'Lawless' Russian actions reflect mounting frustration

Self-criticism and even an apology follow last week's sweep of two Chechen towns.

The plan seemed simple, when Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out a new strategy six months ago to end the protracted war in Chechnya.

He would radically reduce the number of Russian troops there. And he passed the task of destroying remaining Chechen rebels from the Army to the Federal Security Service (FSB) - successor to the KGB.

But the plan did not pan out.

Today, Russia is more mired than ever in the breakaway republic. Senior officials are reeling from the fallout of a "mopping up" security sweep in two villages in western Chechnya last week. And the public is again questioning the government's human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"It is clear that Putin has the political will to carry on," says Oksana Atonenko, the Russia and Eurasia director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "For [Mr. Putin], the endgame is that Chechnya disappears from the front pages."

But talk of that endgame is premature, she adds, because throughout the stalemate of the past year - even as Russian forces officially endure 150 deaths a month to rebel mines and ambushes - Moscow has done little to create institutions and enforce rules that can guarantee the safety of civilians.

"What Russian forces are doing there is totally lawless," Ms. Antonenko says. "[Putin] really personally believes that all Chechens who take part in this war should be eliminated. Period."

Russian troops conducted security sweeps on the villages of Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk July 3 and 4, after five Russian policemen were killed by a mine in the area. More than 1,000 Chechen men and boys were detained, beaten, and robbed - with some tortured with electrical current - during the operation.

Russian troops and police regularly carry out such sweeps, known as zachistki, ostensibly to check identity documents and weed rebels out of the population. In the past, they have led to the deaths of detainees.

But the scale of the latest operation drew unexpected outcry.

In an almost unheard of self-criticism of troop activities, Russia's top military chief in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, spoke of "widespread crimes in carrying out passport checks" in the two villages. Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him telling officers that the search was carried out "in lawless fashion, laying the place to waste and then pretending they knew nothing about it."

In a bid to prevent four local pro-Moscow administrators from quitting over the searches, Viktor Kazantsev, the Kremlin envoy to the region, issued a rare public apology for the abuses, and asked them for forgiveness.

Though Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said the sweeps were "tough but necessary," and conducted legally, Mr. Kazantsev promised that the Russian forces responsible for the incidents would be punished by Monday.

The Moscow-appointed officials detail troop abuses including the stealing of $2,000 meant for teachers' pay, and the tossing of grenades into school classrooms during the recent raids.

Not one rebel was captured, and no weapons were found, says Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Russian administrator of Chechnya.

"The counter-terrorist operation is now directed against the peaceful population, not the bandits," Mr. Kadyrov said. "Our efforts to help stability and create conditions for the return of refugees have been thwarted by ill-conceived and criminal actions."

Local human rights groups say robbery was a key component for poorly paid Russian troops. Refugees describe a pricing system of bribes. Residents with their papers in order were charged 200 rubles - about $6 - for their freedom. Non-residents paid from 500 to 1,000 rubles.

"It seems [senior officials] are unable to keep this lawlessness under control, because there is no punishment for any crime," says Tatyana Kasatkina, director of the Russian human rights groups Memorial in Moscow.

The result is unaccountability that continues to undermine any solution to the Chechen conflict.

"Do not try to find any decisions to organize such zachistki at the top level," says Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow, who often works in Chechnya. "They did not do it. The decision that they made was to permit the Army to do anything in Chechnya," Ms. Politkovskaya says. "The top brass believes that the best way to 'pacify' Chechnya is regular use of 'deterrent' actions."

Putin last year was widely quoted as vowing to go after Chechen rebels and "rub them out in the outhouse."

Broader issues of accountability on the battlefield must be dealt with first, experts say, if any future peace is to be made and stick. And in Russia - where, Chechnya aside, legal reform is still a work-in-progress - hopes aren't high of quick improvement.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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