The following is an extract from a 2,600-word article by Natalya Estemirova on the situation in Chechnya written in August 2008 but published only after her killing on the pages of The Independent:
The abductions in Chechnya started nearly a decade ago. In 2000, Russian forces took control of practically the entire territory of the republic, and started extensive mop-up operations in villages
Thousands of murders and abductions took place; these operations were declared to be an efficient method in the fight against rebels. In reality, however, the troops and police were looting the houses of unprotected civilians, at times taking away everything from them, from cars and furniture to shampoos and female underwear.
Most horrifically of all, women were raped in front of their male relatives, and all the men were detained, from teenagers to old men: they were either cruelly beaten, or released for ransom, or else they disappeared forever.
Large-scale “mop-up” operations stopped after 2003, but the abductions did not. Most often, one or two people would be taken from their homes in the middle of the night. Some were fortunate to return home barely alive after several days or weeks of cruel beating and torture – always ransomed by their relatives. But if the family of the abducted person could not gather the necessary sum or find the mediator, a dead body would be found some time later, or the victim would disappear for good. There were also those who – after their disappearance – appeared in court and were sentenced for grave crimes, despite their insistence that they had only confessed under prolonged torture.
Many things would change when Ramzan Kadyrov became President of Chechnya in 2007. Large-scale reconstruction began; Grozny changed by the day, its streets newly covered with asphalt and houses boasting plastic window frames and fresh plastering. Observers started talking about the wonders of the young President. From the inside the renovated houses did not look so beautiful, with no interior works done, and no proper utilities ensured. Since then, Kadyrov has attempted to engineer a further change of ideas. The President is advancing his campaign for a “revival of spiritual traditions”… making women and young girls “dress properly”, and above all wear headscarves in public.
Meanwhile, Kadyrov invites Russian pop celebrities to Chechnya and gives them lavish presents. No one dares to ask how these visits are sponsored, or how they comply with the Chechen “tradition”. No one dares to object to anything Kadyrov says or does, just as no one dared to object to Stalin’s words or deeds in the former Soviet Union. Peace in the republic and the successes in fighting terrorism are widely advertised; yet in reality rebel fighters frequently attack policemen, the numerous branches of the military structures constantly clash, and people keep being abducted. The main difference now is that many disappear only for some days and return beaten, terrified and therefore mostly silent.
Political observers claim Kadyrov is ruling over Chechnya independently of Russia. Is it really so? Tens of thousands of Chechens pining away in Russian prisons would not agree. Neither would the hundreds of thousands of war victims, or the relatives of the killed and missing. And the outflow of Chechen refugees to European countries is not subsiding. On the contrary: more and more people are trying to leave. A dictatorship is being cemented in a small European territory.
UN and EU officials compare the situation with the events of 2000, and note indubitable improvements. But what was the reason for destroying so many cities and villages, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and… introducing state terror justified as a “fight against terrorism”? Was it not to crush the society and force it to make an artificial choice between democracy and stability? The Kremlin is satisfied with the current suppression in Chechnya of any attempts to act and think independently.