1999 is a year of a drastic rise in Putin’s career. He met its start in a position of a head of FSB, in August he was made interim head of government, on December 31, during his New Year speech, Yeltsin announced him to be interim President. Next year, in March, Putin was elected President.
In 1999, when Chechnya had been in fact independent from Russia for several years, the “instability in the North Caucasus”, which also stretched to Dagestan, explosions in entrance halls in several Russian towns and the following actions of Putin: strengthening of FSB, bringing troops into Chechnya, airstrikes in Grozny, the famous “to waste them in the shithouse” — all this have become the beginning of establishment of Putin’s regime.
This text is an attempt to compare methods, terminology and logic of the Second Chechen War and the war in Ukraine, to follow how for Putin war has gradually become a universal way to score political points.
Chronicle of Events
The first Chechen War ended in 1996 with signing Khasavurtov agreements. The war, or — as it is named in Russian sources — the campaign turned into a protracted one, and before the next presidential elections it was important for Yeltsin to create the appearance of its termination, even on unfavorable conditions. According to the agreement, Russian troops were supposed to be driven out from Chechnya, and the question about its status would be postponed till December 31, 2001.
In fact, battle actions between various groups of Chechen separatists, between opposition separatists and the weakening regime of Aslan Maskhadov, who was chosen president in 1997, terrorist attacks and hostage taking did not stop throughout the whole 1990s.
The crisis in the North Caucasus as a result of the First Chechen War and Yeltsin’s inability to neither acknowledge the sovereignty of Chechen republic as an independent country nor to resolve the situation in the region with peaceful methods have led to the situation when methods of force started to seem a lesser evil to the majority of Russian citizens. Instead of making sense of the origins of the Chechen wars and conflicts, of taking historical responsibility for more than one and a half century of military aggression and conquering of the Caucasus, for repressing local cultures and peoples in the Soviet time, by the end of the 1990s Russian government was ready to “sell” the necessity of the second Chechen war, using the same colonial rhetoric: wild peoples, which need taming, radical islamists, terrorists, with whom it is useless to negotiate.
Putin found himself in a situation, when methods of force guaranteed — by contrast with the aging Yeltsin, who was obviously “tired of Chechnya” — an image of a decisive and strong leader. At this point, in August-September 1999, a series of terrorist attacks occur.
In September blocks of flats in Buinaks, Moscow, Volgodonsk explode, the number of the dead reaches tens and hundreds of people. 109 people died as a result of explosion of a house in Gurianov avenue in Moscow on September 9. 118 people died as a result of explosion of a house in Kashirskoe highway in Moscow on September 13.
Who stands behind these crimes? There are two versions: the official one (Chechen terrorists led by Arabian islamists Emir al-Khattab and Abu Umar) and the alternative one (the paymaster is FSB). One of the authors of the second version, ex-employee of FSB Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in 2004 in London, where he sought political asylum. He was poisoned with a rare radioactive substance, polonium-210. British court came to conclusion, that Litvinenko was murdered as a result of FSB special operation, probably approved personally by the head of FSB, Nikolay Patrushev and president Vladimir Putin.
What was the war, which began after the terrorist attacks, like? Below we give an (incomplete) list of facts about the events of the 2000s. Active warfare in Chechnya continued in 1999 and 2000, however, the official regime of counter-terrorist operation — as this war is called by the power — was canceled only in April 2009.
Bombings of towns and murders of civilians
In the end of 1999, federal military forces declared a Chechen village Katyr-Yurt “a zone of safety”. The refugees from Grozny gathered there — the population of Katyr-Yurt doubled as a result. At the beginning of February 2000 guerrilla fighters were retreating through this village. The military informed that they organized a trap for them, having let them into Katyr-Yurt, and then they tightened the assault, destroying them by artillery and aviation. Mainly peaceful civilians and refugees fell victims of this operation.
Human right defender, a member of “Memorial” society, Alexander Cherkasov says: “What federal military did in Katyr-Yurt was presented as a glorious victory of the Russian army, a defeat of Chechen guerrilla fighters, who were tricked into leaving Grozny. But after a closer look it turned out that those were severe crimes and a huge humanitarian tragedy. What happened in Chechnya 20 years ago is not history, it is continuing present. Everything that happened then is still with us and, first and foremost, with the victims. This page is not turned. Following juridical norms is not an important factor for the Russian military, they do not take it into account when planning and executing operations.”
On February 5, 2000, the employees of OMON GUVD of Saint-Petersburg and Leningradskaya district, who were “cleaning out” the village Novye Aldy in the suburbs of Grozny, killed 56 peaceful citizens. From February 4 to February 7 of the same year Russian armed forces reeked with gunfire and airstrike with the use of demolition bombs the village Katyr-Yurt, 167 people died as a result.
The authorities have never admitted what happened to be unlawful, neither publicly, nor in official documents. The victims have never received any help.
Filtration camps (“points of filtration”)
Filtration camps appeared in the times of the First Chechen War. During the Second Chechen War some camps acquired a status of detention centers, subordinate to the Ministry of Justice, but with a vague juridical status and without clear basis in the Criminal Code. The aim of the “system of filtration” was to keep the detained on suspicion of participation in illegal militant groups and carrying out interrogations. As a result the detained had to be either released or transferred to other prison facilities.
According to the data of Russian human rights organization “Memorial”, by the most conservative estimates, the overall number of those who went through the “points of filtration” reaches no less then 200 thousand people (from the population of Chechnya which was less then one million at the moment of the start of the warfare), out of which “practically everybody” experienced bashing and tortures, while some were executed without charge or trial. According to the data of “Memorial” the aim of the system of “filtration” in Chechnya — apart from being a part of the whole system of state terror for suppressing and frightening of the population — was to create a network of informants through forcible recruiting and was characterized by its unscrupulousness, that is to say, unwarranted arrests and mass detentions of innocent people.
In October of 2000 Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its 99-page report “Welcome to Hell” about how thousands of Chechens were detained by Russian military forces, moreover, many of them were arrested without any proof of breaking the law. The guards of detention centers systematically beat up the Chechen prisoners, some of whom also suffered from rape or other forms of tortures.
One of the main and most famous filtration camps in Chechnya was Chernokozovsky pretrial detention center, created in a former prison in 1999. In 2000 Amnesty International exposed the following filtration camps: a pretrial detention center in Kadi-Yurt, an improvised pretrial detention center in a school of Urus-Martan, other improvised camps in various places of Chechnya, among which a fruit garden in Tolstaya-Yurta, on a poultry factory in a basement of a cafe “Cheker” in Chiri-Yurt, also in Grozny. Objects outside Chechnya included a prison hospital and a pretrial detention center in Pyatigorsk.
Concealment of the losses among the military
According to the official data, from October 1, 1999, to December 23, 2002, the overall loss of federal forces (all defense and law enforcement forces) in Chechnya amounted to 4572 people killed and 15 549 injured. In 2010 another number was announced: more then 6 000 people. According to the data of of committees of soldier mothers of Russia it was 11,5 thousand military men (they collected information using the number of inquiries of the families of the military). Many of them are listed as “missing”.
Tortures and “missing” people
There were also “missing” civilians, who went through filtration camps. For twenty years the society “Memorial” has been collecting and publishing information about people, who disappeared by force in the course of the Second Chechen war. By various estimates there were from three to five thousand missing people in the years of the war.
Mass Graves of civilians with the aim of concealing the number of the dead
According to official information the losses among the peaceful population amounted to one thousand people, however, according to Amnesty International 25 thousand civilians died during the war.
In March of 2001 Human Rights Watch in their report indicated eight earlier unidentified mass graves, which were found in 2000-2001. Also, the organization marked eight cases, when bodies were thrown along the sideways of the roads on the territories of hospitals and in other places. The society “Memorial” also detected similar cases. The majority of the bodies had traces of up close shots, characteristic for extrajuridical massacres as well as mutilations. Medical examinations of several victims revealed part of mayhem was done while people were still alive, which points at cruel tortures.
Concealment of the guilty in military crimes
The history of Chechen wars and military crimes is a story of total impunity. In case it came to initiations of criminal cases, they, as a rule, were suspended “due to the impossibility of detecting subjects, who are to be prosecuted”. Despite bringing the matter before the European Court of Human Rights and Stasbourg Court, the recognition of facts of military crimes by courts, human rights advocate organizations, international observers (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International and Russian Memorial), the guilty never received punishment.
The wars in Chechnya ended with the establishment of pro-Putin Kadyrov regime in the region. The republic receives subsidies from the federal budget (the budget of Chechnya is 90 per cent subsidized), in return it demonstrates record figures of voting turnout in support of actual authorities on federal elections. The Chechens who disagree with the policy of Putin and Kadyrov have left the republic and the country. According to various data the number of people, who were forced to leave their homes due to two wars and the following “cleansing” of the non-content, amounts to hundreds of thousands: from 70 to 130 thousand fled to the European Union, the data on the number of people who went to other regions of Russia is more difficult to get. In the Report of the Committee “Citizen Assistance” there is a number of 81 thousand people, who got a status of a forcibly displaced person after the first Chechen War, the time when people of Russian, Ukranian, Armenian and other ethnicity used to leave the republic. The data on those who got this status after the Second Chechen War indicate hundreds and tens of people. This time those were the Chechens who were leaving, and the number was not smaller, probably even much bigger, but the authorities did not want to acknowledge their status of forcibly displaced people and pay proper allowances. One can cautiously talk about a number of 300 people, who left the region as a result of two wars.
At the beginning of the war in Ukraine there appeared reports about troops of Chechens who fight alongside with Ukrainians against Russian military aggression. Many of them openly say that for them the war had never ended: they say that the war has been lasting for 30 years (meaning since the first Chechen War start), 200 years — since the beginning of the military expansion of Russian Empire to the Caucasus, or even 400 years — since the first “military expeditions” of the tsarist Russia. Basically the Chechens are continuing the liberating war where it is now possible, in waiting and hope for liberation of their lands.
The archives, the journalist investigations, the reports of human rights organizations of military crimes in Chechnya must be made public again, the victims must be mourned, the guilty must be punished. This is also a part of the fight — for memory, for dignity, for recognition.