Chechnya as Potemkin Village

Anne Neistat, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, has written a must read in the new issue of the London Review of Books on her recent visit to Grozny. She notes that amazement was her first impression of the capital’s main drag, Prospekt Pobedy (Victory Avenue). The streets were clean. Buildings were painted. The blown out windows were all replaced. It looked as if the war torn city was finally getting back on its feet. However, amazement turned to disappointment as Neistat took a closer look. The reconstruction was nothing but a fa?ade. A n urban Potemkin village. A historical symbol that is fitting for the whole region. “Only when I got closer,” she writes, “did it become clear that these buildings were uninhabitable. There was nothing behind the painted fa?ades: no roofs or floors, no internal walls, just piles of rubble and broken steel supports. A ‘Potemkin village’ is usually no more than a metaphor. In Grozny, the Potemkin villages are real, but it’s not clear who they’re meant to impress, apart from the TV cameras.”

Such is the state of the Chechen War. Declared officially over, though unofficial persists in the form expect for sporadic attacks by Wahhabi militants and hold out nationalists and terror perpetrated by pro-Russian forces. What is really happening is that it is spreading to neighboring Dagestan, North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Russian puppet, Ramzan Kadyrov, “seems” in control. But the amount of control is in direct proportion to the amount of blood that flows.

Neistat’s piece is good timing. It ads some much needed perspective on recent events. A week ago, Russian forces killed Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, though some feel his death won’t make much of an impact. The new leader of the Chechen separatists, Doku Umarov, recently denounced Shamil Basaev’s use of terrorism (though never directly names him) in an interview with Andrei Babitskii. All of this seems to not have meant much because Umarov turned around and named Basaev vice-president of the separatist government.

For the Putin Administration, Chechnya is becoming a political success via Chechenization. Any talk of Moscow’s or its proxy’s brutality by the United States is quickly shot down with pointing out the utter failure in Iraq. Putin has become so emboldened that Nashi spent $400,000 to organize rallies at the UN in New York calling for the extradition of Chechen rebels to Russia.

But back to Neistat’s article. Especially enlightening are her findings on the Kadyrovtsy, or Kadyrov’s anti-terrorist security forces:

Remaining silent is no guarantee against abuse, however. The members of the anti-terrorism unit are eager to prove their industriousness. ‘When I first joined them,’ a former member of Kadyrov’s security service confided to me, ‘I kept asking: “How are we going to find the rebels or their caches of ammunition?” And they told me it was a “chain”: we go after someone, and “work” with him until he gives us names, and then we follow up, and so on, until someone confesses. Eventually someone always confesses.’ In villages across Chechnya we found evidence of this strategy in action. Young and old, men and women, healthy and disabled: no one is safe from being made a link in the ‘chain’. You don’t have to look very far to find a torture victim in Chechnya. I spoke to dozens.

Ruslan R., an elderly construction worker, was shaking as he got into our car. Two weeks earlier, a group of armed, masked men had broken into his house in the middle of the night and taken him away. He spent a day at the local base of the Anti-Terrorism Centre – followed by nearly two weeks in hospital. The interrogators accused him of supporting the rebels, kicked him violently, and then used an ‘infernal machine’ to give him electric shocks. ‘They attached the wires to my toes, and kept cranking the handle to release the current. I couldn’t bear it. I was begging: “Give me any paper – I’ll sign it, I’ll sign anything; if you want I’ll confess I sold the rebels a tank or a MiG, anything.”’

A refusal to confess often results in even worse treatment. Khasan Kh., who is 19, refused to confess or incriminate others. He was tortured for 13 days in a row. He thinks he was held in the basement of the local commander’s house, one of the secret prisons the Kadyrovtsy have established all over Chechnya. In the middle of winter, they kept him in the cellar wearing only his underwear. His captors said they would give him food if he started to talk. Day after day they suspended him by his feet from a tree, and beat him with shovel handles. On the 13th day they told Khasan they were taking him out to execute him, but instead dumped him in the forest, bound and blindfolded. Villagers found him and took him home. His mother fainted when she saw him: he looked like a skeleton, she said. He had an open fracture on his arm and was in the early stages of kidney failure as a result of the beatings. Khasan’s arm is now permanently disfigured: the family was too frightened to take him to hospital.

Read on. I implore you.