Russia and Chechnya

Mirror of a War

Yuri Budanov
Yuri Budanov during his trial, Feb. 28, 2001 (Photo: NTV/AFP).

For nearly three years, Russian readers have been riveted by the arrest and trial of Yuri Budanov, a colonel charged in the kidnapping and murder of Kheda "Elza" Kungaeva, an 18-year-old Chechen girl. His case has mirrored Russians’ understanding of themselves and the second Chechen war. Right-wing Russians have sought to portray him as a patriot in an unpopular war, while Chechens have viewed his prosecution as a test of whether federal authorities are capable of upholding the rule of law in their country.

Although the details of the murder remain in dispute, there is no question that Budanov strangled Kungaeva in the Chechen village of Tangi-Chu in March 2000. Kungaev’s family charges that the girl was dragged from her home at night, raped, and murdered by Russian soldiers on a drinking binge. Budanov says he killed Elza Kungaeva in a rage while interrogating her as a suspected sniper.

This past December, a military court in Rostov-on-Don found Budanov not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered that he undergo compulsory psychiatric care. “The court basically recognized that Budanov is the same sort of war victim as the woman who died at his hands,” commented Yelena Stroiteleva in the centrist newspaper Izvestiya (Jan. 4). Victim or not, Budanov’s trials are not over yet. “Col. Yuri Budanov may not get to keep the New Year’s present delivered to him on Dec. 31 by the North Caucasus District Military Court—a finding of insanity and order to undergo compulsory treatment,” wrote Ivan Sas in the centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Jan. 13). “As Chief State Prosecutor Aleksandr Savenko declared, the state prosecution regards the court’s verdict as unjustifiably soft and protested against it. The appeal was delivered on Jan. 9, and a day later, the injured party, the Kungaevs, appealed the sentence.” Kungaeva’s parents are also filing a civil suit against the Russian government.

Early on, Russian authorities sent mixed messages about the Budanov case. Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov echoed the rhetoric of Russian nationalists, declaring that Budanov was not a criminal but “a victim of circumstances and our legislative shortcomings.” The minister added that “as a human being he sympathized” with the former tank commander. Similarly, Army Gen. Vladimir Shamanov—now the governor of Ulyanovsk Oblast, on the Volga—expressed words of praise for Budanov and disparaged Kungaeva: “She wasn’t just a girl but a sniper, an enemy, who took the life of more than one of my officers.”

Soon after Budanov’s arrest, however, Anatoli Kvashin, chief of Russia’s General Staff, went on television to denounce Kungaeva’s killing after meeting with President Vladimir Putin. He described Budanov as “scum that has to be removed by the root from the army collective.”

Budanov was charged under three articles of the Russian criminal code: Article 126 (kidnapping), Article 105 (murder), and Article 286 (abuse of office). A draft autopsy report obtained by Kungaeva’s family said that the victim had been raped, a circumstance that would undermine Budanov’s defense that he had acted in a fit of rage. The final report, however, made no mention of rape, and no charge of sexual assault was brought against Budanov.

In court testimony in 2001, the medical examiner, Vladimir Lyanenko, neither disputed nor repudiated his initial findings. He declined to comment on the question of rape and did not discuss the discrepancy between the draft and final report.

On June 18, 2002, the military prosecutor, Sergei Nazarov, proposed that the kidnapping and murder charges be dropped against Budanov in light of findings by the Serbsky Institute that the officer was insane at the time of the murder. Nazarov said that Budanov should be convicted only for abuse of office—illegally detaining a person—and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Nazarov was later replaced, and the new prosecutor sought a much harsher sentence of 12 years’ imprisonment on the charge of murder. A third psychiatric evaluation was sought, again from the Serbsky Institute but with a different group of experts.

According to Izvestiya’s Stroiteleva, “In its determination, the court ruled that Yuri Budanov could not bear criminal responsibility for the March 2000 murder of Elza Kungaeva because he was unable to appreciate fully the consequences and the social character of his actions. The murder occurred, moreover, as a result of chronic mental disorder linked to an organic lesion of the brain. As regards the article on exceeding one’s authority (Budanov was charged in the beating of a subordinate), the court ruled that he is also not criminally responsible because the court recognized that by March 2000, the colonel was already not fit for the military. In this way, the court took account of the conclusions of the last two psychiatric evaluations, conducted at Moscow’s Serbsky Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry.”

A week or so before the court’s verdict, which had been leaked to the public, a group of citizens from the city of Rostov decided to nominate Budanov to the local assembly, or Duma. “As one of the initiators noted, the time had finally come to replace the parasites among the ranks of deputies with normal people,” wrote Vadim Dubnov in the Dec. 22 liberal weekly Novoye Vremya. “Budanov for President” was the sarcastic headline in the reformist Novye Izestiya on Dec. 17. In the accompanying article, Said Bitsoev commented: “Understand me correctly. I am not against Budanov personally. And I’m not against colonels in general. In a way, I’m even in agreement with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who has human sympathy for him. Many have been killed in Chechnya, but they are putting up only one tank regiment commander [for punishment]. They’ve made a great noise about some strangled girl, even though they have raped before this case and since.

“But the pirouettes of the Rostov District Court and the famous Serbsky Institute—famous, time after time, for its incomprehensible medical conclusions—gives no hope for the ‘triumph of truth and justice.’ [The Serbsky Institute was notorious in Soviet times for the abuse of political dissidents.—WPR] Lawyers for the accused and the victims affirm in a single voice that trial has become political. This is the single hypothesis on which both sides are unanimous.”

Dmitry Litvinovich of the communist Web site Pravda (Dec. 16) attributed the not-guilty verdict to changing political winds after the October hostage crisis in Moscow. When the court agreed to a third psychiatric evaluation in the summer, it signaled a readiness to consider a harsher punishment, according to Novoye Vremya’s Dubnov (Jan. 19). At that time, no one could have foreseen that Chechen rebels would take control of a theater just miles from the Kremlin. “To condemn Budanov means to spit into the face of the Russian army, while to justify him means to offend Chechens. That is the dilemma,” wrote Litvinovich.

In an item headlined “The Insane Country,” Valeri Yakov of the reformist Novye Izvestiya failed to see the dilemma Litvinovich described (Dec. 18): “There’s no reason to doubt that while free Budanov will be met with flowers, they’ll call him a hero again, and propose his name as a Duma representative. Already, an action committee has been established in the Rostov Duma, and the electorate will have a chance to gain another irresponsible servant of the people.

“Everything surrounding this sensational affair might be considered a bit of theater, theater of the absurd, performed by a small troupe of unsuccessful actors. But sadly, there is no sense of theater here. A huge number of people with the trappings of power have tried quite seriously and consciously to clean Budanov’s soiled cap and, by all available means, to create a heroic image for him.”

Yakov added: “Now they are trying to persuade us that in demanding a severe sentence for citizen Budanov, we will bring into disrepute the Russian officer class and destroy the army’s moral spirit. Thus, it is not Budanov the rapist and murderer who will dishonor the officer corps but those who reproach him: not a regimental commander, who beats his subordinates, who rapes and kills peaceful citizens, who destroys the army’s moral spirit, but those who draw attention to this. This is the mad logic of the insane country.”

Novoye Vremya’s Dubnov remarked on the fortunate timing of the verdict. “The fact that the Ministry of Defense sends people with lesions of the brain to command regiments did not spoil the celebratory mood of the generals, especially since the [the country’s] newspapers had gone on a long holiday, and television stations devoted little attention to the sentence, sometimes displaying what seemed to be embarrassment about it.”