Month: May 2006

TACs in Chechnya and Ingushetia


The following is the first of two recent Prague Watchdog reports on TACs (temporary accomodation centres) and "compact settlements" in Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia. These have been housing Chechen refugees, but are increasingly threatened with closure, a step which will mean homelessness for large numbers of civilians, especially women and children. The translation is mine.

Situation surrounding residents of TACs in Chechnya remains unclear

By Liza Osmayeva

CHECHNYA – A month ago the head of the Moscow-backed Chechen government Ramzan Kadyrov called for the need to dismantle all the temporary accommodation centres (TACs), which house refugees who have returned from Ingushetia. Referring to them as "nests of criminality, addiction and debauchery", he demanded that the local authorities and law-enforcement agencies put the situation in order.

For this purpose a special commission has been created in the republic to control the observance of standards and regulations relating to internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in the TACs. It includes the heads of district administrations, representatives of the law enforcement agencies, and the migration service.

As a result of the commission’s work, the managements of nearly all the TACs on Chechen territory were replaced during May of this year. According to some reports, this was prompted by the revelation of numerous cases of embezzlement and other abuses on the part of camp commandants.

"The commission’s primary task is to track down persons who have accommodation of their own and are living in the TACs illegally, and also to double-check the lists of those IDPs who are actually in need of targeted assistance. A separate solution will be adopted for each specific case. People whose accommodation has been preserved must return to their homes. Citizens who have lost their accommodation and who have nowhere to go will be given help to rebuild and restore their ruined homes. No one plans to turn people out into the street,” says the Migration Office of the Chechen Republic.

At the same time, local human rights activists note that the real situation is somewhat different. In their opinion, the campaign to dismantle the temporary accommodation centres in Chechnya is being accompanied by violations of their residents’ rights. According to a report by the Memorial human rights centre, two TACs located on Depovskaya Street in the town of Gudermes were recently closed on the pretext of major refurbishment. However, no alternative accommodation was offered to their residents.

“A similar situation is developing in the TACs of Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district. After an announcement by the district head that the TAC buildings needed to be freed to serve as schools and polyclinics, regular identity checks began to be carried out. People can be evicted merely on the basis of the fact that they were not present during a night raid. Moreover, the members of the commission take no account of the reason for which a person was absent,” a worker of the Nazran-based Memorial human rights centre told PW’s correspondent.

The recent increase in the frequency of identity checks, and in particular the mechanism by means of which they are carried out, is giving rise to many protests by IDPs. People complain that various far-fetched pretexts are being used in order to deprive them of their IDP status. "We can’t leave the TAC even in the daytime, because if a person isn’t present during the check they cross that person off the migration list. But we still need to go out to work and earn money in order to feed and clothe our children," says Aminat, a 37-year-old refugee in Grozny’s Oktyabrsky district.

"Two years ago when we were returning from Ingushetia we were promised as a first priority that we would be paid compensation for our destroyed accommodation and property, but so far no money has been paid. My home is in ruins, but I have no chance of restoring it on my own. If they close the TAC tomorrow, then I’ll simply be out on the street with my children," she says.

According to some reports there are more than 30 TACs and 14 "compact accommodation points" on the territory of the Chechen republic, housing a total of more than 60,000 IDPs. In addition, the "compact accommodation points" on the territory of Ingushetia house some 10,000 more internally displaced persons from Chechnya, whom the republic’s government plans to return to their homeland this summer. Where these people will be accommodated, and to what extent their legal interests and rights will be taken into consideration, is so far unknown.

On this the Migration Office of the Chechen Republic declines to comment.

Porvoo Fire: Suspects Caught


Helsingin Sanomat reports that several young adults have been caught in connection with the arson attack on Finland's Porvoo Cathedral, which took place early on Monday. From the English-language edition of HS:

According to Chief Inspector Bengt Renlund, the apprehended individuals are suspected of aggravated sabotage. For now, the police are refraining from revealing the exact number of the suspects.

"More than one person has been apprehended. They have all been heard briefly, and the questioning will continue this morning. They are suspected of setting the Porvoo Cathedral fire", Renlund told the news agency STT.

Renlund does not reveal how the suspects were caught. He says the police will release more information on the subject later today.

After yesterday's blaze, all that remains upright of the upper part of the hilltop structure , which for centuries has dominated the Porvoo cityscape, are its blackened gable walls.

The interior of the church, on the other hand, survived the flames largely unharmed, thanks to the structure's thick vaulting and the fact that the fire department used foam instead of water to minimise water damage.

The heavy chandeliers fell down, but the condition of the centuries-old frescoes on the ceiling and the walls will only become evident on Tuesday, or a few days after that.

In any case, the overall cost of the damage is in the millions of euros, reports properties manager Boris Björkendahl from the Parish Union of Porvoo. Restoration work will begin on the building almost immediately, as soon as permission is received from the police.

See also, concerning an earlier fire at the beginning of this month: Helsinki Arson Attack

Radical Islam: the Soviet Legacy

Writing in the Caucasus Times, historian and Arabist Mikhail Roschin expresses the view that in certain regions of the Caucasus radical Islam is using the legacy of Soviet thinking:

In my opinion, such tendencies can prevail in those regions where Sufism did not have deep roots and any stable intellectual traditions, for instance, in Kabardino-Balkaria where even weak traditions have been erased during Soviet time. Therefore, process of religious revival and propagandists of vakhkhabism did not meet here any serious resistance unlike Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia.

(via Alin Sebastian – see Balkan-Jews mailing list).

The Great Flood


A reader asked me about the significance of the "great flood" in Tove Jansson's first Moomin book. I think it's fairly clear from Tove Jansson's short introduction to the story what was in her mind when she wrote it (my translation):

It was the winter of war, in 1939. One's work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures.

Perhaps it was understandable that I suddenly felt an urge to write down something that was to begin with "Once upon a time".

What followed had to be a fairytale, that was inevitable, but I excused myself with avoiding princes, princesses and small children and chose instead my angry signature character from the cartoons and called him the Moomintroll.

The half-written story was forgotten until 1945. Then a friend pointed out that it could become a children's book, just finish it and illustrate it, maybe they will want it.

I had thought that the title should connect to the Moomintroll and his search for his father – in the style of the search for Captain Grant – but the publisher wanted to make it easier for the readers by calling it Småtrollen och den stora oversvämningen ("The Little Trolls and the Great Flood").

The story is quite influenced by the childhood books I had read and loved, a bit of Jules Verne, some Collodi (the girl with the blue hair) and so on. But why not?

Anyhow, here was my very first happy ending!

A Study in Questions

The Hole is a study of the Estonia tragedy, the sinking of a giant passenger and car ferry in the Baltic Sea in September 1994 which involved the deaths of nearly 1,000 people in the space of 35 minutes, Drew Wilson presents the results of nearly three years of research and writing. He has assembled most or all of the available evidence, in order to contest and challenge the findings of the official investigation, which attributed the cause of the disaster to the failure of locks on the ship’s bow visor, and in order to survey and collate the results of all the independent investigations and theories that have sprung up as a consequence of the evident inconsistencies and loose ends left by the official inquiry.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a veritable industry in conspiracy theories developed around it. Some of these theories were promoted by Russian government sources seeking to generate disinformation from the event. An example is the so-called “Felix Report” – in reality the work of one FSB officer who in the 1990s was assigned the task of implicating Estonia and Chechnya in “international terrorism”, in order to turn Western opinion against those countries. But there were other, genuine independent investigations which came up with questions and demands for explanation which have still not been answered by the relevant authorities. Such, for example, is the work of the German journalist Jutta Rabe, who conducted her own investigations and wrote a book which accuses the Russian special services of being responsible for the sinking.

Drew Wilson has drawn attention to most of the theories and counter theories that exist in connection with the tragedy, and has done so in great detail, with the help of diagrams, photographs, eyewitness reports and many other materials. Above all, he is convinced that in order for the ferry to have sunk in such a short time – 35 minutes – it must have had a hole in the hull. In order to support this contention, he produces much convincing evidence, and also compares the disaster to events like the sinking of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff by a Soviet submarine during a storm in 1945. Even after three torpedoes had struck it, the ship took one hour to sink – almost twice the length of the time it took for the Estonia to go to the bottom.

The book also focuses on the extreme eagerness of the Swedish authorities to control evidence of the wreck. In particular, it concentrates on the Swedish government’s proposal – a proposal very nearly implemented – of burying the wreck in concrete, a suggestion which immediately reminded many observers of the large concrete structure erected around the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. There is evidence, Wilson makes clear, that the Swedish authorities were and still are involved in some kind of cover-up in connection with the sinking of the Estonia, in which some 500 Swedish citizens lost their lives. Taking advantage of the suffering of the victims’ relatives, the Swedish authorities refused to allow the retrieval of the wreck on the grounds that this would be too disturbing.

The Hole is published at an appropriate time, with the recent release of the Estonian government special report on the military shipments which, it has been confirmed, Swedish military intelligence arranged in the early 1990s, using the Estonia to ferry quantities of secret electronic equipment from recently-vacated military bases in the Baltic States. Further investigation is, however, blocked by the Estonia Agreement of 1995, and it is to be hoped that the book will reanimate efforts to have the agreement rescinded, so that the true story may finally emerge.

What does emerge from Wilson’s book is the deeply uneasy nature of relations between the Russian Federation and the nations of Europe, including the Baltic States. It also throws new light on the real nature of the conflict in Chechnya, using the research of the murdered U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov to show that during the early 1990s the Russian government was involved in widespread covert criminal activities which were aimed first at undermining the newly-restored democratic order in Estonia, and then at destroying the independence of Chechnya, whose leaders had taken inspiration from the Estonian independence movement.

Drew Wilson: The Hole: Another Look At The Sinking Of The Estonia Ferry On September 28, 1994. Exposure Publishing, Diggory Press, April 2006.

Bergmansgatan 1

bg1Helsinki's Vuorimiehenkatu 1 (Bergmansgatan 1), which in the very first years of the twentieth century housed the headquarters of Nikolai Ivanovich Bobrikov, the Russian governor-general of Finland who tried to impose the Russian language on the Finnish civil service and education system, is to undergo yet another change of character, a report in Hufvudstadsbladet notes. After decades of serving as a picturesque office block, the building is now to be converted into luxury apartments.

Russia and Sweden

From time to time I'm struck by how many instances of apparent conflict between the Russian Federation and the countries of Northern Europe, particularly Sweden, seem to be cropping up nowadays. Two of the most recent cases I've noticed are the pressures being exerted on Mikael Storsjö, and the resurfacing of the issues surrounding the 1994 sinking of the Estonia, highlighted in Drew Wilson's recent book on the subject. This book, which I'll discuss in a future post, puts the focus on tensions which have existed between Sweden and Russia ever since the beginning of the Cold War. It also tends to point to a Swedish government cover-up surrounding the circumstances of the sinking of the passenger ferry, and to the possible involvement of Russian forces.

In the same connection, Vilhelm Konnander has an interesting post on a growing diplomatic dispute between Sweden and Russia. In the conclusion of his post, he writes:

Sweden has long been regarded by Moscow as one of Russia's greatest critics in the European Union. This should however not serve to conceal the fact that Stockholm's policy towards Russia has become increasingly conciliatory during the last few years. Thus, Stockholm now criticises Russia only in much severer cases of e.g. human rights' abuses than before. The difference is perhaps that there today is so much more to criticise in Russian behaviour. The threshold for critique has risen but so has also the number of severe cases. It thus seems that Russia and Sweden all the more are heading into a dead end in relations. It remains to be seen whether they will have the will and ability to turn developments around.

Chechnya: 5-year-old boy shoots 6-year-old girl in Grozny

 From Prague Watchdog

 May 26 2006 (my translation)

By Ruslan Isayev

GROZNY, Chechnya – A tragic incident occurred in the Chechen capital yesterday (May 25). A policeman who dropped in at his home for a few minutes left his car unlocked, and his 5-year-old son who was playing in the yard got into it.

In the car the boy discovered his father’s authorized pistol. He began to boast in front of other children and point it at them. At some stage the weapon was fired at a 6-year-old girl from a neighbouring house. The girl died of her injuries on the spot.

An official investigation has been opened, and the policeman who left his authorized weapon unattended has been taken into custody.

Although such cases are very rare in Chechnya, many note that the age of children who know how to use firearms has dropped. It is not at all uncommon for parents, especially officials of the law-enforcement agencies, to teach their children how to handle a sub-machine gun and pistol. There is one purpose – to protect the family in case of necessity.

This dangerous fashion was advertised by the case of a Chechen police officer whose home was attacked by guerrillas. The policeman and his eldest son were killed. His younger son, aged 13, picked up his father’s sub-machine gun and shot several of the attackers in cold blood. The slain policeman was awarded the posthumous title of Hero of Russia, and his surviving son was given a special enrolment in the Suvorov Military College.

For a young teenager to be able to put up such resistance to grown-up men with long experience of fighting would seem impossible. It turned out that the policeman father very often gave his children shooting lessons, training them in the rules of battle.

Chechnya: Protestors demand removal of ORB-2 Police Unit

May 23rd 2006 · Prague Watchdog / Umalt Chadayev (my translation)

Protestors in Grozny demand removal of notorious federal police unit from Chechnya

By Umalt Chadayev

GROZNY, Chechnya – A protest rally by local residents took place today in front of the complex of government buildings in the Chechen capital. The protestors’ basic demand was the removal of the federal police – the Operational/Search Bureau (ORB-2) – from the territory of the republic.

Around thirty people took part in the protest action. Almost all who took part were relatives of local residents who have been subjected to unsanctioned arrest or have disappeared without trace after being detained by law-enforcement officials.

"We have one demand – the removal from Chechnya of ORB-2, whose officials flagrantly violate human rights, detain people illegally and subject them to maltreatment and torture in attempt to make them confess to crimes they haven’t committed,” said one of the rally participants, 48-year-old Dagmara, a resident of Grozny.

“As far as we know, this agency (ORB-2) is not accountable to the local authorities, but is under the direct control of the Southern Federal Region. Our republic’s leadership is therefore unable to intervene in the activity of the officials of this agency who take advantage of their total immunity and are carrying out the most arbitrary repression here.”

In April this year the Moscow-backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov also spoke out in rather forceful terms for the removal of ORB-2 from the republic’s territory. Kadyrov accused its officials of illegal arresting local residents and of the brutal treatment of detainees. However, the same accusations are generally made against Kadyrov's own forces, popularly called "Kadyrovites".

"ORB-2 is the only agency that still escapes our attempts to make it observe elementary legal principles,” Kadyrov said. “I know that the people at ORB-2 flagrantly violate the law. They fabricate criminal charges where no crime has taken place. They break into houses wearing masks, presenting themselves as "Kadyrovites", and they kidnap people. I will try to secure the removal of this unit from the republic, as its officials are illegally detaining citizens, beating them up and brutally mistreating them.”

However, in the opinion of a number of observers Kadyrov is only trying to secure the withdrawal of ORB-2 from the republic’s territory because it is under federal control.

"Unlike the other local law-enforcement agencies, ORB-2 is not subordinate to the republic’s leadership. This agency is headed by Colonel Akhmet Khasambekov, a man of rigid principle. Also, he’s not one of ‘Kadyrov’s team’. While it’s possible that ORB-2 officials are guilty of human rights violations, I don’t think Kadyrov’s desire to remove this agency from Chechnya stems only from that,” a local political analyst says.