The plan seemed simple, when Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out
a new strategy six months ago to end the protracted war in Chechnya.
He would radically reduce the number of Russian troops there. And he
passed the task of destroying remaining Chechen rebels from the Army to
the Federal Security Service (FSB) - successor to the KGB.
But the plan did not pan out.
Today, Russia is more mired than ever in the breakaway republic. Senior
officials are reeling from the fallout of a "mopping up" security sweep in
two villages in western Chechnya last week. And the public is again
questioning the government's human rights abuses in Chechnya.
"It is clear that Putin has the political will to carry on,"
Oksana Atonenko, the Russia and Eurasia director at the International
Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "For [Mr. Putin], the endgame
is that Chechnya disappears from the front pages."
But talk of that endgame is premature, she adds, because throughout the
stalemate of the past year - even as Russian forces officially endure 150
deaths a month to rebel mines and ambushes - Moscow has done little to
create institutions and enforce rules that can guarantee the safety of
"What Russian forces are doing there is totally lawless," Ms. Antonenko
says. "[Putin] really personally believes that all Chechens who take part
in this war should be eliminated. Period."
Russian troops conducted security sweeps on the villages of
Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk July 3 and 4, after five Russian policemen
were killed by a mine in the area. More than 1,000 Chechen men and boys
were detained, beaten, and robbed - with some tortured with electrical
current - during the operation.
Russian troops and police regularly carry out such sweeps, known as
zachistki, ostensibly to check identity documents and weed rebels out
of the population. In the past, they have led to the deaths of detainees.
But the scale of the latest operation drew unexpected outcry.
In an almost unheard of self-criticism of troop activities, Russia's
top military chief in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, spoke of
"widespread crimes in carrying out passport checks" in the two villages.
Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him telling officers that the search
was carried out "in lawless fashion, laying the place to waste and then
pretending they knew nothing about it."
In a bid to prevent four local pro-Moscow administrators from quitting
over the searches, Viktor Kazantsev, the Kremlin envoy to the region,
issued a rare public apology for the abuses, and asked them for
Though Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said the sweeps were "tough but
necessary," and conducted legally, Mr. Kazantsev promised that the Russian
forces responsible for the incidents would be punished by Monday.
The Moscow-appointed officials detail troop abuses including the
stealing of $2,000 meant for teachers' pay, and the tossing of grenades
into school classrooms during the recent raids.
Not one rebel was captured, and no weapons were found, says Akhmad
Kadyrov, the pro-Russian administrator of Chechnya.
"The counter-terrorist operation is now directed against the peaceful
population, not the sepratists," Mr. Kadyrov said.
"Our efforts to help
stability and create conditions for the return of refugees have been
thwarted by ill-conceived and criminal actions."
Local human rights groups say robbery was a key component for poorly
paid Russian troops. Refugees describe a pricing system of bribes.
Residents with their papers in order were charged 200 rubles - about $6 -
for their freedom. Non-residents paid from 500 to 1,000 rubles.
"It seems [senior officials] are unable to keep this lawlessness under
control, because there is no punishment for any crime," says Tatyana
Kasatkina, director of the Russian human rights groups Memorial in Moscow.
The result is unaccountability that continues to undermine any solution
to the Chechen conflict.
"Do not try to find any decisions to organize such zachistki at
the top level," says Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist with the
Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow, who often works in Chechnya.
not do it. The decision that they made was to permit the Army to do
anything in Chechnya," Ms. Politkovskaya says.
"The top brass believes
that the best way to 'pacify' Chechnya is regular use of 'deterrent'
Putin last year was widely quoted as vowing to go after Chechen rebels
and "rub them out in the outhouse."
Broader issues of accountability on the battlefield must be dealt with
first, experts say, if any future peace is to be made and stick. And in
Russia - where, Chechnya aside, legal reform is still a work-in-progress -
hopes aren't high of quick improvement.