Marten van Harten

on the War in Chechnya



18 October 1999

From: Marten van Harten
HCA Liaison Office/Tbilisi, Georgia

Dear friends,
Herewith a personal assesment of the war escalation in the North Caucasus, and responses by hCa Committees and other groups. By seperate mail I send issues of bulletins, Radio Free Europe and War Report, that offer good sources for information and analysis of ongoing developments.

Most urgent for hCa is, in my opinion:

1. Promote debate on Chechnya, and Caucasus conflicts, applying standards of the ongoing Kosovo/Balkans debate. Russian human rights organisations started a 'Common Action' against the escalation of war. But protest is still weak and unpopular. How do we respond to Sergei Kovaliov's criticism that Russia is "combining NATO's methods with Milosovic philosophy"? What should the international community do against both Russia's indiscriminate warfare and Chechnya based terrorism?

2. Organise practical solidarity and partnerships with the local peace and human rights groups in the Caucasus. Actually, hCa activists are taking a leading role in working for the 'new' victims, either or not in a formal hCa framework, in Russian Federation, and also in Georgia and Azerbaijan, where effects of proliferation from Chechnya and Dagestan are felt already (refugees, landmines, terrorism etc.).

3. Strengthen he peace process in the South Caucasus, and promote its extension to North Caucasus. The OSCE Istanbul Summit offers an opportunity for presenting an hCa position and confidence building proposals. For several reasons, these should focus on the issue of the 'new' missing persons, hostages and POW's: long experience and strong commitments of hCa Committees and affiliated groups (including Russian hCa /Memorial), stance OSCE Chairman and proposed measures, etc.

This issue seems now the most urgent human rights reason for demanding instant return of OSCE (and ICRC) in the North Caucasus: according to War Report, the Russian army started to build new filtration camps for 'assesment' of the male population in the occupied Chechen areas; meanwhile, according to Georgian hCa, local mafia's still keep numerous hostages (also Chechens) in private prisons in Chechnya, including the bombed areas, under inhuman conditions.

I look forward to reactions, especially from people in the Balkans!

Best greetings,
Marten van Harten
hCa Liaison South-Caucasus


Post-Kosovo war in the Caucasus

War is escalating in the North Caucasus, with impredictable risks of proliferation. The international public and the peace movement still remains silent, or misses the core of the problem: the spiral of criminal terrorism and ‘policing’ by indiscriminate warfare. Voices of Russian human rights ‘dissidents’ like Sergei Kovaliov remain more isolated than before: "What we, in effect, are trying to do now is combine NATO's methods with Milosevic's philosophy."

After the armed attacks and shellings in Dagestan, the air raids on Chechnya mark a new stage of escalation of war in the North Caucasus. The precarious five years truce, established in 1996, is broken and also the cease-fires in the South Caucasus are under pressure. The crisis poses new dilemma’s for European security. It seems no longer possible to separate the Balkans and Caucasus conflicts, neither in the political debate, nor in civic responses.

But political debate and solidarity with the new victims in the Caucasus still seems to be completely blocked, partly due to the Kosovo-syndrome in the West. Still, there are positive starting points, both in international diplomacy and at the ‘grass-roots’.
European security risks.

The renewed bombings and massive refugees crisis are only the most visible part of violent escalation in the North Caucasus. The situation is much worse, more explosive and more inpredictable than it was during the Chechnya war in 1994-1996. Immediate dangers of proliferating violence are felt now in the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities, at the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan, in the conflict zones of the South-Caucasus (Abchasia, South-Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabagh) and among the masses of ‘old’ refugees and IDP’s.The refugees crisis is complex and dangerous, but one thing is clear: there is no international community left in the North Caucasus for monitoring, let alone for preventing the escalation.

Apart from the refugees crisis, proliferation of violence directly touches upon the sensitive military and political constellation of the South-Caucasus conflicts, and impedes reviving of the stagnated peace process. An incident at the Georgian border (monitored by Georgian hCa), where Russian planes spread 4000 anti-personnel ‘butterfly’ landmines, was shuffled under the table after Russian excuses.But a missile incident at the Azerbaijani border led to strong protests, used by the Azerbaijani nationalist opposition for mobilizing protest against compromise-readiness on Nagorno-Karabagh.

At the eve of the OSCE Summit in Istanbul, this could jeopardize the results of months of active international diplomacy. The retirement of Azerbaijani top security advisor Guluzade might be a sign that the Azerbaijan government, by accepting the OSCE proposals, is meeting the same type of resistance as former Armenian president Ter Petrossian met in 1998, when he was ousted from power by war parties.

The main problem for European security is the very impredictability of the risks of proliferation, because of the lack of independent information and on-spot monitoring. Connections between the Chechen fighter units with international terrorism, drugs and weapons mafia’s, remain obscure. For instance, the role of Chechen commander Chatab (from Jordania), the spread of violent sectarianism (‘Vahabism’ ) from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the supplies of modern weapons, Stinger missiles etc. It is a matter of speculation, how the Russian operations could feed into Middle East tensions.

The one thing clear is that European (and US) long-term interests in regional stability are jeopardized. First of all the economic interests. Diversification of oil transit from the Caspian, as the multinational consortium of oil companies wishes to see, is out of the question now. After the disruption of the Northern pipeline (over Grozny to Novorossij), the enhanced vulnerability of the Western pipeline (over Georgia, near Abchasia) will refrain investors. The prospects of EU development program, for building the ‘transport corridor’ over the South Caucasus (‘Traseca’) look grim., as blockades and border controls are tightening.

International community

In spite of the increased dangers, the international community seems even more powerless and absent than during the previous war, when Russia’s entry to the Council of Europe was suspended, and an OSCE Assistance Mission established in Chechnya.

Now Western governments seem not willing to go further than diplomatic calls upon the Russian government. An exception is the recent IMF measure, to suspend a 4,5 billion credit, motivated by (justified) concerns about the war spendings. Any protest, national and international, is refuted with the same justification, reiterated through the media: the Russian government would only follow NATO’s example in Kosovo and Serbia, and does not need international assistance in Chechnya.

Also the peace and human rights movement is even more reluctant in responding, than it was in 1994-1996. The Russian ‘Common Action’ of leading organisations (including Memorial) is more cautious in its demands: stop bombing of civilian areas; appropriate shelter for the refugees; and direct negotiations with the Chechen authorities (30 September). Unlike during the previous anti-war protest, polls show that such positions have become unpopular. Moreover, the protest remains isolated, without international backing. It seems that the Western public, including the peace and human rights movement, is still lamed by the moral and political dilemma’s of Kosovo. An opening for debate is offered by Sergei Kovalyov, like in 1994-1996 the most outspoken peace ‘dissident’ ("Vremya-MN" 1 October **):

"Aren't our air raids a strike against a rebel territory which insists on sovereignty over our will? This looks more like punishing the rebels than fighting terrorists. We refer to NATO, which we criticized so much when it bombed Serbia. But that was not an anti-terrorist operation. NATO was fighting against the Serbian army, which was responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing. What we, in effect, are trying to do now is combine NATO's methods with Milosevic's philosophy. That is very dangerous."

This evokes a couple of questions:

How does the Chechnya operation effect the Russian participation in the NATO-led Peace Force for Kosovo?

How credible is the Peace Force, as long as Russia continues to justify its policy in the same terms?

How do standards, set by the peace movement (and hCa) in the Kosovo debate, apply to the Caucasus?

Practical: how could and should the international community fight terrorism?

Crimes against humanity

Seen from the Caucasus societies, it is not difficult what the international community should do first: return to the war affected areas, as soon as possible. Minimal needs are independent fact-finding about both the terrorism and the Russian operation, and aid for the most vulnerable victims. But to send even an observers mission, or an emergency relief team, seems to be a radical demand now which would engender a profound political debate.

The OSCE Assistance Mission for Chechnya retreated past December, also the humanitarian agencies left long before the escalation. It is important to note that all agencies were forced out by criminal violence and terrorism. Neither the Russian nor the Chechen government, or any other law enforcement body in the North Caucasus was able to grant security against indiscriminate kidnappings and extorsions. The fate of the ICRC staff, murdered in Grozny 1996, and of the UNHCR head in North-Ossetia, kidnapped and kept in private prisons in 1998, should not be forgotten.

The issue is not only the bombings on Chechnya, considered by the Putin government as ultimate means of ‘policing’ Russian territory. The problem of criminal violence and terrorism in the North Caucasus is urgent. Indeed, the crisis shows the common powerlessness of Russian, Chechen and other authorities, but also of the international community, against terrorists like the Chechen commanders Basaev and Chatab, and against the daily terror spread by mafia’s. How to protect the societies of the North Caucasus, that are terrorized both by criminal violence and Putin’s ‘policing’ methods?

If there would be an International Criminal Tribunal for the Caucasus, applying the same standards and procedures as in the Balkans, Shamil Basaev would probably rank high on the list of persons charged with crimes against humanity and violation of law and customs of war. The hit and run attacks against Dagestan villages, and alleged bombing attempts in Russian towns, are only the latest charges. As former commander of the army of North Caucasus volunteers in Abchasia, Basaev is held responsible for atrocities during the secessionist war of 1992-1994 . In those years, he was allegedly covered by Russian protection. His terrorist action in South Russia in 1996, occupying a hospital and taking thousands of patients hostage, forced the Russian government into negotations with Chechnya. Since then, Basaev was an outlaw in Russia, but also a prominent commander of the semi-independent Chechen republic, a status comparable with a commander of the Bosnian-Serb republic.
Protection and justice

In the Balkans, in particular during the Kosovo crisis, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (hCa) has led peace movement protest against any form of double standard policy in protection of, and justice for the victims. Now the peace movement should, first of all, advocate and monitor such standards in the Caucasus. How do categories like crime against humanity, and violation of laws and customs of war, apply to the bombed areas of Chechnya and Dagestan, and the private prisons in the North Caucasus? To actions by commanders of semi-independent republics, like Basaev and Chatab? And to the many alleged massacres during the ‘old’ conflicts in the South Caucasus?

There is still nothing like an International Criminal Tribunal for the Caucasus, or steps in that direction. Still, certain minimum standards have been upheld and implemented since the beginning of the conflicts, by joint efforts of OSCE diplomacy, ICRC assistance, and ‘grass roots’ activism. .

In particular, the OSCE Chairman ‘Troika’ has taken a consequent stance on demanding release of hostages, exchange of POW’s and tracing of missing persons in the conflict zones. The OSCE Missions for Nagorno-Karabagh, Georgia and Chechnya have been instrumental for applying standards, offered by the OSCE Code of Conduct, encouraging this process, with good services of ICRC. The retreat of the OSCE Mission and ICRC from Chechnya was, first of all, a disruption of this process.

At the OSCE Istanbul Summit, a main expected breakthrough is now the establishment of a transnational, semi-official body for truth finding about disputed cases and missing persons in the Karabagh zone. In principle, this procedure could serve as a model for other the entire Caucasus region. In the present war climate this would need, however, active advocacy in the societies.

At the grass-roots level, truth finding has remained a priority for citizens’ diplomacy and human rights action. Since 1992, hCa Committees have played a prominent role in the zone of the Karabagh conflict, more indirectly also in the Abchasia and Chechnya zones (initiated by Russian hCa). At present, this process has evolved as a network of human rights groups, working for the ‘old’ missing persons of South Caucasus conflicts, and the ‘new’ kidnapping victims in the North Caucasus. A breakthrough was a conference, past June, on missing persons in Nalchik (Kabardina-Balkaria, close to North Ossetia), where both initiatives were linked in a Caucasus-wide approach. Georgian hCa and Russian Memorial are playing central roles in this network. Since the escalation of the war, it has become more vulnerable, but keeps functioning.

hCa urgent actions

At the hCa EC in Prague, past September, it was decided to approach the escalating war in the North Caucasus in different ways: citizens diplomacy and political dialogue, in the frame of the planned Russian hCa seminar on Civic Security, through channels of Russian Soldier Mothers; conflict prevention, through an hCa Mission to the tensions area Karachai-Cherkessia (close to Abchasia); and direct solidarity with the unprotected IDP’s in Dagestan. These initiatives need now broadening and strengthening.

For hCa, the planned Civic Security Conference in Moscow is an occasion to connect the Kosovo and Chechnya debates, and respond to Kovaliov’s warning. The planned General Assembly in Baku could serve as a platform for Balkans and Caucasus activists, although political prospects of the Assembly aim, to promote (inter)regional integration, look more uncertain.

Meanwhile, practical solidarity is needed for offering a minimum of protection and justice to the present victims. Some urgent hCa actions that reach out to the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, need international backing and support.

1. Missing persons

Georgian hCa priority now is to work with Russian, Chechen and other partners, for tracing of ‘new’ missing persons, kidnapped in North Caucasus. A small ‘Civic Center for Anti-terrorism’ in Tbilisi has become a focal point for informal cooperation between peace organisations, government departments, concerned citizens and police officers. The Center is directly assisting families of Georgian hostages in Chechnya. International attention is asked for cases of hostages kept in the bombed areas. An occasion to raise this issue is a meeting of ‘Search and Hope’ groups of Armenian and Azerbaijani ‘mothers’ (relatives) of missing persons. This is prepared by hCa local branches in and near Kazagh (Azerbaijan) and Idjevan (Armenia), as a step toward a ‘Peace Zone’ across the South Caucasus borders.

The hCa Committees hope to have the meeting before the OSCE Istanbul summit, as a confidence building measure ‘from below’. In the present war athmosphere, the action could promote public acceptance of the proposed transnational Commission on missing persons.

2. Landmine survivors
Parallel, Georgian hCa is leading the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in the South-Caucasus. An international conference, planned in December in cooperation with Russian NGO’s, will also adress the proliferation of landmines in the Dagestan and Chechnya warfare. ICBL-groups are already promoting self-organisation and legal defense of landmine survivors in South and North Caucasus. Georgian hCa asks special attention for the victims from the mining incident in Eastern Georgia, monitored through the new hCa Telavi branch. Past August, this case was taken as a starting point for a political appeal to the governments of Russia, Georgia and to the OSCE, for enquiry and monitoring of the applyance of conventions that exclude landmines and other ways of indiscriminate warfare in the North Caucasus.

3. Refugees
hCa Committees have established informal channels for direct aid. The ‘Yuva’ Humanitarian Center in Baku, affiliated to hCa Azerbaijan, is connecting rehabiliation work for victimized children and women across the Russian Dagestan border. Civic activists from all conflict zones, including Chechnya, still meet in Georgia and devise ways of mutual solidarity. A common demand is protection for local and international aid, and careful targeting for reducing the probable tensions between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ refugees/IDP’s (see note below).

Most effective way of solidarity is to establish partnerships and cooperation relations with the local hCa initiatives, that are reaching out to the North Caucasus. In particular, the ‘Civic Center for Anti-terrorism’ in Tbilisi, the ‘Yuva’ Center in Baku, and their Chechen and Dagestan contacts. On short term, visits by hCa activists from the West, if possible also from the Balkans, to Eastern Georgia for enquiry, about the problems of the ‘new’ refugees from bombed areas, the ‘new’ missing persons and landmine victims at the Chechnya and Dagestan borders.

At the same time, international participation at a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani ‘Search and Hope’ groups about the ‘old’ missing persons. The political purpose should be to have an hCa lobby at the OSCE Istanbul Summit, for presenting a position on policy standards, and positive examples of civic protection is being offered to ‘old’ and ‘new’ victims of indiscriminate warfare and terrorism in the Caucasus.

Marten van Harten Tbilisi, October 1999
hCa Liaison Officer South-Caucasus

*) This paper expresses personal views on the situation, and conclusions on current hCa actions
**) Cit. Radio Free Europe report, best source for information and analysis on CaucasusBackground note ‘New’ and ‘old’ refugees crises in the Caucasus

Over 300.000 new refugees from bombed areas in Chechnya are on the move. A new term, ‘fugitives’, is invented for not touching upon the legal status question of ‘refugees’ or ‘internally displaced (IDP)’ within the Russian Federation. Actually, it means that these masses are deprived of legal protection, and out of reach of humanitarian agencies. It also means increasing tensions all over the Caucasus, adding to the unresolved crisis of 2 million refugees and IDP’s from previous conflicts. The picture is very complicated, but one thing is obvious: the new refugees crisis can snowball in all directions, while there is no international community left for monitoring, let alone preventing the snowballing effects.

The present humanitarian crisis in Chechnya is much worse than during the previous conflict, 1994-1996, when numerous Chechens temporarily fled from the bombed areas to mountainous villages, and also the neighbouring societies were ready to host large numbers of refugees. These conditions no longer exist.

During three years, Chechen society has suffered from violent disintegration and forced isolation. People are trapped from all sides, also from within. Least visible and most desperate is the fate of the estimated 3000 hostages and their families, most of them Chechens, victimized by relentless mafia warfare. One can only guess how many are left in the hidden prisons within the bombed areas (see above, hCa actions)

Borders are sealed off, trespassers from Chechnya already since June pushed back by fortified trenches, military helicopters and armed guards with ‘shoot first’ instructions. Moreover, alarmed by recent bombing attacks, the Russian government and society are pushing out resident Chechens, and people looking like Chechens. Russian Memorial Society reports that tens of thousands of unregistered ‘persons with a Caucasian face’ are being forcefully deported from Moscow, and other Russian cities.

Previously, this Russian Federate Republic served as a multi-ethnic bridge between Chechnya and Russia. Now the stage is set for unprecedented ethnic conflict. The 30.000 Dagestan IDP’s, fled during the past months, resent both the presence of the over 10.000 ‘old’ refugees of the first Chechnya war, and the inflow of (until now) 30.000 ‘new’ refugees. A new factor is the 26.000 armed voluntary militiamen, recruited during the fightings, including many relatives of the IDP’s, who might be tempted to retaliate.

This small Federate Republic receives the mass of Chechen refugees. The acute crisis puts Ingush President Aushev, the key player in the intricate diplomacy within the Russian Federation and the (semi-governmental) Federation of Caucasus Peoples, is in a difficult position. The country is overburdened, not only by the ‘old’ Chechen refugees, but also by victims of the unresolved Ingush-Ossetian conflict, formerly deported people from the disputed Prigorodny district. Government and society might be tempted to push unwelcome ‘old’ and ‘new’ refugees further into North and South Ossetia, unsettling the precarious stability, and the initial return process in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.

Bordering both Chechnya and Dagestan, Georgia is in principle the most secure country of destination. The virtual absense of humanitarian aid in the North Caucasus is likely to push people South. The numerous aid agencies lack, however, mandate and instruments to deal with a massive inflow. Until now, ca. 800 refugees have trickled into Eastern Georgia, receiving some assistance through the Georgian government. Society tends to sympathise with their fate, but also remains suspicious because of the atrocities committed by Chechens in Abchasia.

Despite active Georgian-Chechen relations, and plans to build a new highway (and even an oil pipeline) from Grozny to Tbilisi, the Georgian border remains closed. Russia is pressing the Georgian government hard to maintain the blockade of Chechnya, in return for the blockade of Abchasia. The Putin government made this linkage clear by demonstratively opening the Sukhumi railroad for a few days. President Shevarnadze’s personal gesture, to host the family of Chechen president Maskhadov, only underlines the political stalemate.

The proximity of warfare increases trauma’s of the over 200.000 ‘old’ Georgian IDP’s, especially in Western Georgia, where tensions are mounting. The latest kidnapping incident with a UN observer revives fears of a reescalation of armed violence in Abchasia /Gali district, as in 1998.

Bordering Dagestan, Azerbaijan is in the loof of the ‘new’ refugees crisis, but its political and psychological effects are deeply felt. The Baku government tends to keep border controls tight, for fear of Russian influences and tensions in the minority populated (Lezghin) districts.But the exodus of Chechens is also likely to have as strong impact on the almost 700.000 Azerbaijani refugees and IDP’s, who tend to identify with the expulsed Chechens.

Nationalist propaganda, promoted from Turkey, is playing upon the theme of genocide against ‘Turkic’ peoples in the North Caucasus. One of the political effects is enhanced public protest against a compromise solution in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, which the Azerbaijan government seemed ready to accept, after months of intense OSCE diplomacy.

Although not bordering the North Caucasus, the uncontrolled migration of Chechens is seen by Armenian government and society as an immediate threat. Georgia’s strategic partnerships with both Azerbaijan and Chechnya reinforce deep-rooted fears of ‘Muslim encirclement’. Thus, Chechen extremist propaganda, to create an ‘Islamic state from the Caspian to the Black Sea’, and Basaev’s threat to ‘take Nagorno-Karabagh next’, is taken very seriously. The over 250.000 refugees and IDP’s in Armenia, and estimated 50.000 in Nagorno-Karabagh proper, are most receptive to nationalist security propaganda, which plays upon these fears. Imminent elections, both in Armenia (municipal, 24 October) and Georgia (parliament, 30 October) will show the domestic effects of the crisis. Most probably, hardline nationalists and populists will win, further complicated prospects of peace policies in the South Caucasus.

By contrast to these complexities and uncertainties, political responses are until now extremely simple. All political players refer to ‘Kosovo’, from Russian prime minister Putin (affirming that he is just following NATO’s example), to Chechen president Maskhadov, we appealed for NATO assistence in order to settle the conflict between Russian Federation and Chechen ‘Republic Iskeria’ according to international law. In between, Ingush president Aushev, tempting to get world attention for the mass of Chechen refugees that hits, most directly, Ingushetia. Also Western politicians and public seem unable to move beyond comparisons, and face the crisis directly.



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