubles to give them back. The most alarming reports came once more from the Akhalgori region. Soldiers of the 639th regiment reported that they had been living in trenches for a long time. They had no water, they were hungry and there was no medical aid. The father of one of the soldiers, alerted by his son, came to see him after a drunken officer beat him up and broke his nose. No one had given any medical aid to the son, and no question, of course, of any investigation of the crime. Then the officer broke the jaw of another soldier. Only the father's intervention forced the prosecutor's office to open a criminal case against him and the soldier was taken to the district hospital. The soldiers complained that this officer had once tied a soldier to a tree and kept him there all night.
Visiting the Akhalgori region once more at the end of December, Memorial employees and the organisation "Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg" saw that a division of the 693rd regiment was living in a canvas tent with holes it in. It turned out the soldiers had no documents confirming they were taking part in military operations or the fact that they were stationed on the territory of South Ossetia. Some did not have any documents at all: no passports or military service record cards. Some wrote out statements, applying to terminate their contracts. As the soldiers are in the mountains all the time, they cannot hand them in to command, so they asked the human rights advocates to do it.
Being stationed in a wine-growing region had a very bad effect on the morality of our army too. Everyone brought them wine: from the Ossetian villages in gratitude for help, and from the Georgian villages to establish good relations with the occupying army. My colleagues witnessed scenes from army life in Ossetia: in the Akhalgori region drunken soldiers and their officer were shooting at full bottles of wine - they obviously couldn't drink anymore. They knocked off someone's pig at the same time. At one moment, in an attempt to settle the argument, several people pointed their guns at each other. But everything was resolved peacefully, without casualties.
In this situation, it is no surprise at all that corporal Glukhov ran away from his unit. It is also not difficult to see why he fled to Georgia, rather than home. To start with, it's a lot nearer - a few kilometres on a good road to the nearest police checkpoint, and anyway the soldiers don't consider the Georgians fearsome enemies. While it's difficult to imagine a "federal" soldier in Chechnya taking refuge with the Chechen militants, the average Russian soldier can't immediately distinguish between an Ossetian and a Georgian.
So, Glukhov reached civilisation, and another round of the propaganda war began. Firstly, Glukhov himself spoke:
"We were sent to Tskhinvali in June. My bosses... officers, commanders... said that we were going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people fight against Georgia. In June we started digging trenches and dug-outs. Then the battle alerts began. We went to the scene of battle. We were there for a week, and then came back - it turned out it had been just exercises. Then I came to Leningori - Akhalgori on 1 December. I served there for a month and a half.
"The conditions there are not normal. I was on bad terms with the battalion commander, Major Fyodorov. The conditions are bad. There is no bathhouse. The food situation is awful - they don't feed you much. We also have military equipment there - tanks, APCs, Grad (Russian for hail) rocket-launchers pointed at Georgian villages... So I ask the president of Georgia to allow me to stay in Tbilisi."
The Russian Defence Ministry reacted immediately. The acting head of the Press Service and Information Department of the Ministry, colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky, announced: "...preliminary investigations have shown that Alexander Glukhov was captured by Georgian security officers in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia and taken to Tbilisi" - and demanded the immediate release of the soldier. At the same time, Drobyshevsky admitted that the soldier was indeed engaged in military service on the territory of South Ossetia and was supposed to be discharged in the coming spring.
The assistant to the Commander-in-Chief of Ground Forces, Igor Konashenkov, said that after his kidnapping, national serviceman corporal Glukhov had been subjected to brainwashing. This was proved by Glukhov's confession that he had arrived in South Ossetia in June last year: according to Defence Ministry information, it was only on 8 August that his motorised infantry division entered the region.
There are many interesting and contradictory things in the commentary of Defence Ministry officials, as well as in the statement of Glukhov himself. Firstly, representatives of the Defence Ministry are no longer trying to hide something they denied for a long time - that a national serviceman was in a zone of armed conflict. The law prohibits sending national servicemen to "trouble spots" or abroad.
Secondly, as a sign of brainwashing, ministerial officials cite the fact that the soldier claims he came to South Ossetia prior to 8 August. I can't state for a fact that corporal Glukhov arrived in South Ossetia in June. But I personally witnessed at least a hundred armed vehicles and trucks carrying troops passing from the north through the Roki tunnel on 13 July last year. Several days later it was announced that military exercises "Caucasus-2008" were beginning in this region.
Moreover in conditions when neither national servicemen, nor even the majority of contract soldiers, have documents confirming their involvement in military operations, we cannot be sure that the soldiers came to South Ossetia on the exact date named by their superiors.
We can, of course, see that Georgian special services might organise a special operation to kidnap a corporal from Sarapul. But the nagging question must always be - why would they bother taking such a risk? The failure of the operation would completely undermine Georgia's image. A few months ago a cortege of the presidents of Georgia and Poland was fired at on the border of that same Akhalgori region. This has yet to be fully cleared up. A real diplomatic scandal was avoided and everyone tried to hush it up. The other possibility looks just as strange: that corporal Glukhov slipped into Georgian territory intending to emigrate and gave himself up to the authorities. He doesn't look like a dissident.
Another scenario seems more likely. In October, for instance, several drunken Russian soldiers wandered into a Georgian police checkpoint in the village of Nikozi. It's just a few kilometres from Tskhinvali and in their drunken state they could have mistaken their way. An agreement with the police was reached and the soldiers were released. But they might not have been. From the point of view of the Georgian authorities they were representatives of an occupying army and in the country illegally.
The corporal listed all the military equipment and Grad rocket-launchers pointed at Georgian villages; he made the politically correct gesture of saying that Leningori could also be called Akhalgori. This reminded me of another statement to journalists, but on Russian television. When I was working in Georgia with a research group of Russian human rights advocates from the human rights centre Memorial and the Demos centre, I heard the story of a young Georgian who was held hostage for several weeks at a Tskhinvali prison. He was a civilian who was taken prisoner during the first days of the armed conflict, made to wear a military uniform and memorise a short text. He was forced to repeat these words - the only words he could say in Russian - in front of a central Russian television channel camera:
"My colleagues and I - there were 400 of us - gathered on Marjanishvili (Tbilisi - V.P.) Square and went to the Great Liakhvi Gorge (territory of South Ossetia - V.P.). After Tskhinvali was shot at with mortar launchers, howitzers and Grad rocket launchers (they told him not to forget to mention the Grad rocket launchers), we arrived from the Tamarasheni direction on the 8th. In Tskhinvali I saw dead civilians - women, children, and old people. My colleagues were killing women and old people. I started to feel bad, I threw down my AK-47 and ran towards Tamarasheni, where I gave myself up to the militia. Then I was brought here. I am being well treated.
The investigator asked how I felt about Saakashivili's government. I said I thought badly of it.
Why? "Because he killed people, he is a bad ruler."
He asked: "Do you believe in his politics" "No".
Then the journalists forced me to repeat the entire text once again".
In response to the Russian Defence Ministry statement, a representative of the Georgian Interior Ministry Shota Utiashvili said that no one was keeping Glukhov in Georgia by force - he could go back at any time. This evidently means returning to his unit - where else? Sergeant Glukhov may not look like an intellectual, but he is clearly also not a complete idiot - he must realise what will happen to him if he goes back after all this.
In Georgia the Russian corporal is fed, shown to journalists and diplomats and told that he will not be extradited to Russia. He faces a serious jail sentence for leaving his unit and he may also be accused of treason towards Russia. He is undoubtedly a real find for Georgian propaganda. In August Georgians saw Russian soldiers carrying a toilet out of a military unit and they started bringing old fridges, toilet paper and clothing to the Russian embassy. I heard one Georgian diplomat commenting that Russian soldiers wear stolen Georgian uniforms: "the Russian army is roughing it in Georgia". Now they can show the whole world that a soldier from the victorious army is asking the defeated army for asylum.
It's all quite strange. But there are real people behind this case: whatever happens, Alexander Glukhov really is a Russian corporal, who clearly had a difficult time at his division stationed in the Akhalgori region. He is just one of the several thousand soldiers who annually desert from their divisions, but society only learned about corporal Glukhov because he could be a useful weapon in the continuing propaganda war. At the same time it also learned about the leaky army tents and the dwindling population of the Akhalgori region. At least that is something to be thankful for...
In the "Atlas" shop on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow, the salesgirl looks down and says that they have no maps of Georgia left. They used to, but not any more: "You understand, this is the situation now. All those events..." When asked if this means that Georgia itself is no longer on the map, the girl smiles: "You could put it like that".
In reality, it's not all as bad as that. Georgia remains on the map, but it will be coloured differently. Radmil Shayapov, deputy head of the Russian Federal Ordnance Survey Agency, recently said that on political maps of the world published in Russia, the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will now be coloured differently from Georgia.
However, to be consistent, one must admit that after the war in August, places have appeared on the map which could only be given one colour - grey. The new "grey zones" are territories that are under the de facto control of no one. One of these zones is the Akhalgori region of Georgia, otherwise known as the Leningori region of South Ossetia. The territory is one and the same, but the name depends on what side of the conflict you approach it from. When I inadvertently used the name "Leningori", a Georgian diplomat commented in irritation: "There's no such place as Leningori. Lenin has been dead for so long!"
In the 1920s, when Georgia became one of the Soviet republics, this territory became part of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, and the regional centre received the name of Leningori. The mountain range separating it from Tskhinvali meant that this eastern region was only formally part of South Ossetia. The only road went to the south, towards Tbilisi, and to reach Tskhinvali, you had to take the central Georgian highway. The population was 80% ethnic Georgians, and Ossetians mainly lived in mixed families. So when the city was renamed Akhalgori in the early 1990s, and almost all the territory was transferred to the administrative jurisdiction of the Mtskheti region of Georgia, no one objected: neither in Tbilisi nor Tskhinvali, which had proclaimed its independence.
In 2006, the Georgian authorities tried to resolve the South Ossetian conflict by creating an alternative pro-Tbilisi government in the republic, which had seceded. This was headed by the former prime minister of the separatists Dmitry Sanakoyev. A Saakashvili decree restored the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast and the Akhalgori region was included in it, so as to increase the number of voters at the alternative elections,. The temporary administration of the Autonomous Oblast was located in the village of Kurta, six kilometres to the north of Tskhinvali and under Georgian control. After the August conflict, the pro-Georgian officials were forced to move to the centre of Tbilisi, where they were established in the "Chess Palace".
On 16 August Russian soldiers entered the Akhalgori region, which Tbilisi itself had recognised as part of South Ossetia in the internal political game. At the same time, local residents began to leave. Initially only a few left, but by the end of August - when television showed villages in the Gori region that had been burnt down and looted by the Ossetian militiamen following after the Russian soldiers - there were more than 2,000 refugees from Akhalgori. Almost two thirds of the population has left the region where no more than 9,000 people had lived.
With the arrival of the Russian soldiers the region was practically cut off from the rest of Georgia. On the road from Tbilisi, three checkpoints were set up - one Russian and two Ossetian, examining documents and inspecting all the passing cars. Things have been made easier for the residents since the beginning of October: the commandant of South Ossetia, Colonel Anatoly Tarasov, managed to get the number of checkpoints reduced to two, and mass checks were stopped. But international observers and representatives of humanitarian organizations are still not allowed into the region. All the Georgian officials who we talked to before going to Akhalgori said it would be impossible to go there.
A few kilometres after the Georgian police checkpoint, we saw the new sign "Ossetia". In Akhalgori, the Ossetian flag was flying above the regional administration building. However, it turned out that the main currency here is not the ruble, but the lari. The balance was restored by the cell phone operators: we had to change the Georgian "Beeline" SIM cards in our telephones to SIM cards from the Russian "Megafon" operator.
The head of the Akhalgori orphanage Manana Makharashvili was at a loss when asked who was responsible for the orphanage: "The Georgian education ministry, I think - no one has said that we have been reassigned". There had been 73 children from various regions of Georgia at the orphanage before August, but by the end of October there were 56 left - children who had any relatives at all had been removed. Schools started work again on 15 October, but parents are afraid to send their children there - no one trusts the armed Ossetian militia and the Russian soldiers. Not more than 150 children attend the three functioning schools in the regional centre.
Teachers at the orphanage are afraid even to think about what will happen next. Recently, Russian and Ossetian checkpoints refused to let a car with humanitarian aid through, and the current supplies will probably last for no more than a month. The gas that previously came from Georgia has now been cut off, so the orphanage has been left without heating. In the rest of Ossetia schoolchildren are taught using Russian textbooks, but no one knows what to do if the Ossetian authorities decide to introduce Russian books in the regional schools here - almost no one speaks Russian.
No institutions in the city are functioning except the schools, orphanage and post office. The joint Georgian-Ossetian brewery which used to produce beer that was sold all over Georgia, no longer functions. Although this is a mild way of putting it: the equipment was removed by Ossetian militia and Russian soldiers in August - also a kind of international co-operation.
The Akhalgori region is actually the only place where there are many complaints of looting by the Russian soldiers. The federal troops take food and other items from abandoned houses. Local residents say that the village of Kanchaveti, abandoned after August, is almost completely occupied by soldiers: they have their military equipment there and the soldiers themselves live in the abandoned houses. The equipment came here directly from Tskhinvali. Russian specialists had begun to build a road through South Ossetia before the war, but they didn't manage to finish it by August, so the remaining 30 kilometres were passable only for off-road vehicles. Now military equipment has completely ruined the road. The local people are seriously concerned that if the road to Georgia is closed, which is what has happened in other regions of South Ossetia, then they will be left without any connection to the outside world whatsoever.
In the rest of South Ossetia the Russian soldiers are seen as liberators, here they are regarded as occupation troops; but everywhere people clearly distinguish between the politicians making the decisions and ordinary people. Local resident Muraz, who heard by telephone that we were from Moscow, drove at breakneck speed from another village to see us:
"It's great that you've come all the way from Moscow! I recently had guests from Moscow here, they were geologists."
It turned out that "recently" meant during the Soviet period. Muraz's neighbour says that people came here infrequently even from Tbilisi, until Sanakoyev was elected. The neighbour himself, although he is Ossetian, says that he has never been to Tskhinvali - all his relatives are in Georgia.
"In the 90s, even in Georgia almost no one had heard of our Leningori, and now they talk about it everyday on television," says Muraz. "Our town will probably be renamed Putingori now. I recently heard a soldier calling it this on the telephone. There are now a lot of soldiers here: yesterday helicopters arrived again with new equipment. In August, the Russians were stationed in our village, Ikoti. I went to meet them, and asked them if they needed anything for their lads. There was a guy called Dima from Volgograd. He said he didn't need anything but cigarettes, but he'd also like to ring home to tell his mother where he was. I bought him a carton of cigarettes and a top-up phone card, but he didn't have a Georgian SIM card. I was scared to get one in my name - what would people think about me? Now they're saying that we should get Russian passports, or we'll have difficult times ahead."
Passports are not being issued yet, but people are afraid that this will start in the spring and that young people may be drafted into the army. They don't know whether it will be the Ossetian or Russian army, but neither option is attractive. Colonel Tarasov told Russian human rights advocates from "Memorial" and the Demos Centre that in the Akhalgori region there had indeed been cases of the Ossetian militia threatening to drive out the local Georgian population. Although there have not been cases of arson or murder in the region, people are still leaving their homes - first they tried to get some money for their houses and property, but now they simply leave everything behind. Some go to stay with relatives, and some go to temporary shelters for refugees.
The conversation moves smoothly on from refugees to politics. The Medvedev-Sarkozy plan for the Russian troops to return to their positions of before 6 August is not being implemented and now Russian soldiers are 60 kilometres from Tbilisi - just one hour's drive. It is a strategically advantageous place for the soldiers - a mountainous region stretching along the Georgian military road.
As we sit at the table, we raise the traditional toast for Ossetian and Georgians, "to the fallen" - to everyone who has not lived to see this day. Our host recalls with tears in his eyes that Dima from Volgograd died several days ago - he fell off an APC when drunk, and the hospital couldn't save him...
Muraz and his wife spent a long time trying to persuade us to stay the night. All their neighbours have left, and they want someone to talk to. At least we should visit again, they said, and we would really like to come back: the area is stunningly beautiful, and the people are incredibly hospitable. But it's impossible to guess from which direction we will be able to visit next time, what flags we will see here, what SIM cards we will use in our telephones and what currency we will use to pay the driver.
And in fact, we don't even know whether any people will be living here next time. People whose main problem is that both sides want to reprint the maps.
There is probably no one who can mark the precise border of this zone - not in Georgia, Ossetia or in Russia. But you can tell where it is because of the burnt houses, the ruins, and shell holes. And also the silence that is unusual for villages. There are no cows or chickens, and the few remaining dogs are too scared to make a sound. When the Russian army left the region and the Georgian police arrived, people began to return. They returned erratically, of course: the further from the border with the separatist republic, the safer the village is, and the more people returned. There are also people who did not leave, mainly elderly. Many wanted to leave, but did not manage to.
This place was also called the ‘safety zone'. Several hours after the retreat of the Georgian army, Russian troops arrived. They were formally responsible for law and order in the fifty or so villages included in the ‘zone'. But in fact, in the two months that followed, no one could guarantee the safety, or indeed the life, of anyone in the ‘zone'.
In less than two months - from 12 August to 9 October - dozens of people were killed, hundreds of houses were burnt down, and thousands were robbed. All this happened after the end of the war: it was on 12 August, the day that the Russian troops withdrew to the Gori region, that the Russian president signed the Medvedev-Sarkozy principles.
The first days were the most terrifying. Almost all the Russian soldiers marched from Gori to Tbilisi. The villages remained in the hands of the ‘victors' - Ossetian and North Caucasian militiamen, and even armed bandits. Houses were stripped of everything of value. Cars were stolen. Those who tried to resist were often killed.
Dozens of people were taken hostage, including people who could certainly not be classified as soldiers - women, children and the elderly. The ‘lucky' one were kidnapped, exchanged for Ossetian militiamen and held in a Tskhinvali detention centre. At least we know the exact number of these people. These hostages were used to remove and bury the bodies of Georgian soldiers who had been lying in the August heat for over a week.
But there is no knowing how many people were kidnapped and held in houses or in the forest until their families paid a ransom for them. In the small Georgian village of Gogeti, which neither Georgian or Russian troops entered, bandits took an entire family from their own home - elderly parents with two children (for more detail on the situation see the report of the Memorial human rights centre and the Demos centre, ‘Humanitarian consequences of the armed conflict in the South Caucasus: the Buffer zone after the withdrawal of Russian troops'). After they reached an Ossetian village, the mother and children were released, and told that tomorrow they would have to pay ransom for the father. Too terrified to show themselves on Ossetian territory in daylight hours, they moved by night through the forest - and got lost. And on the third day, when they finally reached their village, they found that their home had burned down. Their neighbors said that the bandits returned when they did not get the ransom, took everything from the house and then burned it down. The woman gave the only thing she had left - gold jewelry hidden in the forest - to an intermediary. Only then was the head of the family released.
At first the fires, robbery and kidnapping often took place right in front of the Russian soldiers, who simply preferred to ignore it. But from mid-August the situation began to change. The army tried to establish control. The situation improved slightly, and in some villages looting was almost completely brought under control.
The soldiers tried to deal with the hostage taking. Archbishop Isai, a priest from the village of Nikozi, which is in shooting distance from Tskhinvali, stayed in his village the whole time. He now laughs as he tells a story which sounds quite absurd: ‘A few days after the Russians established their checkpoint here, the Ossetians came to us again. Some were in uniform, some were not, but almost all of them were armed. They walked around the village and told the old people who were left to gather at the crossing. They promised that nothing bad would happen to them - they would simply be taken to Tskhinvali to be exchanged for captured Ossetians.
‘Zamira, who stayed in the village to look after the abandoned cows, said that she wasn't going anywhere - this was very brave of her, but she was simply tired of being afraid. And they didn't do anything to her.
‘Eleven people gathered at the crossing. And the Russians who were standing there started trying to persuade the Ossetians not to take the old people away. They said: "What will do you with them there? There is little food in the town, you have nothing to feed them". The Ossetians thought this over for a while, and left the people there. They only took the things they had stolen.
‘But the old people were afraid to leave - they kept standing at the crossing. The soldiers then offered them shelter for the night at the police building. So the old people spent several nights in custody.'
Not everything turned out so well for everyone. Dmitry Sanakoev, an employee of the pro-Tbilisi administration which existed in South Ossetia parallel to the separatist administration, was taken hostage along with his mother while he was at his home in the village of Tamarasheni. He was able to hide his documents and gave his mother's maiden name, which may have saved his life. Nevertheless, the mother and son, like many other kidnapped Georgians, were held at the temporary detention center in Tskhinvali. Sanakoev was beaten. He says that he was kicked in the face by the head of the South Ossetian Interior Department Mikhail Mindzaev. Now Sanakoev is in hospital and waiting for an operation. His mother was luckier - women and old people were not beaten and not even made to clean up the streets.
Over 170 people passed through this detention center in August, not counting 20 or so captured Georgian soldiers. The people were held in several small rooms - they had to sleep in turns. However, as spokesmen for the Ossetian authorities explained, had the people been held anywhere else their safety could not have been guaranteed. At least in prison it was not so easy for anyone to come and take revenge on the Georgians.
At the end of August they were all exchanged for Ossetians captured during the war. According to the head of the Georgian parliamentary commission on issues of killed and missing persons, Givi Targamadze, the Georgian soldiers took ‘fighters and those suspected of spying'. It remains unclear how the swiftly retreating soldiers were able to detect spies. Especially as according to the Ossetian side, there were old people among the hostages. The 30 or so captured Ossetians and five captured Russian soldiers were held at the military base in Vaziani in Georgian jails, and a few injured people were taken to hospital.
Along with them, at the request of the Tskhinvali authorities, several other Ossetians were handed over who were serving sentences for crimes committed in Georgia. Also, at the personal request of the deputy head of the Russian air assault forces, Major General Vyachesalv Borisov, Georgia handed over the Georgian general Roman Dumbadze in exchange for 12 Georgian soldiers captured by Russian soldiers on 18 August in Poti. General Dumbadze refused to take Mikhail Saakashvili's side during the conflict in Adzharia in 2004, and in 2006 was sentenced to 17 years in prison for treason.
Back in August, both sides seemed to be trying to reach a compromise and resolve the problem as soon as possible. The Red Cross was allowed to visit the prisoners in Tskhinvali, humanitarian aid was provided, and they were finally examined by doctors. The exchange of hostages took place with the mediation of the Georgian church and the Commissioner of the European Council for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg. The Russian soldiers themselves took part in negotiations and provided security in the ‘buffer zone'. Almost 50 bodies of dead soldiers were handed over to the Georgian side. It looked as if the problem of hostages had been at least temporarily solved.
But in September, it was discovered that there were new hostages on the Ossetian side. At the time, it was very easy to kidnap people - villages in the ‘buffer zone' were still under the control of the Russian army, thus accessible from South Ossetia. A proposal was made to exchange these hostages, and also the bodies of another 10 Georgian soldiers found in Tskhinvali, for four Ossetians previously sentenced on charges of murder and terrorism. Three of them were sentenced for the act of terrorism in Gori in 2005 (this was the first act of terrorism in Georgia involving fatalities). Many people in Ossetia believe that they were all sentenced unjustly, and demand their release. The exchange did not take place - Tbilisi categorically refused to create a precedent. And the hostages themselves managed to escape. They later said that they were held at the home of relatives of one of the sentenced Ossetians. After this incident, the negotiations came to a halt - if the parties exchanged information, they did so only through intermediaries.
It looked as if the withdrawal of troops from the ‘buffer zone' might put an end to the ongoing madness. But in the last days before the withdrawal of the Russian units, there was another outbreak of violence and robberies. At this stage, even the Russian soldiers joined in the looting, according to local residents. For instance, they are said to have stolen equipment from a canning factory located in the area where they were stationed.
The Georgian police began to act in the first days after the withdrawal of troops - in border villages, 11 residents of South Ossetia were arrested. The Russian commandant in South Ossetia, Colonel Anatoly Tarasov, said in a conversation with human rights advocates that some of them could have been arrested for looting, and some for carrying weapons. But this war on crime only served to exacerbate the situation.
David Sanakoev, the human rights representative for South Ossetia, noted that among the people arrested there were three minors, one of whom had bronchial asthma. Enquiries by human rights advocates at the end of October to the various Georgian state agencies about the fate of these people met with no response. Even though the information presented stated that the people were said to being held in the Tbilisi prison Gldani, as the relatives of the arrested men established.
There were rumors in Ossetia that the Georgians were holding people for subsequent exchange or ransom. The continuing uncertainty increased the panic - it was starting to look as if they had been kidnapped. And after the arrest on 25 October of two people, the inevitable happened - six residents of the Georgian village of Zerti were kidnapped. One of them was able to ring relatives, and told them that they were to be exchanged for two Ossetians. On that occasion, the prisoners managed to escape five days later. But on the following day there were six new hostages, this time from the village of Kirbala. The new wave of kidnapping gathered momentum, and no one seemed to making any attempt to stop it.
The checkpoints jointly manned by Russians and Ossetians continued to give free passage to thieves from Southern Ossetia into the almost empty border villages of the ‘buffer zone. They did not let anyone from the Georgian side through. The Georgian police checkpoints, fearing provocation, tried not to interfere - they paid no attention to the cars of the Ossetian looters, which were sometimes parked just a few hundred meters away from them. On 15 October, armed men stole a herd of cattle from the Georgian border village of Zemo-Khviti, taking two shepherds and the owner of the herd along with his car. The people were taken to Tskhinvali, but by evening the armed men changed their minds, took them to the border and let them go. Naturally, they kept the cows and the car.
On 11 November, a month after the arrest of five residents of South Ossetia, the head of the Department of Information of the Georgian Interior Ministry, Shota Utiashvili, said in an interview with Kommersant newspaper that these people were being held at the Tbilisi detention centre. A lawyer appointed by the state contacted the relatives of 16-year-old asthma patient Alan Kelekhsaev and his father Avtandil Kelekhsaev.
At the same time, on 11 November relatives of the Georgian hostages blockaded the Georgian central highway in the region of Gori. That evening the kidnappers handed over six people wearing blindfolds to the Russian soldiers, who took them out of Ossetia to the territory controlled by Georgia. And on 12 November, Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg took the Kelekhsaevs to Tskhinvali, who had been handed over by the Georgian side as a ‘gesture of good will'.
With the mediation of Hammarberg, talks were held on the border of South Ossetia in which the Georgian and South Ossetian sides took part. Givi Targamadze, representing Georgia, clarified the whereabouts of another eight of the 13 arrested residents of South Ossetia - they were being held in Tbilisi jails, and were facing charges.
Thanks to the efforts of both sides, the negotiation process that had broken down over a month ago had started again.
Three days later, on 15 November, Tbilisi handed over two more of the people arrested in October - residents of the village of Grom, Erik Margiev and Murat Kusraev. After their arrest on 25 October they were charged with drug trafficking. However, the men say that the drugs were placed on the table in front of them after they were arrested, and they were told that the drugs belonged to them. The remaining six men are awaiting trial: the Georgian authorities say that these people were carrying weapons, although the men themselves deny this. And Georgian officials now say that they are being held in the Gldani prison in Tbilisi.
On the next day, 16 November, the bodies of the Georgian soldiers were exhumed and handed over. Ten bodies mean another ten lives. According to Ossetian ombudsman David Sanakoev, a DNA test will be needed to determine the identity of eight of the ten bodies. Only then will it be clear who can be struck off the list of the missing, and whose relatives will mourn their dead. The identity of almost all the Georgian soldiers handed over by the Ossetian side can only be determined after complex, lengthy tests: it is impossible to recognize the bodies - they have rotted beyond recognition, and nothing remains of their clothes. Another 20 of the bodies handed over in August have yet to be identified.
Neither of the sides wants to call the process an exchange - it is all a sign of good will. By mutual agreement, of course. Call it ‘good will'. The main point is to find out what happened to these people. This depends almost entirely on the willingness of the politicians to talk to one another. Many issues still remain unresolved.
The wives and mothers of missing Georgian soldiers hope that they may be found in Russian prisons - the attempt to determine this is being discussed in Georgia at the highest political level. Throughout August, there were constant reports that injured soldiers from Georgia were lying in the hospitals of Tskhinvali and Vladikavkaz. It was not possible to confirm this information - there were no replies to enquires, but many people are now living in hope that these soldiers are somewhere in Russia.
Talks are continuing about the Ossetians held in Georgian prisons. The whereabouts of another three men who recently went missing is also unknown - Alan Khachirov, Alan Khugaev and Soltan Pliev. Two of them are under 18. It is also unclear what happened to six Ossetian militiamen of whom there has been no news since the fighting in August. The Ossetian side claims to have proof that one of them - Rafik Ikaev - was at the military base in Vaziani: an Ossetian elder has testified to having been held with him, and there is a video recording made on a mobile phone where Ikaev is surrounded by people in military uniform who are speaking in Georgian.The border strip between Georgia and South Ossetia remains an extremely dangerous place, from which new hostages may still be taken. Thanks to the silence of the one side and the willingness to turn a blind eye to crimes on the other, the conflict here is now not so much political as personal. Ossetians and Georgians who once lived on neighbouring streets are now too frightened to show their faces to one another.
Someone is charged with banditry and sentenced to imprisonment. Chechnya is full of stories like this, and they are almost all the same. They are so common that unless you have the details of the case at hand, the names are easily confused.
Once upon a time, someone fought for an illegal armed organization. Or sympathised with one. Or perhaps he wasn't involved at all. He was ‘unmasked' as a rebel, and tortured. Perhaps it wasn't so bad, perhaps he was not actually tortured, just not fed and beaten regularly. Perhaps he confessed to everything, or didn't confess, not even understanding what he was being charged with, before being brought to court and sentenced. Three elements run through all of these stories: the unmasking, the trial and the guilty sentence. It's a sort of conveyer belt...
When you see how many such cases there are, you begin to think that there can be no innocent people left in Chechnya. Almost anyone can be arrested, taken away for interrogation, then imprisoned. A person's safety depends only on who he knows in this or that government organisation. Whether he has relatives there or influential friends, relatives of friends or friends of relatives. It's just a matter of luck.
Twenty eight-year-old Lechi Dzhanaraliev, the hero of this article, was unlucky. He fell into this meat-grinder just over three years ago, and it is now practically impossible to talk to him. His wife, Zarema tells the story of what happened to Lechi. She talks calmly, she has no energy left for emotion. She has repeated her story many times before: ‘We lived in Khasavyurt for a while. We went there because we wanted to live a bit more peacefully. We returned to Grozny in April 2005. Almost immediately, a friend rang my husband. They hadn't seen each other for one and a half years, and had only talked on the phone. The next day, they met in the middle of town. The friend was a wanted man, and my husband didn't know. When they came to our house in the evening, the police at the checkpoint on Baronovsky Bridge signaled for them to stop. My husband said he didn't see the signal - it was dark at the time. The police then opened fire on the car. The friend was killed on the spot, and my husband received a bullet to the head. He lost consciousness, but survived...'
There is nothing surprising about this, and it is pointless to try to clarify the details. Perhaps the police did signal to them, then opened fire. Perhaps they opened fire without warning. Perhaps the men saw the signal, but didn't stop the car. Or perhaps they didn't see it. All these scenarios have been repeated in Chechnya hundreds of times in recent years. Even now, when things have become much more peaceful, people try not to leave their homes after dark without very good reason.
That same night, Lechi Dzhanaraliev was taken to Hospital No 9 in Grozny. During the month that he spent there, the law only relaxed its grip for twelve hours, which is how long his operation took. They began interrogating him when he was still in intensive care. And the judge also decided to put him in custody at the hospital. Perhaps the fact that the judge came to the hospital was the first and last ‘act of mercy' in this affair. But actually he had no choice, for the shoot-out had left Lechi paralysed.
After a month in hospital, despite the doctors' protests, Lechi was taken to Leninsky district police station. No one had any intention of giving him further treatment there. No concessions were made for the fact that he was paralysed: he was tortured, beaten and had cigarettes stubbed out on his body. The police station is not designed for holding prisoners, so Lechi kept on being dragged from office to office, and sent to the cell at night.
After several months, Lechi's relatives managed to have him transferred to a detention centre. There he was certified as seriously disabled (initially temporary, and then for life). Lechi was carried from the detention centre to the court on a stretcher. There he lay, trying to prove his innocence.
Dzhanaraliev was charged on three counts: article 317 (resisting arrest), 209 (banditry) and 222 (illegal possession of weapons). Unlike his murdered friend, they did not charge him under article 208 (taking part in an illegal armed formation). He was not charged with any other incidents of banditry except for the one at the police checkpoint. The charge was based entirely on the allegation that he and his friend opened fire on the checkpoint themselves when they drove past. There were few witnesses to the crime. Only one person said that he saw shots fired from the car, but the other witnesses did not confirm this. The paralysed ‘rebel' was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
‘We were promised that he would only be sent to Georgievsk, where he could stay in hospital,' Zarema explains. ‘But he was sent with the other prisoners to Izhevsk. There was no special transport, no doctors accompanying him - the escorts simply dragged him along without a stretcher. And in Izhevsk he was only held in hospital for a week. They threw him out of the hospital when they heard him praying, saying "You can pray in the toilet". We wrote a statement, and he was taken back to hospital, but only for a week. He only spent two weeks in hospital over the entire year!'
A year later, Dzhanaraliev was sent back to Grozny once again. His wife had managed to get his case re-examined with the help of lawyers from the human rights centre Memorial. In July of last year, the judge Madaev significantly changed the sentence. The charge of illegally possession of weapons was dropped, and the sentence was reduced by six months.
The charges of banditry and resisting arrest had become quite absurd. How can you open fire on a police checkpoint without a weapon? And how exactly did an unarmed man with a head injury resist arrest? Lechi declared himself to be innocent at the first and second trials.
After the trial, he was sent to Georgievsk in the province of Stavropol. On 19 March 2008 a commission of eight people deemed that the case of Lechi Musaevich Dzhanaraliev was covered under the Russian government decree ‘On the medical examination of prisoners exempted from punishment in connection with illness.' The grounds were ‘traumatic affliction of the central nervous system with stable manifestations of focal lesion of the brain.'
‘Wherever my husband's been, everyone's been astounded at the way he's been treated. Even the head of the detention centre appealed to have him released on health grounds. He can't move without help, he can't even sit - only shift from side to side in bed. This spring, Russian doctors in Georgievsk concluded that he should be released. Then he was sent back to Grozny, where he spent over a month at the detention centre and two weeks in Chernokozovo. But we didn't get any results. The Chechen doctors in Chernokozovo say whatever their bosses tell them to. They wrote that he could be transported with other prisoners. I even know why too - if an innocent man is sentenced, and held even for a day, the authorities are obliged to pay compensation,'says Zarema.
There have been some changes in Lechi's case, but not for the better. While he was previously described as unemployed in his dossier, the investigators have now ‘recalled' some details in his biography. At one stage, before he left for Khasavyurt, he worked for a few months in the Grozny police force. This means he's going to have to serve out his sentence in what they call the ‘red zone', along with former Russian policemen. Whether or not they've taken part in any ‘anti-terrorist operations,' people like that don't have much sympathy for Chechens. As to how they're likely to treat a paralysed Chechen charged with shooting at a police checkpoint, that doesn't bear thinking about.
The Chechen authorities, and President Ramzan Kadyrov above all, are fond of declaring that they will go all out to ensure that sentenced Chechens serve out their punishment in their own republic. Kadyrov began talking about this before he became president. But nothing has changed in this respect since he took power over a year ago. Chechens, mainly those deemed to be rebels, are still held in prison all over Russia. Formally, there is some justification for this. By law, criminals should serve their sentences as close as possible to their homes, but the state of prisons in Chechnya still leaves a lot to be desired. Prisons are currently being built for women and juvenile delinquents. The leadership of the republic is clearly trying to care for the weakest members of society first of all, but the vast majority of prisoners are grown men.
In trying to save her husband, Zarema, like most people in Chechnya, does not put her hopes in the supremacy of the law, so much as the political will of the federal government and the mercy of the local authorities. Although she had already sent a statement to the General Prosecutor's office and the Federal Penitentiary Service, when she learned that her husband could be moved to the ‘red zone' in Mordovia, she decided to appeal for help to the human rights commissioner of the Chechen Republic, Nurdi Nukhazhiev: ‘Even arranging a meeting him was difficult. I waited outside his door from 9 to 6 for three days - the secretary said that the commissioner did not deal with cases like this. I only managed to see him with the head of a public organisation. He immediately said: "What's all this, didn't you know that I was here, why didn't you come to see me as soon as it happened, I'm supposed to help people like you." Nukhazhiev gave an order to delay the transportation of my husband, until 27 June. He said that he would try to get to the bottom of the matter, but that he wouldn't receive me again after that.'
On 27 June, Lechi Dzhanaraliev was sent away - once again without a stretcher or doctor. The escorts dragged him out of his cell and pushed him into a vehicle. He is now waiting in Pyatigorsk to be sent to Mordovia.
Perhaps it is wrong to end on such an emotional note. But it is impossible to write about this situation in any other terms. At the beginning of this year, pressure on the authorities from civil society literally saved the prisoner Vasily Alexanian, who was dying without medical aid. Human rights activists were reproached with coming to the defence of a wealthy Moscow lawyer. Lechi Dzhanaraliev, a poor Chechen man, is nothing like him. There is only one similarity: the same justice system is grinding him down. And it cannot stop of its own accord.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50