Roiling Chechnya Again Vexes Russia

Russia's wars with separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya have officially ended after more than 15 years of fighting. Yet this Muslim region is once again in the throes of violence, and it is spreading.

Rebels have stepped up their attacks as the local Chechen authorities, loyal to Moscow, have escalated a crackdown with abductions, torture and killings of opponents.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently called violence in the Caucasus Mountains region on Russia's southern rim one of his biggest problems.

In two wars following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia bombed Chechnya into submission. The capital city of Grozny, once a city of about 500,000 people, was all but leveled. The capital has been rebuilt under the current pro-Moscow leader, 32-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov.

It is an impressive transformation. Where there was nothing but rubble, there are now new apartments, government offices and Europe's largest mosque, surrounded by acres of neatly tended gardens.

But this revival has come at a huge price. Kadyrov, once a separatist militia leader, has used the free hand given him by Moscow to brutally crush signs of rebellion. He has turned Chechnya into his personal fiefdom.

While battling Muslim extremists, he has promoted his own version of Islam, urging women to stay at home and obey their husbands. He has endorsed honor killings — the murder of female relatives who have brought "shame" to a family.

In the newly renovated market, Kusun Tutayeva has nothing but praise for Kadyrov. "We need a strong leader," she says, comparing him to the late Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin.

Moscow has turned a blind eye while Kadyrov's tactics brought a semblance of stability. But now there are once again almost daily attacks by Chechen separatists, increasingly carried out by suicide bombers.

Many Chechens, including Adlan Daudov, hoped Kadyrov would bring peace and prosperity. But Daudov says Chechens see growing corruption — and people once again live in terror. Chechens now fear Kadyrov's forces more than the rebel fighters, he says.

Tamara Vashkhabova's son was gunned down by Kadyrov's security forces in May in front of dozens of witnesses. As her elderly husband cuddled his dead son, Kadyrov's police demanded he curse his son and thank the security forces for killing his son. When he refused, they beat the old man until he lost consciousness. The authorities would not give the family their son's body for burial.

In August, Vashkhabova says, special forces took away a second son, Abdul.

"They put him in a car and would not tell us where they were taking him. We have looked everywhere. No one will admit having him. He has disappeared," she says.

Dozens of similar cases have been reported. Abdul's uncle, Musa Vashkhabov, says Kadyrov's forces now go after relatives of those whom the authorities believe are challenging Kadyrov's rule.

"People don't know what will happen to them. If everything was done according to the law, fine. If I have done something wrong, arrest me, allow me to have lawyer, take me to court. But here they torture you and kill you," Vashkhabov says.

Kadyrov's rivals have been gunned down in Vienna, Dubai and Moscow, as well as Chechnya. Last month, acclaimed human rights activist Natalia Estemirova became one of the latest of his critics to die here in an unsolved killing. Two more human rights activists were subsequently found dead in the trunk of their car. Kadyrov denies involvement.

But the remaining human rights activists fear they will be next. Heda Seratova recently appealed to Thomas Hammarberg, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe. Hammarberg was on a visit to Chechnya.

"When I go home every night I feel shadows behind me, that I am shadowed by a possible killer. Just because I talk to these people, I am being persecuted," Seratova says.

Hammarberg said he has repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — raised the issue of illegal abductions and killings with Moscow.

"This is a major concern for us — the problem of impunity, that crime is never investigated and guilt not established," he says.

Some analysts close to the Russian leadership believe Kadyrov has gone too far, but there is no evidence that the Kremlin plans to change policy.

Other problems linger as a result of Russia's military involvement in Chechnya. Landmines are an ever-present threat. Russian forces laid the mines during the wars in Chechnya, but Moscow has not provided maps of mine fields as demanded by international law. The Russian government also has not provided assistance in helping determine what happened to more than 5,000 Chechens who disappeared during the wars.

Zainab Djambekova's son was taken by Russian forces in 2003 and has not been seen since. She has no hope of finding him alive, but begs Hammarberg to help her at least find his body.

For well over a decade, Moscow has ignored repeated requests for a DNA lab so that bodies from unmarked graves can be identified.

"We have raised this a lot. There is a reluctance at the very top to deal with this," Hammarberg says, expressing his frustration.

Hammarberg says the Russian government does not fully understand the deep resentment that Chechens with missing relatives have against the authorities. Increasingly Chechens once again see the Russians — and their Chechen proxies — as the enemy, he says. He predicts that violence will only lead to more violence.

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