The Barack Obama administration is continuing to engage in feverish debate about the future direction of its policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The high stakes of the argument are reflected in a whirl of media stories and briefings about its possible direction and the personalities of those involved.
Moldova hosts the Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States this week and hopes to have a better turnout than President Medvedev did in July, at the annual "summit-at-the-races". Back then, only five CIS leaders made it to Moscow, but the Russian horse, Monomakh, did win the day. Moldova will preside over an expansive multi-lateral agenda on social and economic anti-crisis measures, wrap up its CIS presidency and attempt to prepare a raft of joint CIS agreements for ratification by heads of government in November in Yalta.
However, what's really on the new Moldovan leadership's mind, is a couple of vital bilateral issues with the Russian Federation. The first is the continuing presence of Russian troops ("peacekeepers" in an artificially maintained "conflict") and armaments (thousands of tons of Soviet-era ordnance and bullets at Colbasna that need guarding) in Transnistria, despite Moldova's constitutional neutrality and long-standing request for their withdrawal. The second concerns trade with, and economic support from Russia, including the still-open question of a $500 million loan promised before the July 29 repeat Moldovan elections.
Russian president Medvedev is expected to attend on the second day, October 9, and this will provide the first opportunity for contact between him and Moldova's new pro-European leadership. But in contrast to the positive pre-Summit sounds coming out of Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, both Russia and Moldova have already transmitted signals and laid down markers which make it unlikely that significant progress will be made regarding the troops and the loan.
While Sergei Naryshkin, chief of the Russian president's apparatus, was in Chisinau recently to check on preparations for the Summit, acting Moldovan president Mihai Ghimpu, prime minister Vlad Filat and other members of the majority Alliance for European Integration (AEI) publicly insisted on a Russian withdrawal from Moldova. This of course comes as no surprise, as it has been the consistent position of all Moldovan governments since the Transnistrian conflict.
At the same time, however, the Moldovan leadership downplayed and downgraded the importance of its own reintegration efforts. While organizing its new government, the AEI eliminated the Moldovan Ministry of Reintegration, which had garnered a good deal of institutional experience in dealing with the vexing questions that arise - or are provoked - on the left bank of the Nistru. Perhaps more significantly, an individual relatively inexperienced in separatist matters, albeit one of four new Deputy Prime Ministers, was put in charge of the reintegration effort, while the well-regarded (and non-political) former deputy minister of reintegration was overlooked.
These changes quickly elicited a snide statement from Transnistria's "foreign ministry" that it really didn't much matter what the Moldovans did with their Ministry of Reintegration, because the breakaway region didn't - and wouldn't - interact with it anyway. The unsurprising subtext here was that any change in the status quo was unlikely and that Moldova's internal political struggles will simply provide another convenient argument for Transnistria to avoid negotiations, regardless of the formal exhortations of the "3+2" - mediators Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE along with the EU and U.S. as observers + which met yesterday in Vienna.
Eternal Transnistrian strongman Igor Smirnov was, as usual, more direct, declaring categorically just before the Summit that "Transnistria is ready to join the Russian Federation" and that the self-proclaimed republic has no intention of improving ties with Moldova. Smirnov added, that it would, of course, accept good neighborly relations, as between sovereign equals, following Moldova's overdue election of a president. However he warned that political instability on the right bank could lead to "military provocations," the "danger" of which, naturally, justifies the on-going Russian military presence.
No change in peace-keeping operation
Nor was there any pre-Summit good news on the long-standing effort to transform the Russian "peacekeeping" operation into a more transparent - and finite - civilian observer mission. Here, the new Moldovan leadership cannot help but trip over former President Vladimir Voronin's efforts to secure pre-election Russian support for his Communist Party. On March 18, just days before the first Moldovan election, Voronin signed a joint "1+2" declaration with Russian president Medvedev and Smirnov in Moscow. In the future, this document will remain one of the many contradictory and chaotic "ratified agreements" that are trotted out as needed to stymie progress or avoid negotiations.
In it, Voronin agreed that the current Russian-dominated peacekeeping operation in Transnistria could not be transformed (let alone withdrawn) until a final settlement of the conflict is reached. Voronin's deal served to formalize what was indeed the long-standing state of affairs on the ground. Certainly, without Russian consent, there is no way to withdraw or transform the peacekeepers, but until March 18 Moldova's policy had been to continue advocating for a re-formatting and de-escalation before settlement and to resist recognising an obvious, but imposed, condition.
Chisinau and the EU
Acting president Mihai Ghimpu was in Brussels on October 6 and 7 in an attempt, among other things, to move EU officials away from the now-official "1+2" formula - this is a losing battle. The European Union has never had any appetite whatsoever for peacekeeping transformation before settlement and is surely not going to expend any political capital with Moscow over this issue now. OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut wisely pointed out during his own visit to Bucharest on October 6 that "we have to accept the reality [that] we need the support of all involved parties in order to make this suggestion [peacekeeping transformation] effective."
Another sign that the Kremlin is not expecting any uncontrolled activities or sudden troubles on the left bank, was the decision last month to replace the commander of Russian forces in Transnistria, retiring Major General Boris Sergeyev, with a non-flag officer. Colonel Vyacheslav Sitchikhin was sworn in as commander of the 1,500 Russian troops on September 11, marking the first time that a non-general officer has commanded the 14th Army or its successor force. While there may be all kinds of unrelated internal reasons for this move, it does suggest that there is an expectation of low-simmering "controlled instability," rather than reconciliation and withdrawal, or more serious trouble.
China becomes a new player on the Moldovan stage
Finally, there is a new player in the military mix in Moldova, a highly circumspect one, who is likely to be taking a long-term view of its involvement. Following its intention to lend the Moldovans $1 billion on favorable terms, the Chinese government has also made a move to enhance its military cooperation with Chisinau. As Moldovan Chief of the General Staff Ion Coropcean met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Beijing late last month, the Chinese declared their willingness to "step up military ties with the National Army of Moldova." Shortly thereafter the Chinese and Moldovan Defense Ministries signed an agreement under which China will provide a 500-thousand euro grant to the Moldovan military, for items yet to be determined. While only a fairly small proportion of Moldova's military budget, this appears to be the most substantial aid that China has provided to the Moldovan military since the Sino-Moldovan agreement on military cooperation was signed in 2002. Nonetheless, although the Chinese abhor separatism, it is likely that in this case they are more concerned with looking after their own investments and bustling in a multi-polar world than rocking the boat on Transnistria, at least for now.
The return of the International Monetary Fund
Meanwhile, the new leadership in Moldova is discovering (and possibly exaggerating for its own political purposes) just what an economic mess the previous government left behind. If the upcoming vote in parliament for president fails and new elections are called, there will be plenty of finger pointing. In a time of sharply declining remittances and economic contraction, the AEI urgently needs to find the resources to ensure that salaries and pensions are paid on time and basic services are not interrupted this winter.
After a thrashing from former President Voronin, the International Monetary Fund is back in Moldova, and the EU and U.S. are also stepping up support in both the short- and long-term. The Russian position is complex. On the one hand, Moscow promised the Moldovans half a billion dollars on good terms before the elections, and reiterated the offer afterwards, albeit with less enthusiasm. On the other hand, the Kremlin has announced this week that it will not give Belarus the remaining $500 million tranche of its $2 billion loan and that it will not be lending Ukraine any of the $5 billion that Kiev requested. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin referred these countries instead to the European Economic Community's (EvrAzEs) emergency fund, which Moscow leads, and the IMF, in which Moscow looks to increase its influence. Many analysts believe that the decisions on Belarus and Ukraine were more political than economic, given that Moscow subsequently promised Serbia a $1 billion loan to cover its budget deficit and spur infrastructure improvements and proposed new credits for Bulgaria.
Change what you can, not what you wish you could
Moscow knows that the new Moldovan government, by making nice with the IMF and other western donors, has more latitude in obtaining emergency financial support. Precisely for this reason, the Russians have taken an interest in working more closely with the IMF to provide input on an economic package for Moldova. This allows them to kill two birds with one stone - playing a larger role in the IMF commensurate with their enhanced economic status and having a say on the conditions under which Moldova will receive credits. If, moreover, the new government's western-leaning actions become too unruly for Moscow, it still retains strong levers over the Moldovan economy in the form of potential phyto-sanitary limitations on wine and agricultural imports to Russia. These were only eased in Moldova's favor towards the end of Voronin's term as president, and are easily switched on again.
Moscow has declared that it wants to see stability and a permanent president in Moldova, and has probably already reached out to the expected candidate. Nonetheless, the orientation and rhetoric of the new Chisinau team is not music to the Kremlin's ears, and it has little reason to make the AEI's way forward any easier. Given the unlikelihood of any progress on a Transnistrian settlement for the meanwhile and the fact that the promised half billion dollars, if it comes at all, will likely be subject to more stringent conditions, the Moldovans will have some hard decisions to make. They need to take stock of those matters over which they have some degree of control and not expect the geo-political chessboard to miraculously tilt in their favor. After the CIS Summit concludes and the leaders depart, their best bet is to finally move ahead with the hard work of serious reform of the economy, judiciary, media and bureaucracy that will make this small country more attractive to individuals living in Transnistria and to decision-makers sitting in Brussels.
Louis O'Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.
Long before he became Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Draskovic was a journalist, novelist, and long-time anti-Milosevic politician. He spent many difficult years in the wilderness of opposition, campaigning all around his country. One anecdote has Draskovic barnstorming in rural Serbia, seeking support for his Serbian Renewal Movement. Frustrated by the lack of turnout and support for his efforts, after a long and exhausting day Draskovic plaintively asked some local people, "When will you vote for us?" Not missing a beat, the backwoods electorate answered, "When you come to power."
This koanic exchange underscores the potency of the incumbency in post-authoritarian countries, where power begets power and peaceful, transparent transitions of leadership still remain the exception. It also helps explain the win-at-all-costs mentality so frequently prevalent in unconsolidated democracies. Politicians, by invariably monetizing their power, can face prosecution or worse when they lose their positions, motivating them to hold on all the more desperately. And voters often seem more comfortable with the devil they know, and settle for the hope that "things just don't get worse."
After enormous effort and unexpected unity, the Republic of Moldova's four-party Alliance for European Integration (AEI) recently managed - barely - to dethrone the long-ruling Communists. Now the two roughly equal forces are locked in a strategic contest to see whether the AEI's summer surge can stand. Oddly enough, due to the peculiarities of Moldova's electoral and constitutional legislation, the major tactical consideration underlying today's political moves has become foreseeing who Moldovan voters will likely support in six months.
This is because a super-majority of 61 parliamentary seats is needed to elect the country's president. The close split among the parties - 53 seats for the AEI and 48 for the Communists - means that if no one compromises on a head of state, new elections must be called in early 2010. With an economic crisis only beginning to pummel this agrarian, remittance-dependent country, whoever is in power next year could find the advantages of incumbency offset by blame for financial pain and dislocation.
The pro-European AEI has been highly optimistic about finding the eight Communist votes it needs to advance its candidate, Marian Lupu, to the presidency. Liberal Democrat leader Vlad Filat even went so far to say that the votes "will necessarily come to us." To help this process along, the AEI voted a man the Communists cannot stand, Liberal Mihai Ghimpu, as speaker of parliament knowing full well that Ghimpu would, by succession, become acting president in the absence of a properly elected head of state. They started the blame game over the country's economic mess. And the AEI has repeatedly drummed the idea that the Communists Party will continue to lose ground with the electorate.
None of this appeared initially to have fazed the Communists, whose leader Vladimir Voronin came back newly energized from a recent meeting in Sochi with Russian President Medvedev. On the offensive, Voronin denied the AEI's very existence as a political force, saying that only parties can exist, not "alliances." Consistent with this view, he stood up an invitation from the AEI to discuss a way forward. But then having had enough of consistency, Voronin announced that he would attempt to form a center-left alliance of his own by snatching 13 votes from the coalition.
But in a surprise move, on September 11 Voronin announced that he would step down as acting president, neutralizing criticism that he was trying to hold on to power beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms.
He proceeded to give his resignation speech not in parliament - which he ignored completely - but to the entire nation via the friendly government broadcaster. In these remarks, Voronin lit ferociously into the AEI, accusing it of only caring about "posts" and putting its "own goals and interests" over those of the people. He played on fears of union with Romania by saying that he knew of "no successful government which could be based on the idea of liquidating its own country, on dreams of destroying it." And he closed with a challenge, saying that his "entire team...is moving together into opposition. This, of course, is not the best use of our abilities...at this difficult time for our Motherland. Nonetheless, it is now our opponents' turn to demonstrate their qualities, capabilities and experience." If nothing else, this harangue sounded a lot like a campaign speech.
Which, perhaps it was. The very next day, now ex-president Voronin tipped his hand on the question of forcing another national vote. In an interview on the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, the Communist leader declared that a new round of elections in 2010 would be better for the country than "four years of governance by the new parliamentary majority." Therefore, Voronin said, he would ask the Central Committee of his party to boycott the upcoming legislative ballot to choose the president.
In that same interview, Voronin attacked Brussels, Washington and Bucharest for using, in his estimation, "very serious...resources, practically the open purchase of voters" in the first round of Moldovan elections. Further, he declared that "Commissars" from those capitals were behind the AEI with an aim to "destroy Communism" in the world and his party in particular.
While these colorful and bombastic comments may play well to a particular Russian audience (one not likely comprised of Ekho Moskvy listeners), they clearly have Voronin's fellow-travellers worried. Not only did his categorical and freewheeling statements seem to take his Communists lieutenants by surprise. They also flushed out real differences within the party, which could play into the AEI's hands and make Filat's confident prediction come true.
First of all, the Communists have seen their number of seats fall from 60 in April to 48 in July, thanks to the defection of the popular Communist ex-speaker of parliament, Marian Lupu, to the AEI. A core of moderate Communists are against forcing new elections, as are those Communists lower down on the party list, who fear that their chances of a warm, perk-infused spot in parliament would be ruined by a new contest. Even A-List communists whose seats are not threatened are worried: wily strategist Mark Tkaciuk declared recently that new elections would be a "disaster for the Communists" and a "disaster for Moldova."
Then, as so often happens in this country, everything changed - or did it? Vladimir Voronin came out of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador on September 14 and soon thereafter held an impromptu press conference. He declared that the Communists were now ready to vote for an AEI candidate for president if two conditions were met. First, Moldova must remain neutral, independent and sovereign, with no participation in any military bloc. Second, care should be taken to raise salaries, social-benefits payments, pensions and to improve medical care, maintain the number of schools and increase university students' stipends.
These populist conditions are not too difficult for the AEI, or any Moldova politician, to accept. But they come with one more string attached. Voronin also inveighed that under no circumstances would the Communists vote for Marian Lupu to lead the country. Voronin called Lupu a "traitor" and a "leech" and - revealing that internal party discipline could be waning - suggested that "there may be more of this kind [in the Communist party] who will cross over to the new government." What looked like a step towards agreement turned out to be a strange and circuitous way of reiterating the deadlock.
For its part, the AEI quickly responded on September 15 that Voronin's words are merely a "starting point" for further negotiations. Parliament speaker and now acting president Mihai Ghimpu was more absolute in declaring that "the Communists will vote for Marian Lupu. He remains the AEI's candidate and no other road exists." But of course, the longer deadlock continues, the longer Ghimpu remains acting president of Moldova.
Vladimir Voronin's erratic behaviour and contradictions suggest that he may be unsure of what to do next. He faces pressure from his party not to risk what it has now - 48 seats and by far the strongest block in parliament - in throw of the dice next year. His rivals are moving hard to woo eight or more of his seats and establish Lupu as president, which would further marginalize him. The AEI will soon gain control over key committees and procedures in parliament. And if compromise is not found, popular blame for six more months of a headless state will likely fall on the Communists, regardless of the economic crisis. Vladimir Voronin is learning how difficult and disorienting it can be to lose the incumbency, while the AEI, as Vuk Draskovic predicted, is, for now, waxing in office.
Louis O'Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.
A heavy, stifling heat envelops the Caucasus in midsummer. During the day the sun fries your brain, your throat itches from the hot dust, and the night brings no relief, only hordes of maddened mosquitoes.
For my mother, as the Nazis invaded Poland, the choice was easy. She ran away, with the rest of her Jewish middle-class family. They left a modern apartment, relatives, friends, jobs, family photographs and documents, a prosperous life with its hard-won routines, and their plans for the future.
When I sat opposite Antonia Tsentalya and looked into her eyes, I saw the same refugee's story. It had been the same for her: neighbours turning up in her house, shouting that Kitauri was already on fire, the enemy was getting closer to Gochari, and why were they still there while the Abkhaz military was attacking Ochamchira district?
Antonia, her husband, and their five children, fled without much more thought. Did they at least have time to pack some essentials? Clothes, cosmetics, documents, those invaluable family photographs? She looked at me as though I had landed in Georgia from a different planet. They had taken nothing. There were stories about wild and cruel Chechens and other highlanders, fighting on the side of their Abkhaz kin, burning everything in their path.
The family's biggest problem was Antonia's sick and half-paralysed mother-in-law. They took turns carrying her and even the children did their bit. Although she slowed them down, they never once considered leaving her behind. Finally, a man with a tractor agreed to give the ragged family a lift. Until then Antonia would never have believed how many desperate people could fit on one tractor. Maybe thirty, maybe even forty, clinging to the roof and sides, crammed onto each other's laps, every one of them praying there was enough fuel to get them to Gali, the capital of the neighbouring district.
Antonia Tsentalya helps her daughter Khatuna to run a kindergarten for children of refugees from Akbhazia
Listening to Antonia, I believed every word. She was the family matriarch, with her husband still ill after a stroke several years ago. Her black t-shirt and skirt adorned with flowers added a measure of feminine charm to her peasant looks. Even though she must have been sixty, Antonia radiated the energy of a woman used to working hard in life. Fifteen years after the war, she was still able to laugh about the tractor and its mountain of people. ‘It's a shame we didn't have a camera,' she exclaimed. ‘One photo of that tractor and its human cargo and we'd have had to send it to the editor of the Guinness Book of Records!'
The most interesting aspect of Antonia's story was her own ethnic background. She was Abkhaz, born into an Abkhaz family, and with Abkhaz as her native tongue. In the 1970s she was a student at Sukhumi medical school. That is where she met her Georgian husband, Gogla. At first they kept the wedding secret and spoke to each other in the Soviet lingua franca, Russian. When they finally let their families know, and moved into the house of Gogla's parents, she had no choice but to learn Georgian. It's not an easy language, and back then her Georgian was strewn with errors, but she felt it a moral obligation to learn the language of the family with whom she shared her food, house, emotions, dreams and plans.
Antonia's husband worked as a driver, while she made her living as a nurse. The jobs didn't bring in much money, but the family was comfortable thanks to a large piece of land that they inherited from the family's ancestors. Owning such land was something that marked out the republics of the warmer south Caucasus from the rest of the USSR. In contrast to the Central Asian republics, not to mention Russia itself, people in the Soviet Republic of Georgia could own substantial plots of land, and construct private houses with more than two storeys.
Antonia's husband's family added hard work to this inheritance, and were able to boast a good life by Soviet standards. They grew watermelons, maize, grapes and hazelnuts. In a shed in their yard they kept large jugs full of fermenting wine and chacha.
It was this contented life that filled Antonia's dreams after the escape to Zugdidi. A decade and a half later those dreams had become less frequent, but when she had them, the images were sharp in focus and vivid in colour. She remembered the family celebrations, with long successions of toasts; there were the family arguments, and the everyday challenges and joys of family life. Antonia wiped the tears away from her eyes as she remembered those days.
‘It was a good life. But who destroyed it?' she asked. ‘Who didn't want us to live in peace?'
Her answer was prompt, but hardly original. It's one that can be heard across all the countries of the former Soviet Union, mostly from the mouths of the old, for whom the unfolding of history has brought nothing but personal suffering and pain.
‘It was the politicians!' she exclaimed. ‘They play their games without thinking or caring about people like us.'
For eight months the refugee family lived in the crowded house of relatives in Gali, in the south of Abkhazia. But as the war went on, and Abkhaz forces recaptured the capital, Sukhumi, they had to flee once again. Together with thousands of others they crossed the Inguri River that separates Abkhazia from the rest of the Georgian republic. They settled in Zugdidi, a sleepy provincial town near the de facto border, and as close as they could be to their old home village.
I tried to imagine the scenes in Zugdidi as the refugees arrived en masse. The chaos of the evacuation, the shortages of food and accommodation, the lack of news about friends and relatives, and the desperation of local officials unable to deal with the sudden influx of refugees. At the back of everybody's minds, usually unspoken, was the question of whether they would ever be able to return to the places their families had called home for centuries.
The refugees living in the ceramics factory in Chavchavadze Street are mostly from Abkhazia's Ochamchira district.
Zugdidi was still full of these Internally Displaced Persons. More than forty thousand were living there when we visited in August. Before we arrived at Antonia's flat we had seen two giant concrete buildings in Chavchavadze Street, which had originally been a ceramics factory. They had since become home to several hundred refugees. This was something that could never in their wildest dreams have occurred to the factory's original architects. The production halls had been crudely partitioned into living units with basic privacy afforded by boards of plywood. The bunker-like external walls had been drilled to make holes for windows and chimneys. Those chimneys ventilated primitive ovens, used for heating and baking bread. Two latrines had been dug in the earth outside. Several years after the refugees first moved in, money from international humanitarian organisations paid for two bathrooms with showers, sinks and a washing machine, all arranged in a little pavilion in the factory courtyard. The refugees living in the ceramics factory in Chavchavadze Street were mostly from Ochamchira district. The homes that they feared they might never live in again were only an hour away by car.
At times of relative peace between Abkhazia and Georgia the families were able to get to their native villages, helping the handfuls of relatives who remained there to harvest walnuts and other crops, earning a few pennies extra to help them survive the winter. The Georgian government allowance for IDPs is 22 laris (around $15) per month. In Zugdidi most adults spent their time at the huge local market, desperately trying to earn a few extra laris.
Antonia and her daughter Khatuna both knew people living at the Chavchavadze Street compound, and counted themselves lucky to have found accommodation in an old medical clinic in the outskirts of Zugdidi. They were first brought there by distant relatives of her husband, and the staff at the clinic vacated two rooms for the family to move into.
The first years were incredibly hard. The only way to the city centre was on foot, a distance of about four miles, and the only chance to earn money was wheeling and dealing at the market. They soon realized that they could grow tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and carrots on the land surrounding the clinic. Later they bought a cow and some chickens. They worked hard to make their lives better, as they had in their old village.
‘Other people from Abkhazia followed us and moved into other buildings in the clinic compound,' Antonia remembered. ‘Now there are around fifteen hundred people living here.'
Antonia knew the story of nearly every family. The theme was always the same: they saw their houses set on fire and their relatives shot dead right in front of them; they remember the first nights after the escape, finding what shelter they could, in basements, tents, barracks, or anything they could improvise; they remember the taste of their own tears, and the feeling of helplessness, despair and abandonment. They were powerless in the face of this tragedy that changed their lives forever.
Antonia's daughter Khatuna tried to do something to help the children of the refugees, many of them born in exile. She had the idea of setting up a kindergarten in the old clinic. While the parents journeyed into the city for the chance to earn a few laris, the children were taken care of. They were fed well, learned songs and how to draw, and had the chance to play with dolls and toys, just like the children of normal families in normal countries. At first Khatuna ran the kindergarten as a volunteer. A year or two later, humanitarian organisations noticed her work and provided the funding to keep it going. Antonia also found work in the kindergarten as a cook.
So did Antonia still want to return to her home?
Twice in the last fifteen years she had visited her native village. Both times she was travelling to family funerals. The first time, the Abkhaz border guard didn't want to let her through. It didn't matter that she could speak fluent Abkhaz, was Abkhaz herself, and had a large cohort of relatives waiting on the other side of the border, including her brother. The only documents she carried were a new Georgian passport and her birth certificate. All other documents had been left behind during their escape. On that first occasion, and the subsequent one, only bribes had made getting across the de facto border possible.
‘Yes, we want to go back,' she said with resolve. ‘All our children are learning Abkhaz, and we tell them about our old life there almost every day.'
I told Antonia my own mother's story. She had ended up in Soviet Uzbekistan, deep in Central Asia, and lived there throughout the 1940s. During those years of cruel war that destroyed half the world, she dreamed only of going home. But when she did return, she could only weep at what had been lost. Her whole family had perished in the Holocaust. Her entire previous existence had also vanished, leaving a new one that looked and smelled differently, and not just because of the new Soviet domination of Poland.
‘It will be the same with us', agreed Antonia, nodding her head sadly. ‘But we should not be so divided. When I joined the Georgian family of my husband I was surprised how similar our cultures are. We eat similar dishes, dance similar dances. We shouldn't be fighting. Simple people are innocent.'
There was a glimmer of hope that her dream of return, however difficult, might happen. Abkhazia's leaders, including President Bagapsh, have spoken openly against allowing refugees to return to central Abkhazia, to cities such as Sukhumi, Gudauty, Pitsunda and Gagra. They argued that in the Soviet years Tbilisi kept sending Georgian settlers to Abkhazia, to change its demography and dilute the Abkhaz hold on their land. But in the south the politicians were more open to compromise, and did not rule out negotiating some form of return for the refugees.
It was also possible that Antonia would die as a refugee in Zugdidi, with her children and grandchildren exiled from Abkhazia forever. From what she said, I understood that the most important thing for Antonia was that there should be no more fighting, no more war.
Zugdidi's colourful market boasts an abundance of delicious fresh food
After taking leave of Antonia, I walked around the centre of Zugdidi. The huge, colourful market boasted an abundance of delicious fresh food. I took an enjoyable stroll along an old boulevard lined with maple trees, reminiscent of pre-Soviet Tsarist days but named after Georgia's first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. A section of the boulevard had been turned into a fountain, with streams of water spouting up into the air from paving stones painted in the colours of the Georgian flag. Children ran in and out of the jets of water, as mothers and fathers kept watch from a safely dry distance. I stopped in a local cafeteria for some kharcho, a soup of hot peppers and meat, accompanied by a glass of chacha. Honey coloured melons sat for sale in every local grocer's shop, alongside juicy tomatoes that had ripened under the Georgian sun. I noticed a puzzlingly high number of pharmacies and hairdresser salons in the city centre. If it were not for my bald head, I would have been tempted to enter one for a swift hair cut.
There were plenty of people on the streets, but the atmosphere in Zugdidi, so near the de facto border with Abkhazia, was calm, almost sleepy. Yes, they had watched television news reports about shootings and the rise in tension in South Ossetia, reported Nino, the young receptionist in our hotel. But, she argued, that is a long way from Zugdidi.
‘Anyway, we are used to tension. It will be okay here, even if it gets worse over in South Ossetia.'
Nino was wrong. In less than a week after military action began in South Ossetia, more than one hundred Russian tanks crossed the Inguri River and occupied Zugdidi.
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski's travel to Georgia and Abkhazia last year was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/)
On the Georgian side of the border mostly cows welcome travellers arriving from Abkhazia
Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski:
Tbilisi: twenty hours before the war: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/tbilisi-twenty-hours-before-the-war
Sukhumi: Cafe Lika on the brink of war: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/sukhumi-cafe-lika-on-the-brink-of-war
It need hardly be said that little remains of the boundless euphoria experienced by Abkhaz people on 26 August 2008, the day President Dmitry Medvedev announced the recognition of independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At that time everyone believed that no fewer than 10 countries would soon follow suit, but this turned out to be a vain hope. At the moment of writing no one, apart from Nicaragua, has offered support to Abkhazia, and this has clearly affected the official rhetoric emanating from Sukhumi.
A year ago, before the August events in the Caucasus, President Bagapsh and foreign minister Sergei Shamba often put forward the idea of a multi-vector foreign policy, which clearly did not suit Moscow at all. Several months before Russia's recognition of Abkhazia, Mr Shamba had spelt out this policy, which was to involve Russia, the European Union and Turkey (where there is a population of up to 500,000 Abkhaz, who were forced to migrate there after the Caucasian war in the 19th century). However, these signals received no support from the West, and after the European Union and the USA had reacted extremely negatively to Russia's recognition of Abkhazia's independence, the "multi-vector" thesis quietly disappeared from the vocabulary of official Sukhumi altogether.
Nevertheless, the fact of recognition and Moscow's acceptance of responsibility for security in Abkhazia was sufficient for the issue of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict to take a back seat for the Abkhaz themselves a year later.
Stationing a Russian military base in the republic and posting Russian border guards on the Abkhaz-Georgian border along the Inguri River virtually eliminated the threat of war with Georgia for Abkhaz society. The world media may constantly claim a new Russian-Georgian war is not far off, but from inside Abkhazia this is difficult to believe. No one in local political circles or in the expert community thinks that Abkhazia will be dragged into a new war in the near future. Never before has there been such unanimity. The unprecedented flow of tourists into the republic is indirect proof that there is no cause for concern. The season is in full swing and already three times more people have chosen to take their holidays at Abkhaz resorts than last year. Which, as Abkhaz politicians say, is a kind of barometer.
For the Abkhaz themselves, perhaps the most important product of recognition is security. After all, the young republic had effectively been in a state of siege since 1994, with daily expectations of an attack from Tbilisi.
The Sukhumi government may have dealt with one headache, but there are still just as many problems. The Abkhaz are now trying to prove that their desire for independence is not limited to not wanting to live in Georgia. Currently the most important task for them is to establish and maintain normal relations with Moscow with no loss of sovereignty. The whole future of the Abkhaz project depends on how quickly they will cope with the new challenge.
In relation to the main enemy, Georgia, even an ordinary Abkhaz farmer understood very well what was in Abkhaz interests and what was not, as these interests had cost the lives of several thousand Abkhaz during their 1992-93 war with Georgia. But how to organise its relations with Russia, at present its only ally - this not even the Abkhaz political elite itself knows.
The Abkhaz have no wish to quarrel with their mighty neighbour: Russia is not just their only window on the world and guarantor of protection from Georgia, but also the source of financial prosperity. Direct subsidies from Moscow make up more than half the Abkhaz budget and trade with Russia is 95% of the country's commercial traffic. Holidaymakers at Abkhaz resorts (the most important segment of the economy) are almost exclusively Russian and practically all foreign investments are also Russian. On top of this most people have dual Abkhaz-Russian citizenship, which allows them to travel the world. Local pensioners receive a Russian pension, which is 10 times greater than the Abkhaz pension. Such close relations make it difficult to preserve the national interest, that is sovereignty and national identity, but Abkhaz society is not prepared to sacrifice its sovereignty just to please Moscow - it is too hard won. South Ossetia regards independence as a transitional stage to eventually becoming part of Russia, but Abkhazia has no such plans.
This explains the reaction to one of the first treaties with Russia - "On the joint protection of the border of the Republic of Abkhazia", signed at the Kremlin by Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Bagapsh at the end of April this year. Many experts consider that some parts of the Agreement go against the Abkhaz Constitution and such was the level of criticism that even Moscow became concerned. A representative delegation of Federal Council senators and State Duma deputies was immediately dispatched to Sukhumi to dispel Abkhaz doubts. The Kremlin also recalled for fine tuning the Russian-Abkhaz treaty on military cooperation which was ready to be signed. Thus did Moscow succeed in defusing the situation.
But this may only be a temporary measure. The Abkhaz presidential elections are due in December and it is already clear that in the battle for votes the Russian question will be one of the most important. There are plenty of possible irritants. President Sergei Bagapsh has declared his intention to transfer Abkhaz railways and Sukhumi Airport to Russian management for eventual privatisation. He also plans to allow the Russian state company Rosneft to produce oil on the Abkhaz shelf of the Black Sea. The government's projects have riled the opposition. They accuse the president of selling off national interests. He in his turn justifies his actions by saying that Abkhazia on its own cannot rebuild and subsequently maintain its railway and this also applies to other strategic segments which Russian business has its eye on. Through the media, which he controls, the President has accused the opposition of inflaming anti-Russian feelings, which is an absurd charge. The Abkhaz political elite has plenty of shortcomings, but one thing that unites them is their pragmatism in relation to Russia.
Spoiling relations with a country on which the vitality of one's own country depends is not part of the game plan of any Abkhaz politician. Moscow could come to an agreement with any of them on any issue, except one - Abkhazia's rejection of independent state status. The present Abkhaz opposition, represented by two leaders - the head of the ERA party Belan Butba and the former vice-president Raul Khadzhimba - is no exception. Butba entered politics as one of the richest people in Abkhazia, and his main business is in Russia. Raul Khadzhimba had unlimited Kremlin support in the presidential elections of 2005. For several months the Kremlin used all kinds of pressure, including closing the Abkhaz-Russian border, refusing to recognise the victory of the candidate from the opposition at the time, Sergei Bagapsh. Moscow was forced to back down in the end and new elections were held. Bagapsh became president, and Khadzhimba vice-president. After the scandal surrounding the border treaty, Khadzhimba staged a walk-out and resigned. He now says that the present state of Russian-Abkhaz relations is not Moscow's fault at all: he lays the blame exclusively on the Abkhaz leadership, hinting that national interests suffered because of the government's incompetence, and that they were sacrificed for the personal interests of individual government representatives.
The Kremlin is more aware than ever of the nuances of the Abkhaz internal situation (which was not the case, say, five years ago during the last presidential elections). Although Moscow is quite happy with President Bagapsh, and his popularity rating in the country is quite high, Russia does not intend to repeat previous mistakes. To clarify his position Vladimir Putin had to do something the Kremlin had never done before in the post-Soviet space. During his one-day visit to Sukhumi he took the unusual step of holding separate meetings in the presidential palace with Bagapsh and the leaders of the opposition. A year ago Russia guaranteed Abkhazia protection from Georgia. Now she has no objection to extending her powers and guaranteeing their internal stability. And by all accounts the Abkhaz do not object to these intentions.
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.
I'm not sure I can recommend the Abkhazian house wine that gets served in the bars and restaurants of Sukhumi. The Abkhazians make some drinkable wine, like the ‘Psou' brand that is served in Moscow's upscale Aromatniy Mir supermarket chain, but their rough and ready house wine is something to be avoided.
It happened on a Friday. Armed men in camouflage uniforms drove up to Nazir's house in a small village in Chechnya's mountainous Vedeno district. They turned Nazir's home upside down. Nazir had some wooden boards he was going to use to repair the floor, and when the armed men started setting up the boards for a bonfire, he understood what was about to happen. Nazir was scared - not for himself, but for his neighbors. He singled out the person in charge of the large group, approached him, and tried to explain: "I know that you want to burn my house. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can't do anything about it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor's roof. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor's house."
Nazir's nephews have been allegedly involved in Chechnya's still smoldering insurgency for almost a decade, and Nazir knew that he was now going to pay the price for failing to convince them to surrender.
To be fair, the serviceman Nazir thought to be in charge understood the situation, but said that the decision had been made at the top, that he had orders from higher up. The house was to be burned. But Nazir proposed a compromise. He said to the commander, "An excavator operator lives nearby. He could separate the roofs. And then perhaps nothing bad would happen... Could you please send your soldiers to fetch him?" Twenty minutes later the excavator operator and his machine were brought to the house, and the excavator driver, following the elderly man's directions, separated the roofs and broke a part of the wall that was less than one meter from his neighbor's house. Then Nazir's house was set on fire. Everyone, including Nazir, stood by and watched the flames rise.
Nazir and his family are now homeless. At least two dozen other families in different districts of Chechnya have had their houses torched in 2008 and 2009 by local Chechen law enforcement personnel to punish them because their relatives are allegedly insurgents, and to coerce the insurgents to surrender. This report documents these episodes of collective punishment.
Today, the armed conflict in Chechnya has subsided and the capital, Grozny, has been largely rebuilt. However, abuses such as torture, illegal detention, and extrajudicial executions persist (albeit on a smaller scale), and impunity for past and ongoing abuses is rampant. The perpetrators of ongoing violations are mainly law enforcement and security personnel under the de facto control of the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Although insurgent attacks in Chechnya are now distinctly less frequent than in the neighboring North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia or Dagestan, they continue to occur sporadically. The insurgency has a loose agenda to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Working toward those objectives, insurgents have been using a variety of violent tactics, including killings and house-burnings, against members and supporters of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities: policemen, security personnel, administration officials, and their family members.
The perpetrators of these and other crimes must be held accountable under the law and in accordance with international fair trial standards. However, unlawful tactics used by insurgents can in no way justify the use of similar tactics by government forces fighting against the insurgency, particularly burning of houses and other types of persecution against families of alleged rebel fighters.
Human Rights Watch is aware of 25 cases of punitive house burning that can be attributed to Chechen law enforcement personnel between June 2008 and March 2009 in seven districts of Chechnya: ten in Kurchaloi, six in Shali, four in Vedeno, two in Naur, and one each in Shatoi, Achkhoi-Martan, and Grozny districts. Also, just several days prior to the release of this report Human Rights Watch learned of yet another, most recent case of house-burning. On June 18, around 5 a.m., unidentified law enforcement servicemen reportedly burned two homes belonging to elderly parents of an alleged insurgent in the village of Engel-Yurt, in the Gudermes district.
All the affected families, whose homes were burned, have among their close relatives alleged insurgents, usually sons or nephews. In most cases, prior to the house-burning, law enforcement and local administration officials strongly pressured the families to bring their relatives home "from the woods" and threatened them with severe repercussions for failure to do so. Some burnings occurred very soon after a rebel attack in the vicinity and therefore appeared to have been motivated by retribution.
Notably, in 2008 high-level Chechen officials, including President Kadyrov, made public statements explicitly stating that the insurgents' families should expect to be punished unless they convince their relatives to surrender. While such statements may not constitute direct instructions for law enforcement agents to destroy houses of insurgents' families, they encourage such actions by police and security personnel by sending a strong message that lawless, punitive actions will be tolerated or condoned.
Thirteen episodes of punitive house-burning are documented in detail in this report. These cases follow a strikingly similar pattern. They were generally perpetrated at night, with law enforcement personnel-often masked-arriving in several cars, breaking into the yard, and forcing the residents out of their house. The perpetrators would prevent residents from approaching their home, treating them roughly and in some cases holding them at gunpoint.
The assailants torched the houses methodically and unhurriedly. They looked around the inside of the house, piled furniture together, put easily flammable objects on top, doused gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. They would stay for up to an hour watching the fire spread, to make sure the residents or their neighbors did not attempt to put it out before the house was well ablaze.
The victims were generally told in clear terms that complaining about the house-burning would lead to further repercussions. Consequently, only in three cases known to Human Rights Watch did victims file complaints with the authorities. In another three cases the victims agreed to have Memorial, a leading Russian human rights NGO working in the North Caucasus, raise their cases with competent authorities. At least two of the families were then threatened by the district law enforcement authorities and forced to sign a statement that the fire had been caused by their own carelessness. At this writing not a single criminal case into the allegations of house-burning in Chechnya has been opened by the law enforcement authorities.
The Russian government has overwhelmingly failed to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations during a decade of war and counterinsurgency in Chechnya. Indeed, in more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Russia responsible for serious violations in Chechnya. One Chechen government official told Human Rights Watch that this failure has helped to create in Chechnya an acceptance of impunity as the norm. This situation cannot be tolerated, and calls for prompt and effective measures.
Russian federal and Chechen authorities should immediately put a stop to collective punishment practices, including house-burnings, against families of alleged insurgents, and ensure meaningful accountability for perpetrators of these and other human rights violations. Accountability includes ensuring effective implementation of ECtHR rulings on Chechnya cases. Other governments, in particular European Union states and the United States, should use multilateral forums and bilateral dialogues to call on Russia to stop collective punishment practices, and put an end to impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya.
This report is based primarily on field research conducted in close cooperation with Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, in March and April 2009 during two Human Rights Watch missions to Chechnya. In the course of these missions, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited and photographed house-burning sites and interviewed 37 individuals, including owners and former residents of homes destroyed by house-burning, and witnesses of the house-burnings. We also interviewed 14 human rights activists, lawyers, government officials, and law enforcement personnel. Field research was conducted in the Achkhoi-Martan, Kurchaloi, Naur, Shatoi, Shali, and Vedeno districts of Chechnya, where the burnings had taken place, as well as in Grozny, where some victims, witnesses, activists, and officials were interviewed. Several interviews were done in Moscow or by phone from Moscow. Sites of house-burnings were identified based on information received from Chechnya-based human rights activists as well as from some victims of house-burnings who happened to be aware of other similar cases. All interviews were conducted in Russian by a Human Rights Watch researcher who is a native speaker of Russian.
Also, Human Rights Watch examined official documents, prosecutor's office decrees, public statements by Chechen officials, analytical reports published by Russian human rights groups, and media accounts. Transcripts of televised statements by President Kadyrov and several other high-level Chechen officials were translated by a native speaker of Chechen.
The present report documents only those house-burning cases for which we were able to interview victims and witnesses to the burnings and make our own site visits.
The vast majority of those interviewed for this report were deeply concerned about possible repercussions for their families and asked Human Rights Watch researchers not to use their real names. Consequently, we chose to assign pseudonyms to victims and witnesses quoted in the report who gave us their names (the pseudonyms were chosen randomly from a comprehensive list of Chechen names at a specialized website http://www.n-a-m-e-s.info/dat_imya/chechenu.htm).
During the short time that he has been in power, Yevkurov has completely changed course and shown a desire for change. Firstly, the government's style and methods for dealing with the armed underworld are different. The Ingush authorities have made serious efforts to stamp out abuses in infringements of the law during the course of ‘counter-terrorist operations'. Secondly, Yevkurov has tried to be guided by society, including the human rights organisations. Finally, he has declared war on corruption.
This is very different from neighbouring Dagestan. Ingushetia is between two sources of violence, power and terror, but has the chance to put an end to the stalemate.
Clearly Yunus-Bek Yevkurov is not to everyone's taste. His attempt to work with society has deprived the armed underworld of its basis for mobilisation and is no less acceptable to the corrupt representatives of the government and the security services.
We wish the President of Ingushetia a speedy recovery and shall look forward to him returning to his burdensome duties.
There were several attempts on Zyazikov's life, including a car full of explosives being driven into his motorcade. The car blew up at the side of the road leaving an enormous the crater. After that when Zyazikov was due to drive by, a large section of the ‘Caucasus' highway was closed to all traffic.
In Moscow the close Kutuzov Prospect when the president and prime minister are driven along it. In Ingushetia a whole section of the federal highway from the village of Barsuki to Magas, the capital of the republic, was completely closed to traffic. The government also tightened the screws: if before Zyazikov had tried to ignore what was going on. After that, every attempt on his family was taken as an attack on him personally and many of his policies were driven by personal revenge.
We are unlikely to see a repeat of this. Yevkurov is, after all, not a ‘drawing room secret service man', but a seasoned soldier with experience of commanding large numbers of people and taking responsibility for them. He has already demonstrated this. It was known that attempts on his life had been planned. Unlike Zyazikov, Yevkurov's previous job also exposed him to the gravest danger, so we hope that he will be able to return and carry on his work.
The Kremlin's policies are another matter. When Medvedev came to Makhachkala after the murder of Adilgibrei Magomedtagirov, he gave out conflicting signals: he talked about corrupt clans and of the need for tougher opposition to the Wahhabis. What good will that do ? Methods used in Dagestan have only encouraged the underworld over a period of at least 10 years.
Of course it is a natural reaction to respond in kind. The stronger the provocation, the more violent the reaction and violence breeds violence. Government is always tempted to behave as harshly as possible, as if it is justified in responding to terrorist action.
At this point I can't help being reminded of the famous episode of the Spartans and Emperor Darius. When the Persian envoys came to the Spartans to demand ‘land and water', i.e submission, the Spartans, being men of few words, threw them into a well: ‘You want land and water - well, here you are!' We all know this story. What is less well known is that those laconic Spartans then sent their envoys to Emperor Darius as if to say ‘we've destroyed your envoys, now you can destroy ours'. How did Darius respond? He declared ‘I shall not kill the envoys, because by so doing I should become like the Spartans and lose my right to judge them.'
The temptation to behave like the terrorists is always very strong. But in doing so one oversteps the mark, thus denying both moral rights and the law. When government puts itself above the law, it loses the moral right to judge the bandits. It descends to their level, making it difficult to understand who is who. This is the principle underlying the humane practice of law and everything that mankind has devised to stop the escalation of violence, to prevent it becoming an end in itself, rather than a (sometimes essential) means.
In my view that Yevkurov has already shown that he understands what's what. I hope he will hold fast to his chosen course and find the appropriate means for dealing with the situation, without yielding to the temptation of simple solutions for complicated problems.
Few people really understand what is happening there. It is hard to get an objective picture of events in such a complex place, home to more than 30 different ethnic groups speaking many different languages. In fact, it is all but impossible, even more so when the media propagate myths that are often completely absurd.
Gudben - the myth
Gudben, a village in the Karabudakhkent District, has something of a reputation. People outside and inside Dagestan say that it is a ‘wahhabi' village. They'll tell you all sorts of stories about what goes on there. You get the idea that the village has been completely taken over by Islamic radicals, that they've more or less imposed sharia law there, as they did in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi before the outbreak of the second Chechen war. They say that the women are all hidden behind veils and girls do not go to school, while the boys study in the Koranic school, where they are turned into future martyrs for Islam. At any rate, they're supposedly ready to take to the forests. Indeed, they say that Islamic fundamentalism has got such a foothold in Gudben that the doors of people's houses have two handles - one for men and one for women. It's not for nothing that a counterterrorist operation has been underway there since March.
Islam does indeed play an important part in the life of Gudben. It is as an old village with deep-rooted religious traditions. Even during the Soviet years, local people stubbornly defended their right to believe and pray openly. The Dagestani authorities complained to Moscow that, "in the village of Gudben, in 1956, a group of religious fanatics, acting without permission, opened a mosque", and that "it is very hard to stamp out the relics of the past in people's minds and lives: the religious authorities forbid the young people from joining the komsomol and constantly undermine the communist ideology". (http://www.chernovik.net/news/245/MONOTHEOS/2007/10/12/3444)
People from Gudben were among the first Russian Muslims to make the hajj in the early 1990s. Salafist preachers were active in the village, and it certainly had its share of aggressive fundamentalists, though there can't have been too many of them, because when Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan, they were swiftly dealt with by their own fellow villagers. The villagers gave them a beating, kicked them out of the madresa and made them promise that they would not under any circumstances help Basayev and his friends. In other words, the radicals were not the dominant force in the village.
So how is it that 10 years later there is no secular education and even door handles are segregated according to sex? Or is this just hearsay?
Gudben - the reality
It's hard to say who thought up the story about the door handles. The doors in Gudben are extremely ordinary, with just one handle. As for the women, they are not hidden behind burqas, but wear long dresses and cover their hair with a scarf thrown over the shoulder. You don't see anyone smoking in the streets, and you certainly don't see anyone drunk. People here are serious about their religion, they stick to the rules, and pray five times a day.
There are over 12,000 people living in the village, and the locals say that four villagers have gone to join the insurgents in the forest. Just four, not hundreds or even dozens. When the ‘counterterrorist' operation began in March, the security forces, worried by the news that Gudben had been taken over by wahhabi fundamentalists, began picking out families who were not sending their children to school. They came up with a total of around 30 children who were not receiving any secular education. This is not a good thing of course. But to put it in perspective, Gudben is a big village, the families all have many children, and 30 children is a drop in the ocean.
As for the question of education, the real problem is not that there are children who don't go to school, but that even those who do go to school have no chance of getting a decent education. The teachers are recent graduates of the very same local school with precious little experience. They speak to the children in Dargin, but the textbooks are in Russian. The children learn to read out the syllables, but they don't actually understand what they're reading. They learn basic arithmetic, and that is about as far it goes.
The better-off families try and send their boys, especially their older sons, to boarding school or to relatives in the towns of Makhachkala, Buinak and Kaspiisk. If the boys have certificates proving that they've had nine years of schooling, schools in the towns usually reluctantly accept them into the sixth year and try to help them catch up, though they are probably more like third year students. Village families don't send their daughters away to study. There is not enough money to go around, and they need helping hands at home. While this is certainly sad, the same is true of many villages in the North Caucasus.
Gudben is an ordinary village, old, with narrow winding streets that not every car can manage. But the streets here were not designed for cars. It has picturesque stone houses and a huge cemetery on the hill, from where you get an excellent view of the mosque, the same mosque that Gudben's fearless rebels built against Soviet atheism in the late 1950s. The village women and girls look exotic to urban-dwelling outsiders with their colourful headscarves and traditional clothes. It is a picturesque Dargin village high up in the mountains, a place with its own customs. The local life is full of interest. It would be good to make a documentary about it, to be able to show the daily lives of these people who want only to be left in peace to follow their traditions without the upset caused by endless ‘special operations'.
Beard = wahhabi
"Young men with beards can't show their faces here", said a strongly-built man of around 40, shaking his head. "The security people, if they see a beard, that's it - they're taken into custody straight away. They don't touch the old people, but the young ones... best not to go out. People here prayed during the Soviet years. They prayed in secret, but they kept the religion alive. After the old regime collapsed, we started travelling all around Dagestan, preaching Islam, teaching Muslims who'd lost their knowledge. We had up to 400 people during the holy Ramadan month. We found mosques that had been turned into storehouses, cleaned them, and people began coming to them again...
"Later, at the end of the 1990s, this talk of ‘wahhabis' began, some sort of enemy. People became afraid of receiving us. Now life's become impossible. I get called a wahhabi, but I've not held a gun since I was in the Soviet army. I simply want to follow my beliefs. Yes, I practise pure Islam. Muslims need nothing except what the Prophet God sent and what's written in the books. But here we have fundamentalists like me, and traditionalists who follow the sheikhs. We all pray together, all go to the same mosque. It's shameful to say, but I don't wear a beard, though I should. I should be setting an example. But the security people would only cause me grief. Look what happened to Saihadji Saihadjiev. He's the same age as me, not even a young man, and now he's left seven children behind. Who is going to bring them up? Two others were killed along with him. And me, I want to raise my children..."
On October 21, 2008, just 10 kilometres away from Gudben, there was a clash between the insurgents and security forces. Five police officers, including a local policeman from Gudben, were wounded. The security forces surrounded the village and over the next four days detained about 40 local people. They were then sent to police stations in Kaspiisk and Makhachkala. There, they were questioned about the insurgents. Many were beaten, threatened, but they were released fairly quickly.
The villagers thought the incident was over. But on October 27, three Gudben residents, Saihadji Saihadjiev, Nustap Aburakhmanov, and Akhmed Hadjimagomedov, ‘disappeared'. Forty-four year-old Saihadjiev went that evening to pray at the mosque and never came home. Hadjimagomedov collected his daughter from school, then went to the mosque, and disappeared too. Abdurakhmanov was in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, at the time. He was abducted there. In all three cases relatives soon found eyewitnesses to confirm that the three men were taken away by law enforcement officials. On October 28, the families were told that the three men were killed during a ‘special operation' in Dagestan's Sergokalinsk district, while putting up resistance to law enforcement officers. The families' requests for the bodies to be handed back to them were rejected at first. Under Russian law, terrorists' bodies are not handed over to relatives. But Saihadjiev's father turned out to have connections in high places and after two difficult days, he and the other two families were able to get back their sons' bodies. They could see that they had been subjected to torture.
Magomed Saihadjiev is 76. Taking his guests up to the second storey of his house he sits down, upright, his silver-white beard neatly combed. His wife Kistoman sits on the stairs, watching attentively, not saying a word, only shedding silent tears from time to time, shyly covering her eyes with the edge of her white headscarf.
"My son left the house and drove to the mosque", Magomed says. "He entered the mosque. There was a white car waiting beside the mosque. When he came out again, the law enforcement people took him away. There were witnesses. We didn't have a clue about what was going on. There was just this report on the news, this special operation, three insurgents killed, and Saihadji among them. If it hadn't been for my connections we'd never have got his body back. He would've been buried somewhere and we'd never have known what happened. But they ended up having to hand over his body. When I saw what they'd done to my son... One of my relatives, Abdula Rasudlov, is a doctor. We called him, got him to examine the body and explain what he saw, and we filmed it all on video. I'll put it on for you to watch now..."
Magomed put on the recording. The screen showed a horribly tortured body accompanied by the doctor's calm and even voice. Broken bones, burns, bruising...
"We went to the prosecutors. We have a lawyer too... But there's no hope here. Our lawyer says that if we take the case to the European Court of Human Rights we would definitely win, because we have all the proof. But I heard this would take a long time... Do you know how long we'd have to wait, a year, two years? What, five whole years? Isn't there any way to speed things up? Please try to do something. You saw yourselves what they did to him? And for what? Saihadji spent his whole life doing nothing but good for others. He never caused anyone any harm. And then there was this shootout with the police, our local policeman got caught in it too. Then they came and took him and the two others away by way of punishment... Innocent people! He's left four sons behind. How are they going to manage now?"
Saihadji's youngest son is two years and eight months old. His relatives say that the boy spends whole days sitting on the windowsill, waiting for his father, asking when papa will come home.
On the village outskirts, the big cemetery on the hill offers a wonderful view of the mosque, that same mosque which the villagers opened without permission more than fifty years ago. Saihadji is buried near the cemetery fence. His mother often visits the grave with her little grandson. While his grandmother prays, the little boy runs around, hiding behind the white stone gravestones.
He doesn't yet understand the meaning of death.
The new year in Russia
Russia's new economy
Russian rights at the crossroads
Beyond the gastarbeiter: post-Soviet migration
Madeleine Reeves (Manchester University, UK) presents the other side of post-Soviet migration.
Russia's year of elections
Women, tradition and power in the North Caucasus
Privatizatsiya, twenty years on
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin