Sergey Kovalev began his presentation by expressing a concern with the current perception of the Chechen conflict that circulates in the West. In Dr. Kovalev's opinion, Russian government propaganda is seeking to foster the appearance of gradual progress towards peace in Chechnya. As the Russian sources portray the situation, though human rights violations are still regrettably present, their occurrence is diminishing, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, many Western observers, including ones from the Council of Europe, have also contributed to establishment of the above perception of progress in Chechnya.
Consequently, Dr. Kovalev described the real dynamics in the realm of human rights in Chechnya. He did agree that the Chechen-populated centers have lately been bombed less by Russian artillery or from the air. Usage of large-scale warfare weapons has diminished as well. However, this trend occurred primarily because there is no longer any enemy to conduct such warfare against. Nowadays the fighting in Chechnya has evolved into typical guerilla warfare. There are no open battles, which precludes the federal troops from the need to use heavy-duty weapons.
Dr. Kovalev continued by characterizing the violence against the civilian population perpetrated by the federal troops. According to the permanent mission of the "Memorial" society in Chechnya, 22 civilians were killed in January (1-19 January). According to the same information source, 61 civilians over the same period have been detained in Chechnya. Of these people, 29 are missing.
To conclude his remarks regarding human rights violations, Dr. Kovalev voiced his conviction that death squads are operating in Chechnya. When mass graves are discovered, the identified corpses appear to belong to people detained by soldiers or disappeared during "clean-ups" all across Chechnya. In other words, they were detained in various places but their corpses turned up in one location. Such a circumstance indicates the planned nature of atrocities and excludes the possibility of just some accident.
Dr. Kovalev pointed to another circumstance in these human rights violations. Most of recently found corpses have been exploded. Some might have been blown up alive, while others blown up after their deaths in order to prevent identification. For example, in the most recent case of a mass grave (discovered on January 13, 2003 near Grozny) out of 10 corpses it was possible to provide identification only for three. And following the pattern mentioned earlier, all of these three bodies belong to people from different regions of Chechnya.
Dr. Kovalev discussed the referendum that the Russian authorities plan to conduct on March 23, 2003 during which the new constitution of the Chechen republic and new electoral procedures are to be approved. He noted that both the Russian legislature and international legal norms categorically prohibit referenda and any other procedures involving voting under the conditions that prevail in Chechnya. Currently, all the roads in Chechnya are blocked. For instance, Rudolf Binding who visited Chechnya with Lord Judd on behalf of the Commission on Human Rights of the Council of Europe counted 28 check-points on a 40-kilometer segment of one highway in Chechnya. Any person crossing these checkpoints is stopped and searched. Very often bribes are extorted. Many of the identified corpses were detained precisely at checkpoints. In addition to constant check-ups and blocking, throughout the territory of Chechnya there is a curfew.
All of these conditions, in Dr. Kovalev's opinion, would make expression of free will of people extremely difficult to imagine. Many basic procedures such as campaigning become questionable. These are not the optimal conditions for presenting one's political views to the electorate. Any supporters of Maskhadov would definitely risk their lives by campaigning among the electorate. They would be immediately detained, killed and buried. Along with them a sizable large segment of civilian population would suffer as well. On the other hand, any supporters of the federal authorities would also be under risk. They would also be hunted and shot at by the warlords. Despite such complications, the federal authorities have not formally proclaimed an emergency situation or military regime in Chechnya. And since emergency rule has not been introduced officially, then all the conditions for a full-fledged referendum are said to be present.
Dr. Kovalev proposed two possible motives for pushing the referendum in Chechnya by the Russian authorities. However meekly, the international community still reproaches Moscow for mishandling the Chechen conflict. Occasionally, Moscow is criticized for its reluctance to look for solutions to the Chechen conundrum. The referendum is the way for the Russian government to counter the criticism of the international community as the first step in the right direction. Another reason for the referendum, according to Dr. Kovalev, is to avoid any negotiations with the Chechen separatists. Zakaev and Maskhadov-- the most moderate and balanced of the Chechen leaders, and, therefore, the most ready and suitable for negotiations-- are portrayed as the worst criminals. Moscow does not want any negotiations. Thus, the proposed referendum is the way to disqualify and move them out of the political dialogue space.
Dr. Kovalev further suggested that Moscow is to conduct the referendum on its own terms and with clearly predictable results. He forecasted the outcome of the referendum by quoting Stalin that it is less important who votes than who counts the votes. One source of such confidence for the Russian authorities in the results of the referendum is the following. Before the second Chechen war, according to many various sources, there were between 600 and 700 thousand people living in Chechnya. However, after the recent census in the Russian Federation, the numbers increased up to 1,088,000 people despite the still on-going war that led to more than 200 thousand Chechen fleeing to Ingushetia. Dr. Kovalev agreed that the people in Chechnya contributed themselves to such an inflated population number. The reason is that people are starving and depend entirely on humanitarian assistance. Therefore, they enter all their relatives both alive and dead, which is overlooked by the census-takers. Such development contributes to creation of a strong reservoir of votes that the authorities can count on during the referendum. In addition, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers would also vote, which altogether would provide whatever result the authorities are looking for.
In conclusion, Dr. Kovalev reiterated that the referendum would enable Moscow, first, to offer the international community an appearance of doing something in Chechnya, and second, to install there a puppet government. Yet, the referendum is by no means a step toward the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Expression of opinion among the Chechen population would be possible only after a complete halt of military clashes. The minimal condition for that would be, if not a peace treaty, then at least, a stable armistice, either of which is to be achieved only through negotiations with the real enemy.
Summary prepared by Zhanara Nauruzbayeva, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment.