Chechnya's perils and plight

A European human rights delegation arrived Sunday, following abduction of an American aid worker.

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Just like war, kidnapping may be an extension of politics by other means. But the recent seizure of an American relief worker in Chechnya, Russia's separatist republic, also underscores the fragile vulnerability of aid workers in murky war zones.

Raised anew are concerns that aid work has become even more difficult, as Chechnya endures its second winter of conflict. The episode also explodes claims by Russian forces - considered by some to be prime suspects in this abduction - to have restored order in the republic after 18 months of war.

The United Nations and other relief agencies suspended operations in Chechnya after Kenneth Gluck, with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), was seized from an aid convoy by masked gunmen near Stari Atagi, south of the Chechen capital, Grozny, one week ago.

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It is the same area where another American relief worker, Fred Cuny, disappeared during the first Chechen war in April 1995.

"Our concern is the people in need. They are the ones suffering needlessly through this," says Jim Lewis, the logistical coordinator for MSF-Holland in Moscow. "I'm sure the people who abducted Kenny are aware of the repercussions."

Russia immediately blamed Chechen guerrillas, who in turn denied any role, and vowed to find Mr. Gluck. Russian officials also accused MSF of being in Chechnya illegally - an allegation the group denies - and noted that kidnapping was once a top money-earning industry during Chechnya's failed bid at self-rule from 1996 to 1999.

Moscow has made it clear that aid workers are unwelcome and made relief access extremely difficult. In a late December appearance on a Russian talk show, Russian officials were visibly discomfited when Gluck, the lone dissenting voice, criticized Russia's role in Chechnya and became somewhat emotional about the continued suffering of Chechens.

Russian forces have created an atmosphere of "psychological intimidation," says Lipkhan Basayeva, a member of the Russian human rights group Memorial, who is based in Ingushetia. In recent months, Gluck and his local staff had sometimes been delayed at Russian checkpoints, and accused of "collecting military information," says Ms. Basayeva.

Chechen civilians have alleged they were held for ransom by Russian troops. "It is very easy to provide protection from the bandits. The problem is to provide protection from federal troops," says Basayeva. "From our point of view, [Gluck's] kidnapping was either an organized and well-planned action [by Russians] or an initiative of some Russian military groups controlled by nobody."

Russian officials dismiss such claims as an "exotic version" of events.

Russian troops stand accused of a host of human rights abuses against civilians, and are frustrated that a campaign once billed as "limited" - and officially launched, in part, to stop kidnapping - has bogged down.

"Nobody wins," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. The Chechen people are the "biggest" losers, as well as Chechen rebels, "because their image as lawless and undisciplined criminal gangs has been vividly revived.

"It is not an unqualified propaganda success for Russia" either, he adds, "because Moscow's inability to control the region or even provide elementary security is clearly underlined by this episode."

Caught in the middle are relief agencies like MSF, which since February last year has expanded work in Chechnya to include supplying medical help to 120,000 people per month.

Barely a handful of agencies work in Chechnya itself. Most of those use local staff to deliver food and supplies to the needy, while dozens help with the tens of thousands of Chechen refugees in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia.

Ramifications of strict new security precautions affect everybody, however, and point to a Catch-22.

"[MSF] not only put their personal lives at risk, but they put into risk the whole humanitarian operation," says a relief worker in Ingushetia, who asked not to be further identified. "This is the first thing they should think about."

"We didn't jeopardize anybody," counters Mr. Lewis. "Do they think we should not have been there at all? What people don't understand is that there is as much risk of kidnapping in Ingushetia and [the former Soviet republic of] Georgia as there is in Chechnya."

While Russian officials accuse "Chechen terrorists" of the kidnapping, Lt. Gen. Ivan Babichev, the chief of Russian federal forces in Chechnya, told Russian news agencies Jan. 10, "part of the blame for this tragedy lies with [MSF] itself."

MSF notes that General Babichev's name appears on all of its permission forms, which are approved every 14 days with exact names, car license plate numbers, and work districts.

Gluck's convoy, which included another American working for the agency Action International Contre le Faim, passed through a dozen Russian checkpoints before being ambushed.

Dozens of foreigners, mostly aid and technical workers, were seized and held for ransom by Chechen gangs between 1997 and 1999. But Gluck is the first foreigner kidnapped in Chechnya since October 1999.

Although Chechen rebels succeeded in defeating Russian forces during the previous 1994-'96 conflict, they failed to build a viable peace.

Chechnya's first elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, tried unsuccessfully to curb local warlords. They turned drug smuggling, arms peddling, and kidnapping into the enclave's most lucrative businesses. The region's endemic lawlessness was cited as a key reason for Russia's latest military intervention.

Though no evidence has ever been revealed, the Kremlin blamed Chechen "terrorists" for a string of apartment bombings across Russia in August and September 1999 that left more than 300 dead. Russian officials used the bombings - and their high emotional impact - as part of the pretext to send Russian troops into Chechnya.

On the wave of popularity raised by his decisive handling of Chechnya, Vladimir Putin - a former KGB spy - rode to victory in presidential elections in March last year.

"The Gluck kidnapping shows that military force has changed nothing on the ground in Chechnya," says Svytoslav Kaspe, chief analyst with the independent Public Policy Center in Moscow.

"Chechnya has become a zone of tragedy, where there is no law but the gun. If aid groups pull out now, it will be a serious blow to the well-being of people there," he says. "Our federal authorities are incapable of providing the necessary levels of assistance to the people of Chechnya."

A delegation for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly arrived in the Caucasus over the weekend to look into claims of human rights abuses committed by Russian troops.

Delegation chief, Britain's Lord Judd, told reporters on Sunday, "There is still a very disturbing gap between the number of [registered] cases ... and cases brought to court." He noted that of some 500 complaints, only 10 were were sent to court.

Later this month, the assembly is due to review last year's suspension of Russia's voting rights, withdrawn over the situation in Chechnya.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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