Prague Watchdog

Prague Watchdog closing

Prague Watchdog, the Prague-based North Caucasus human rights NGO and monitoring service, is closing down after 10 years of operation. In May this year, for reasons that are unknown to the site’s co-ordinator, the delivery of new Russian-language material stopped and has not been resumed. Andrei Babitsky, who was fulfilling the role of chief commissioning editor, appears no longer to be in charge of PW’s publishing, though he continues to be active as an editor and commentator at other Russian-language media outlets, including Radio Liberty’s Russian service.  

According to PW’s present coordinating editor, the site will continue to be accessible even though it is not updated, and its considerable volume of North-Caucasus-related information and resources will continue to be available to the general public.

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Missing editor

Andrei Babitsky, Prague Watchdog’s Russian-language editor, has apparently gone missing somewhere in Russia. Sources at PW say that Babitsky’s absence shouldn’t give rise to concern, as he is probably also working for RFE/RL in some capacity, and has simply stopped replying to email. The situation is causing some problems for PW, however – no new material has appeared there since May 5.

Update: a new article (by Valery Dzutsev) has now appeared, though Babitsky has still not returned.

Muslim Russia

It turns out that “Ikramuddin Khan” is the pseudonym of Vadim Sidorov, a Muslim convert also known as Kharum ar-Rushi, head of the National Organization of Russian Muslims.

Many commentators in the West tend to forget that Russia has a steadily growing number of ethnic Russian converts to Islam. Specialist observers have documented the trend, however: in 2007, Paul Goble quoted a figure as large as 20,000, and by now the numbers are likely to be even higher. Daniel Pipes has a useful and interesting survey of the subject on his website, where he quotes President Dmitry Medvedev as saying:

“Russia is a multi-national and multi-confessional country. Russian Muslims have enough respect and influence. Muslim foundations are making an important contribution to promoting peace in society, providing spiritual and moral education for many people, as well as fighting extremism and xenophobia. There are 182 ethnic groups living in Russia, and 57 of them claim Islam as their main religion. This figure speaks for itself.”

It does indeed.

Dangers of debate

As one of a series of ongoing projects, the Prague Watchdog website, which formerly directed its attention almost exclusively to the subject of human rights abuses in Chechnya, has now under its new chief editor Andrei Babitsky turned its attention to the subject of Islam. Although the new project, titled “Islam Today”, has begun with a contribution from a Russian Muslim cleric, it is not focused solely on the North Caucasus but according to its editor, Mr. Ikramuddin Khan (so far of unknown nationality – but see the next post), will open an international debate on contemporary Islam across the globe.

As PW’s English-language editor I’ve expressed some doubts about this plan. It seems to me that if Prague Watchdog loses its Russia-North Caucasus focus it is likely to find itself to some extent adrift, especially on a highly inflammable subject like the nature of Islam. The comments section in the Russian-language version of PW’s site has already on occasion been taken over by vocal and militant Islamists of the Kavkaz Center and Kavkazan Haamash (Caucasus Emirate) variety, and I wouldn’t like to see this tendency spread to PW’s English-language comments. There are already enough discussion forums on the Web that deal with Muslim politics, Jihad, Islam, Islamic terrorism and related subjects. Some of those forums are dominated by extremist Muslim opinion, while others, like Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, present an alternative and opposing view from a Western, non-Muslim perspective. They all, in my experience, tend to attract posters who seem anxious to engage in debates that are often bitter and recriminatory, and sometimes downright scurrilous.

My own view is that PW would do better to concentrate on what it has done so well in the past, namely the analysis and reporting of current events in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, in which religion is only one feature of a constantly changing ethnic, political and ideological landscape. While some of the material PW now publishes fits this description, there has been a marked increase in the number of polemical and op-ed articles which are subjective in the extreme. The addition of a debate about Islam could worsen that trend quite a bit, in my view. So for the time being the “Islam forum”, with its accompanying newsletter-bulletin,  will not be appearing in an English-language version. Though if some of the prospective articles turn out to be of general interest, I will translate them for PW and post links to them here.

Destroying Chechnya’s middle ground

RFE/RL’s Caucasus Report examines the abrupt change of tack on the part of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who had earlier said he would welcome the return to the republic of ChRI head Akhmed Zakayev, now exiled in London. But last week Kadyrov branded Zakayev a “liar”, and accused him of misrepresenting the situation in Chechnya. Now Chechen parliamentary speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov has joined the anti-Zakayev campaign, calling him a “traitor”. RFE/RL notes that

If Zakayev’s hypothesis that the “hawks” in Moscow were behind Kadyrov’s criticism of him last week is indeed correct, then Abdurakhmanov’s November 2 interview leaves no doubt that, for whatever reason, they are out to destroy Zakayev’s reputation and influence both within the diaspora community and in Chechnya.

At Prague Watchdog, German Sadulayev has some further reflections [in my tr.] on the subject.

Equal shares

Prague Watchdog’s Andrei Babitsky, writing under a pseudonym, takes issue with Andrei Soldatov’s recent claim that the Kremlin has ceded control of Chechnya to Ramzan Kadyrov [my tr.]:

What causes anxiety to the Russian government’s voluntary helpers is apparently the fact that Kadyrov is killing people not in order to increase the might of the Russian state, but to strengthen his own personal power. The man in the street, however, is bound to feel absolutely indifferent – after all, murders that are “needed” or “unneeded” by Russia, “useful” or “harmful” to it, will be committed in Chechnya no matter who is in charge. Kadyrov’s power is no better and no worse than the power of the  FSB or any other Russian agency, since they are all reinforced by the same conveyor belt of death. And the protection of the public interest, the interest of the state, will not help the lawyers of the  future to obtain a mitigation of the indictment. What matter are not the goals but the methods, and it’s the shedding of blood that counts, not good intentions. Seen with the eyes of the victims, the Russian state struggling for its territorial integrity and Kadyrov’s provincial dictatorship are no different from each other. In both cases the people end up equally dead, and their injuries look the same. And it does not matter at all how the power is divided up, or which of the criminals cherishes a dream of freedom and independence. 

Estemirova vigil

Prague Watchdog has published a photo report on the vigil-cum-rally that was held in Moscow on July 23 to remember the murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova.

The New York Times/IHT writes that around 200 people took part, but that after the event, “riot police officers pushed about 15 people into a bus. It was unclear on Friday whether they had been released.”