Chechnya Tore Rights Movement Apart

A man holds a poster that says “Defend the freedom of Chechnya”

A man holds a poster that says “Defend the freedom of Chechnya” during a rally in Moscow last year. (Photo: Yuri Kadobnov / AFP-Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several reports about the effect of the Chechen conflict on Russia on the 10th anniversary of the start of the first war.

The military conflict in Chechnya has taken a heavy toll on human rights groups and liberal political parties, which were held in high public esteem when the first war started 10 years ago Saturday [i.e., Dec. 11, 1994] but have now been relegated to the far sidelines.

Liberal activists have largely lost their voice due to public disappointment in liberal ideas and an effective smear campaign by military and government hawks. But missteps by some leading activists, including their emphasis on the rights of Chechens but silence about the plight of Russian civilians in Chechnya, also contributed by making the human rights movement easy prey for critics.

“Chechnya has contributed greatly to the shrinking of the political playing field in Russia and to the pushing of liberal political parties and the free press to the margins,” said Alexander Cherkasov, co-director of Memorial, the country’s largest human rights group.

“The moral authority of human rights champions has been undermined because the slogans of liberalism and democracy that the Russian leadership borrowed from them in the early 1990s were discredited by the leadership by the end of the decade,” he said.

The accusation that hurt human rights activists the most was that they defended the rights of Chechens but neglected the plight of Russians in de facto independent Chechnya in 1991-94 and 1996-99. Many ethnic Russians were harassed and forcefully evicted from their homes by local gangs.

“Former Soviet dissidents and the first democrats of the early 1990s — the leaders of the human rights movement in Russia — had their white garments smeared by pro-war and anti-Chechen propaganda to such an extent that they were accused of taking money from Dudayev. This was not fair,” said Valentin Gefter, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Human Rights.

Gefter conceded that human rights activists did not pay a lot of attention to the rights of ethnic Russians under separatist President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who ran Chechnya from 1991-96.

However, he said, “we defended all peaceful citizens, the vast majority of whom, naturally, were Chechens, and our critique was proportional to the amount of violations by both sides.”

Still, the difference in how Russians and Chechens were treated — a difference that was repeatedly highlighted by nationalists — served as a turning point in the public’s perception of the objectivity of human rights activists.

Since the former dissident leaders of the human rights movement suffered Soviet repression, they tend to divide the world between “us” and “them,” with the “them” being the state, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst from the Center for Political Technologies.

“They saw Chechens as a people who had been repressed by the same forces that repressed them, who fought against communism, and who spoke the same language as them,” he said, referring to the initial democratic rhetoric of some Chechen separatist leaders like former President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who later introduced strict Islamic law in the republic.

Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst at the Indem think tank, said Chechnya helped cast the spotlight on the seeming double standards of activists, who criticized Russian nationalism but at the same time defended the nationalism of smaller ethnic groups.

Activists thought Chechens had “a legitimate claim for independence and did not notice that this was a direct path to rampant crime,” Korgunyuk said.

The human rights movement played a high-profile role in the first, 1994-96 Chechen war. In the early days of the conflict, then-Russian ombudsman Sergei Kovalyov led a group of prominent human rights activists to Grozny to demand from Dudayev’s presidential palace that Moscow stop carpet-bombing the city.

Activists facilitated the return of hundreds of federal soldiers taken prisoner by Chechen fighters during the first war.

Kovalyov himself kick-started negotiations with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev after Basayev seized a hospital with more than 1,500 hostages in the southern town of Budyonnovsk in 1995.

But even Budyonnovsk did not manage to avoid controversy. After the crisis ended, Kovalyov outraged many by calling Basayev “a Robin Hood armed with a grenade launcher.” He later explained that he considered Robin Hood a bad person.

Activists led by Kovalyov collected the vast bulk of evidence of human rights violations by the military in Chechnya and presented them to the public, contributing greatly to a perception that the first war was dirty.

Dudayev awarded Kovalyov with the Order of Honor, the republic’s highest honor.

Seeing that they were losing the fight both on the ground and in public opinion, the military and security forces needed a scapegoat and decided to shift blame onto the outspoken but politically toothless activists, Cherkasov and Makarkin said.

In an emotional outburst in 1995, then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev described as “little vermin” all human rights activists and liberal State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who had protested military brutality in Chechnya.

Top military brass still feel the same way about activists, retired General Gennady Troshev wrote in a 2002 book. Troshev led one of the second divisions that attacked Chechnya in the first war.

However, it was the start of the second war in 1999 that delivered the biggest blow to the authority of the human rights movement, Makarkin said.

“The first war in Chechnya was not popular, so only groups with vested interests, like the military, criticized the rights people,” he said. “But the second war started at a time when most of the public was demanding a crackdown on Chechens, and the voice of the rights people was rejected by almost everyone.”

The military campaign, which continues to this day, began about the time that hundreds of people died in apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities. Authorities blamed the attacks on Chechen rebels.

Since then, Chechen extremists have adopted terrorism as a major style of warfare — alienating the Chechen cause for independence among the public and making it difficult for activists to find any sympathy for Chechens whose rights are violated by military and security personnel in Chechnya, Gefter said.

A striking example of how far apart the Russian leadership and human rights activists now stand emerged after the Beslan school attack, which was organized by Basayev.

While President Vladimir Putin called for a war on terror and preventative strikes against Chechen rebel bases anywhere in the world, Memorial issued a statement pressing the Kremlin to start negotiations with Chechen rebels. Putin has repeatedly refused to hold talks with even moderate separatists, labeling all Chechen rebels as terrorists.

With little backing from the government and the public, the human rights movement seems to be increasingly turning to the West for support — leading to accusations that activists are siding with foreign governments that shame Russia with their criticism of Chechnya and obstruct Moscow’s efforts to fight terrorism.

Gefter and Cherkasov said no one is taking sides. “Everyone agrees that human rights is not an internal issue,” Gefter said.

Korgunyuk said the movement is looking to the West to survive. “To continue their work, they need to earn money,” he said. “With virtually nobody interested in them here, the only place they have to turn to is the West.”

Originally published Dec. 10, 2004. Other articles in the series: “Army Learned Few Lessons From Chechnya,” and “Smokescreen Around Chechnya.”