(Un)civil Society in the North Caucasus

Vladimir Putin's early claim to fame was crushing the Chechen rebels. But more than a decade later, Russia's restive Caucasian republics are sinking to new depths of lawlessness and chaos. Is Dmitry Medvedev—or anyone else—paying attention?


A dark storm is brewing yet again in Russia's North Caucasus.

A dark storm is brewing yet again in Russia’s North Caucasus.

For the most part, the world pays little attention to this violent little backwater. That is, unless something truly catastrophic happens — such as the time, 7 years ago, when masked gunmen from Chechnya held hundreds hostage in a downtown Moscow theater. That standoff ended with 129 of the hostages dead, asphyxiated by gas released in a rescue attempt. Or, five years ago this September, when hundreds of children were held captive in Beslan, North Ossetia, by guerillas strapped with guns, grenades, and — ultimately – dripping in blood. Three excruciating days later, hundreds died in a botched rescue operation.

The murders of journalists, lawyers, and human rights and humanitarian activists rate even less attention. Three years ago, when investigative journalist Anna Politkovaskaya was murdered in her apartment building in Moscow one Saturday afternoon, shock and outrage emanated from Washington and capitals across Europe. Everyone thinks she was killed for her investigative journalism on the North Caucasus. But a long period of ambivalence, indifference, and silence followed that brief spasm of anger.

The murder on a Moscow street of her young lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, happened the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, this past January; attention was elsewhere. A few weeks ago, another murder took place — this time of human rights activist Natasha Estemirova. She was kidnapped outside her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, shot, and left in a field, in neighboring Ingushetia. The day before her murder, Human Rights Watch had published a report based in part on information she provided on summary executions and house-burnings in Chechnya.

And, this week, word came that two more activists, Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, had been kidnapped in Grozny. An e-mail subsequently informed me that the bodies of this director of an orphans’ charity and her husband had been found in the trunk of their car.

This year, and especially this summer, violence in the North Caucasus has spiked sharply. July was by far the most deadly month in years. Yet Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus have dropped off the map politically. Western policymakers have no practical solutions and no sense of how to engage the Russian authorities about the situation. Numerous diplomats have told me that, during the Bush administration, U.S.-perpetrated human rights abuses — Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary renditions, "black site" prisons — made raising concerns about the North Caucasus all but impossible with Russian authorities. A recent exhaustive report by a panel of international lawyers and published by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists finds that these damaging American policies hampered efforts to stop or push back against the atrocities committed in places like Grozny and North Ossetia.

And so, it is time to put the North Caucasus back on the policy agenda. As the Obama administration works to close Guantánamo, end torture, and "reset" its relationship with Russia, it needs to help change a culture of impunity in which activists, lawyers, and journalists are killed for doing their job.

The human rights abuses in the North Caucasus are not just an unfortunate but isolated instance of domestic corruption and violence. Because borders are porous and this region borders Europe, they pose a threat to U.S. and European national-security interests as well.

Developments in the North Caucasus have had negative effects on every Russian institution associated with governance and the rule of law. Experts and policymakers have long noted that Chechnya is like a cancer in Russia, spreading violence and disruption to other regions. The strategies deployed by the Kremlin to stem this self-perpetuating lawlessness — contracting paramilitaries, for example — have failed. When the lawlessness crosses borders, as occurred in Vienna this January when a Chechen exile, who had filed complaints against Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in the European Court of Human Rights, was gunned down, it becomes a shared problem for the international community.

Moreover, the North Caucasus embodies many of the characteristics Obama officials have cited as fostering terrorism. In 2006, a colleague and I commissioned a survey of 1,200 males in the Caucasian republics of Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. We found that young men in the area had few employment prospects. Neither the local nor federal governments delivered the social services they and their families needed, and they did not know who would supply jobs or a safety net for them. Our findings suggested that the North Caucasus is fertile ground for terrorist recruiters promising to provide for this young, disaffected population. Whoever gets there first will win the region. In fact, North Caucasians already serve as a recruitment pool for militias fighting outside of Russia and against the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy, as outlined by White House aide John Brennan last week, focuses on identifying and altering such enabling environments. It nods to the role that socioeconomic deprivation plays in driving people to terrorist causes. The North Caucasus is a hot zone — Russia’s most pressing domestic problem and a burgeoning international concern. Therefore, getting targeted assistance to the region, including job creation, should be of the highest importance to the White House and State Department, as well as European governments.

But working with the Russians on this issue won’t be popular or easy. It might also strike some in the White House as out of sync with its recent message — "Russia’s future is up to Russians" — as Obama said last month.

That new approach is one I heartily applauded as one of the conveners of the Civil Society Summit, the Moscow forum where Obama delivered that message. Over two days of discussion, I heard a multitude of Russian policy thinkers and activists articulate a deep desire to alter the dynamic of U.S.-Russian engagement, after years of one-way American lectures about the rule of law and democracy. Across the Russian political spectrum, they want peer-to-peer engagement. But the long-time trend within policy communities of either not acknowledging, or not knowing what to do about the disastrous human rights situation in the North Caucasus, poses a major challenge to the new approach.

At the summit, my colleagues and I acknowledged what we referred to with purposeful vagueness as the "asymmetries" in Russian and American civil societies. We gingerly tip-toed around the bare, brutal fact: These two countries cannot engage as equals while our peers are routinely disappeared and murdered, their killers free on the streets and the government indifferent about, if not, as some believe, involved in their deaths. Personifying that reality at the summit was the funny and brave New Yorker Musa Klebnikov. She slipped out just before President Obama’s speech to attend a church service marking the fifth anniversary of the Moscow murder of her husband, Paul, the American journalist. His killers are still at large, and many believe his murder was connected to work he did on the North Caucasus.

We winced when a few summit participants described Russia’s "state terrorism." They were surely victims of violence, corruption, and state impunity. Thugs beat up human rights activist Lev Ponamarev, a participant, the evening before Obama first met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London in April. Someone kidnapped activist Oleg Orlov back in 2007 in the North Caucasus. He lived to tell the tale, miraculously, and was also with us in Moscow. These men now routinely describe these crimes as state-perpetrated, as terrorism designed to stifle the fourth estate and cow opposition.

But we winced because, given our polite discussion of civil society, we were not ready to discuss Russian state terrorism and because there are legitimate questions among experts as to whether that is what we are seeing. Another human rights colleague and I actually deleted the phrase from our summary statement about future joint human rights work. But it is a thread now interwoven into the narrative of the beleaguered Russian human rights community.

That narrative counters one that the Kremlin has advanced in recent years about the North Caucasus. Russian apparatchiks argue that Chechnya is peaceful. They say the situation is under control thanks to Kadyrov. And Western policymakers and pundits for several years have acted as if Chechnya were a problem solved.

Just a year ago, the Valdai Discussion Club — a Kremlin-funded public-relations project that brings foreign academics and analysts to Russia to discuss security and economic issues — took participants to Grozny to meet Kadyrov and admire his rebuilt Chechen capital. One British colleague sat in my office weeks later bubbling with enthusiasm about "how changed Chechnya was" and how Kadyrov had made such a "positive" difference. Kremlin PR seemed to work on her nicely.

Truth be told, though we did address human rights abuses at the Civil Society Summit, we barely spoke of the North Caucasus. After the summit ended, several of us went to unwind over drinks and dinner at a glamorous Azeri restaurant. We toasted one of our friends as she left us to pack for an early morning flight to Grozny. She was going to work with Natasha Estemirova during what, we later learned, would be her last days. About a week later, the day Estemirova was kidnapped and killed, on July 15, I sat in my office in Washington frantically calling colleagues in the United States, Europe, and Russia, because I believed my friend to be in danger. She says the worst is over, but I am terrified still that Kadyrov, who has called my friend "an enemy," will harm her.

She insisted on going to Grozny for Natasha’s funeral. She thinks that if all eyes are on Chechnya then she will be safe. She thinks that as long as the West keeps up the attention, she has a chance. She thinks that if she stops this work of recording the abuses, Natasha’s death will somehow be vindicated.

The problem is, I cannot recall sustained international attention to this region, ever. Even at the height of the Russian government’s bombing campaign in 2000, the West was not especially focused on events there — certainly not like it was in, say, Bosnia or Kosovo. There was never a Chechen equivalent of Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, where dozens of Western journalists holed up frantically filing the day’s events, bearing witness to the misery and the sorrow. That burden has been left, in this case, to my friend and a handful of others whose numbers dwindle as they are hunted down by nameless thugs with guns.

Clearly, the burden to end impunity in the North Caucasus needs to shift away from the activists, lawyers, and journalists who gather each victim’s story in painstaking detail, and away from overworked and underfunded organizations like Memorial, Human Rights Watch, the Danish Refugee Council, and Caucasian Knot. They have already provided a plethora of information on the abuses. Tens of thousands of cases have reached the European Court of Human Rights. Several Russian lawyers recently published a 1,200 page book making the case for an international tribunal for crimes committed in Chechnya. (The book has an English summary section starting on page 559.) But I have yet to see one Western news outlet report on its publication.

The situation where activist after activist essentially walks into a hail of bullets demands a new strategy. The burden ought to shift to policymakers and diplomats, to the Obama administration and European governments. It ought to shift to Germany, which has a special relationship with Russia, to Sweden, which holds the current EU presidency, and, most of all, to the Kremlin.

But will American and European policymakers and diplomats make clear to Medvedev that impunity will not be tolerated? Will they together acknowledge that the North Caucasus region is not solely a Russian problem, but one that poses difficult security and stability problems requiring international solutions, even if these have yet to be identified? How should the Russian government deal with the paramilitaries that it helped create? Russia is not the only country that has found itself in this dangerous dead end — what are the lessons from other cases? How best to end impunity without starting yet another war in the region?

Given the mountains of evidence concerning war crimes, serious discussion — at the highest political levels in the United States, Europe and Russia — ought to commence concerning the need to bring to justice those who have committed these crimes, whether internationally or nationally.

What role will the Russian government play in such discussions? Will government officials come to the table with a 21st-century view of the state — one in which borders are porous, national security concerns are shared, and the United States and European governments are viewed as peers? Or will Russia continue to tell the world to mind its own business?

It is hard to say. It is fundamental to the very survival of the Russian state that the Kremlin regains control of the North Caucasus and returns the region to the rule of law. The last 15 years suggest that Russia cannot do so alone — or that it doesn’t want to.

Perhaps Medvedev knows all this. He is a lawyer who just maybe takes seriously the quest to end Russia’s culture of "legal nihilism" — or so say those that meet him. Russian government officials who came last month to the Civil Society Summit in Moscow certainly suggested to me they wanted to take this very issue seriously. We all agreed we wanted to change the tone of how we engage one another, ending our lecturing, teaching, and training.

But days after we eagerly started our peer-to-peer dialogue, our colleagues were murdered. The culture of impunity lives on. And so this moment emerges as somewhat of a defining one: If policymakers in the United States, Europe, and Russia find the political will to address lawlessness and deprivation in the North Caucasus together, then that would be a stunning step toward a new relationship as well as a more stable Euro-Atlantic neighborhood.

If they do not, Medvedev will fail, our peer-to-peer approach will be in jeopardy, my friend will continue to be in danger, and ultimately, Russia’s problem will emerge as everyone’s problem. Pockets of lawlessness have a way of traversing the Earth in the 21st century and causing tragedy.

Sarah Mendelson is director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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