In what appears to be part of a Kremlin effort to convince the Russian public and the world that the war in Chechnya is over, President Vladimir Putin has decreed that some 150,000 Chechen refugees must go home.
Experts say that most refugees are unwilling to leave their tent camps in neighboring Ingushetia, where they have spent the past three winters, because their homes in Chechnya are in ruins, the republic's infrastructure is devastated, and they fear for their safety.
Despite government assurances that only peaceful persuasion will be applied, there is a growing fear that the mass resettlement which Putin ordered carried out by the end of September could become a humanitarian disaster.
"We in Moscow live in a zone of extreme disinformation about the situation in Chechnya," says Leonid Smirnyagin, a former member of the Kremlin's presidential advisory council who is now with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "But the refugees staying in Ingushetia know that Chechnya is in chaos, that it is extremely dangerous to go there, and they will not return unless they are coerced."
Though figures vary, there are at least 150,000 refugees crammed into Ingush tent cities or abandoned farms and factories, or living with sympathetic families. Conditions in the camps are harsh, but international aid agencies have been able to provide food, clean water, and regular schooling for most refugees.
"People don't prefer life in cold, ragged tents to their own homes without good reasons," says Yelena Burtina, a field worker with Civil Assistance, an independent Russian aid group that works with Chechen refugees.
The war has destroyed about 80 percent of housing, she says; there is no gas or electricity in many areas, and few schools or hospitals are functioning. Ongoing fighting between rebels and the Russian military, plus regular zachistki (security sweeps) by security forces, pose a threat to civilian life.
The Ingush, ethnic cousins of the Chechens, initially welcomed the refugees, but experts say the economic strain on impoverished Ingushetia has strained goodwill.
"The refugee problem needs to be solved, but the speed envisioned is very worrying," says Mariam Yandiyeva, assistant head of international relations at Ingushetia's official representation in Moscow. "The Russians have stationed the 503rd Motorized Rifle Regiment (a crack Army unit) at Sleptsovsk, near the refugee camps. Russian security forces have recently stepped up zachistki in the camps, and they are making many arrests. Signals like this suggest the [resettlement] process may not be calm and peaceful."
Russian authorities will say little about the plan, decided at a Kremlin meeting in May and sealed a week ago between pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrev and Ingushetia's new president, Murat Zyazikov, a general in Russia's security service. "I can only tell you that all those stories about 'force measures' to make them return to Chechnya are just lies invented by the media," says Alexander Grichushkin, deputy department chief of the Russian Ministry for Chechen Affairs.
Akhmed Magomedov, first deputy representative of the pro-Moscow Chechen government in Moscow, acknowledges that "not all the security problems have been solved" but insists that "nobody will be forced; they will return of their own free will."
Russian authorities claim that life in Chechnya is being restored, that 500 schools are already operating, and industry and community life is reviving. The Kremlin has budgeted 16 billion rubles about $500 million for reconstruction of Chechnya. But an investigation released in May by the State Accounting Chamber, which answers to parliament, found massive violations in Chechnya funding for 2001. Of a total 3.1 billion rubles budgeted for that year, it documented the misappropriation of 711 million rubles, or almost a quarter. "In fact," says Mr. Smirnyagin, "less than 10 percent of money allotted for reconstruction even reaches its intended beneficiaries."
Meanwhile, the Russian public is weary of Chechnya, which has sought independence from Russia in two wars since 1994. Although Mr. Putin's personal popularity remains high, surveys show Russians souring on the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign, which kills an average of one Russian soldier daily. A poll last month by the independent VTsIOM public opinion agency found that, while 34 percent of Russians favor continuing the military operation, 58 percent want to begin peace negotiations with the rebel Chechen leadership.
The Kremlin recently dislodged former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, who had welcomed the refugees, and engineered his replacement with Gen. Zyazikov. Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhemsky, told the official RIA-Novosti agency last month that a referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya will likely be held "by the end of 2002," followed by elections for a new republican government.
"A giant PR operation is in swing to officially 'solve' the Chechen problem," says Galina Kovalskaya, a journalist who covers Chechnya for Ezhenedelny Zhurnal newsmagazine. "In order for the pieces to fall into place, the population must be returned to Chechnya, where they will be mostly out of sight and therefore no longer a problem."
"The authorities want to persuade the world that the war is over," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies, "and steps like returning the refugees are just part of that effort."
Human rights activists allege that the campaign to force the refugees home has already begun. "There have been threats to cut off food supplies to the camps, and the authorities have already stopped providing any assistance to newly arrived refugees," says Svetlana Aliyeva, head of the Council of Oppressed Peoples, which champions the rights of several former-Soviet minorities.
International organizations and human rights groups are more cautious. Jean-Paul Cavalieri, the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) senior protection officer for Russia, says Russian officials have assured the UN that "there is no deadline" and have given an "an expressed commitment to the voluntary nature of return." But he adds, "We will need to see what the implementation will be."