The old maxim that “no news is good news” does not apply to Chechnya. While the drumbeat of daily atrocities from the breakaway Russian province are mostly gone, and many of its main separatist rebel leaders have been killed or captured, human rights abuses continue unabated. “[F]ederal and Chechen Republic security forces generally acted with legal impunity” while allegedly carrying out “politically motivated abductions, disappearances, and unlawful killings,” according to the recently released State Department report on Human Rights. A chilling reminder of Chechnya's lawlessness is the fact that a journalist who spent the better part of her career documenting abuses there, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered last year in cold blood.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the recent appointment to president of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed son (NYT) of Chechnya's previously slain president. Although Kadyrov denies it, observers say a cult of personality has formed around “King Ramzan.” The thirty-year-old leader counts among his acquaintances Mike Tyson and keeps a caged pet lion. More seriously, Kadyrov's black-clad security forces (Human Rights Watch) stand accused of torturing, kidnapping, and murdering civilians. Police brutality (BBC) remains commonplace, says Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner. And many outsiders suspect Kadyrov had a hand in Politkovskaya's still-unsolved death, though he denies any involvement.
His brutish behavior aside, Kadyrov deserves some credit for rebuilding Chechnya after twelve years of off-and-on war with the Russians (GlobalSecurity.org) that has claimed as many as 100,000 lives. The Independent describes Grozny, the Chechen capital, as a “post-apocalyptic lunar landscape” with 70 percent of its housing wiped out. But small improvements are visible. Grozny boasts a new airport, as well as one of Europe's largest mosques (Chechens are predominantly Muslims). New schools and hospitals are being built and long-neglected roads are being paved. And violence, particularly at the hand of radical Islamists, has simmered down.
Stabilizing Chechnya is not only of interest to the Kremlin. The province is also important to outside powers because it lies along a geographically strategic corridor for human and drug smugglers. Muslim extremists operate from the region with abandon, as this Backgrounder explains, thanks in part to corrupt officials. Oil pipelines crisscross the North Caucasus. And instability risks spreading throughout the region as separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia seek greater independence from their Georgian overseers.
Chechnya also remains a sore point in U.S.-Russian relations. President Bush, in meetings with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, is wont to raise the issue of human rights in Chechnya. Meanwhile, Putin refers to the conflict there as a “counterterrorism operation” and an internal matter. This March 2006 CFR Task Force report says “a problem that ought to encourage U.S.-Russian cooperation is made divisive by Moscow's preference for blaming outsiders.” The report adds that “nothing threatens the future of Russia more than a strategy that spreads the military disaster that has engulfed Chechnya to the entire North Caucasus.”