From a distance, Russia may appear to be turning over a new leaf on human rights abuses in Chechnya - where Moscow's harsh tactics have long put it at odds with the West.
Col. Yuri Budanov, a tank commander accused of murdering a Chechen woman, went on trial last week in the first public court case against a ranking officer in the 17-month conflict.
The Council of Europe - which once stripped Russia of voting rights over Chechnya - is making positive noises. Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles, visiting the embattled republic last week, said he found "for the first time ... a sincere willingness to put an end to lawlessness," according to the Interfax news agency. He warned, however, that there would be "no peace ... until justice triumphs. And justice must be applied to everyone, regardless of whether they wear uniforms."
But despite Moscow's assurances that it is cracking down on abuses, analysts and rights groups are not yet convinced that Russia's brass-knuckle approach is changing. The trial comes as details emerge of killings of more than 60 people in territory controlled by Russian troops. And a Russian journalist is speaking out about her own mistreatment at the hands of federal forces.
Still, the Kremlin says it is serious. In his first-ever live Internet chat session on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin dismissed questions about Russia's "cruel methods." "These questions reflect how a significant number of people in the West do not understand what is happening in the Caucasus, especially in Chechnya," he said.
More than 3,000 federal troops have died in Chechnya, and while there are periodic Russian claims of victory, daily rebel ambushes and attacks push the toll higher. Despite numerous accounts of widespread abuses of civilians, Russia denies its forces are committing war crimes and blames the guerrillas for most atrocities. "This trial proves that the human rights situation, which has worried world public opinion so much, is improving," says one Kremlin official working on Chechnya, who could not be named under his office's rules. "It proves that nobody in the Army, despite their rank, is above the law."
But skepticism runs deep. "This is no change of attitude or policy. It's one case that will be used as a show trial," says Pavel Baev, a Russian military expert at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. "After all the [negative] reports, Putin definitely feels the need to take some kind of public relations counteroffensive."
That effort is being undermined by fresh accusations from the Russian human rights group Memorial, that federal troops are responsible for the execution-style deaths of more than 60 Chechens, including four women. The newly discovered remains were dumped on the outskirts of the Chechen capital, Grozny, near the main Russian military base at Khankala. Most appear to have died between three and five months ago, those who have seen the corpses say, long after Russian troops established control of the area.
"We can't state that there are not rebels among the bodies, but we know for certain that there are [many] civilians," says Tatyana Kasatkina, Memorial's executive director in Moscow. The hands and legs of the majority were bound with rope and blindfolded, she says. "Even if they were rebel bodies, it's obvious they were executed without trial." And observers in Chechnya say that serious abuses continue.
Just ask journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent for Moscow's Novaya Gazeta newspaper who was detained and interrogated by Russian forces in Chechnya for two days. "The moment of fear came when they said, 'We're going to shoot you,' " she recalls. "The most terrible thing was that I would just disappear. It would be impossible to find out who killed me, and they could blame the rebels."
Ms. Politkovskaya was investigating the cases of 90 families from Chechnya's Vedeno district, who had begged for help in escaping brutalities at the hands of Russian troops. An edgy Russian officer showed the reporter several six-yard-deep holding pits in a military camp, she says, which exactly matched descriptions given by civilians who said they were held there. Minutes after leaving, she was arrested. Interrogators questioned her for hours, threatened to harm her two grown children, and told her to take off her clothes - which she refused. "I was terrified by the same thing that I had written about thousands of times," Politkovskaya says. Army officers told her the trial of Colonel Budanov "will change nothing," she adds, because he was singled out not for his abuses, but for crossing senior officers who were running an oil-smuggling racket. "This is a colonel's war," Politkovskaya says. "Colonels are like gods on earth in the villages where they are deployed."
The US State Department, in its annual human rights report released last month, noted "little respect for basic human rights" by Russian forces in Chechnya and "numerous" reports of killings by both sides. Just last weekend, Vladimir Kalamanov, Mr. Putin's special envoy for human rights in Chechnya, said military prosecutors "are doing a serious job, each fact is checked up." Since December, he said, federal authorities have doubled the number of criminal cases they are pursuing against soldiers.
Western rights groups are taking a wait-and-see approach. "It's much too early to tell if this is a significant departure," says Rachel Denber, of New York-based Human Rights Watch, who was in court for the start of the Budanov trial. "Human rights groups for well over a year have been documenting ... the same kind of violations that happened to Kheda Kungayeva: summary executions, arbitrary detention, torture in custody." The apparent diligence in Budanov's case - in which more than 25 witnesses were questioned - is in sharp contrast to events like the "massacre at Aldi [a year ago], where there were more than 60 victims," she says. The dropping of rape charges against Budanov - despite forensic reports that show Ms. Kungayeva was sexually abused - is also "very disturbing," Ms. Denber says.
To Politkovskaya, the trial "is a good public relations action for the country, because the people will think this was the only case."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor