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Inside Chechnya: Putin's reign of terror

A population that lives in fear of state violence, and a 99 per cent election tally that could have come from the Soviet era - welcome to Putin's Russia.

The Naur District does not resemble the Chechnya of folklore. It has none of the steep wooded gorges where guerrilla fighters ambushed Russian soldiers in the early 2000s. Nor does it have the vertiginous peaks celebrated in the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Lermontov. Rather, it is flat tawny grassland, like most of southern Russia. Were it not for the grand arch on the border bearing the portrait of President Ramzan Kadyrov, you wouldn’t know you had entered Chechnya at all.

In the presidential election on 4 March this year, this scrubby patch of steppe soared above not only the rest of Chechnya, but the whole of the Russian Federation. Here, Vladimir Putin achieved his single best result in the country – 99.89 per cent. Of 28,616 votes cast, Putin won 28,584. No other candidate got anything higher than single figures, and had there not been nine spoiled ballots, Putin would have breached the 99.9 per cent mark.

It was a result that went largely unnoticed. Journalists and commentators focused instead on the protests in Moscow that followed the victories by Putin and his United Russia party in the presidential and parliamentary elections last winter. The protesters accused the president of trying to destroy democracy and turn Russia back to its totalitarian past. Moscow, however, was where Putin achieved his worst result – 46.95 per cent – and the only place in Russia where he gained less than half of the votes. Observers say the capital experienced relatively little electoral fraud.

It was in the regions furthest from Moscow that the results most resembled those from a Soviet election. Putin gained 90 per cent or more in five of the 83 constituent parts of the Russian Federation, and more than 80 per cent in another three. Those tallies made an important contribution to his final national tally of 63.6 per cent. His nearest challenger, the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, won just 17.2 per cent. In Chechnya as a whole, Putin gained 99.76 per cent, and the Naur District outdistanced even that.

The location was appropriate, as Naur has been tied to Putin’s fate ever since the obscure ex-spy first became prime minister in August 1999. Those were the last, stuttering days of Boris Yeltsin’s rule, when the president’s erratic behaviour and drunkenness seemed to symbolise the decline of the whole country. The once-mighty Russian army’s defeat in 1996 at the hands of separatist rebels in Chechnya was the lowest point in a dreadful post-Soviet decade, during which the economy collapsed, the government defaulted on its debts and the population’s life expectancy slumped.

Under Putin, that decline has been reversed. Since the war resumed in 1999, Chechnya’s separatists have been reduced to a tiny, defeated rump hiding in the mountains. The economy has boomed, helped by high oil prices, allowing the government’s debt to be paid down. Life expectancy is creeping up towards an all-time high.

The army seized control of the Naur District from the separatists in early October 1999, just two months in to Putin’s premiership. It was the first part of Chechnya to return to Moscow’s control. That success and the campaign that followed propelled Putin from unknown bureaucrat to national hero, and swept him to the presidency in March 2000. It is no exaggeration to say that Putin’s boast to have restored Russia’s national pride began on the steppes of Naur. But the district hides a more sinister story, too: of arbitrary detention, of murder and of fear. It is Putin’s Russia in microcosm.

In July, I drove along the straight road from the border deep into Chechnya, passing scattered villages on either side before reaching the local centre of Naur­skaya. Like many of the settlements here, it is of Cossack origin, but most of the ethnic Russians have left now, driven out by the war. It is an ironic consequence of Russia’s campaign to control Chechnya that it has chased out most Russians, and made the once mixed region almost mono-ethnic. The single-storey houses that line the dusty, right-angled streets are home to Chechens now.

There was no sign of anger about Putin among the first Chechens I met. On the contrary, everyone I spoke to said they loved him. “Since he came we have had stability,” said Deshi Magomadova, 57, who works in a shop selling foodstuffs and toiletries. “We are simple people and are fed up of war and change. Not one person escaped this horror and we don’t want it repeated. That means everyone at the election voted for Putin.”

Dig into that and you find a double-edged compliment, equivalent perhaps to allowing a robber to keep your house to stop him breaking in again. Does the implicit threat of violence that hangs over Chechnya amount to electoral intimidation? Some days later in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, I met Ilyas Dohtukaev, head of the Chechen government’s international co-operation department. “People understand Putin is the only real force there is,” he claimed, as we sat at an outdoor café popular with wealthy young Chechens, “and it is better to support one man and a man who is supported by Ramzan Kadyrov. Many people trust him and follow his lead.”

Kadyrov, whose portrait hangs on billboards on major buildings and along all main roads, called the protesters in Moscow this winter “enemies of Russia” and said they should be jailed. Observers argued that such comments would intimidate Chechens into voting for Putin. Dohtukaev denied this, saying Chechens overwhelmingly supported Putin of their own free will. (Turnout here was 99.61 per cent, by far the highest in Russia).

“There were no threats. I am a head of department and I can say that no one told me to vote for anyone. Maybe this happened in the early 2000s, but now there is no sign of that.”

Just down the road from the café, one human rights activist was prepared to contradict him, though not to have his name used. “There are 420 inhabited places in Chechnya and, on Putin’s orders, all 420 were bombed,” he told me. “In the 1990s, it was possible to escape and some places were spared. Under Putin, however, no­where escaped the bombing.

“There is not one family that did not lose someone and to say that 99 point something of Chechens supported Putin is gibberish,” he continued. “Maybe some officials voted for him so as to keep their jobs, but the rest is nonsense.” The activist warned me not to take the publicly expressed opinions of Chechens too seriously.

People here have learned that it is best not to speak openly to strangers. Driving out of Naurskaya, where a high, red-painted sheet-iron fence screens the Chernokozovo prison from passing cars, you can see one of the reasons why. In the winter of 1999-2000, shortly after Putin’s troops took the Naur District, Chernokozovo became the blackest hole in the already dark Russian prison system. Its reputation was such that even Russian soldiers I accompanied on military convoys in the early 2000s would cross themselves and turn their eyes away when we drove past it.

Putin’s officials were ruthless in establishing order behind the lines in the early months of his campaign in Chechnya. Young Chechen men of military age were assumed to be guilty and sent to filtration camps. Then they came here. Among the many hundreds of people who vanished behind the high walls of Chernokozovo was Andrei Babitsky, a broadcast journalist. He had earned the government’s anger by filming the aftermath of a rocket strike on a market in Grozny. He arrived in January 2000 and described the prison as being something close to hell.

“They treated us like livestock,” he told me when I met him in his flat in Prague in 2008. “I was in a cell with 20 people, with dirty mattresses and nothing else. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet. They beat the Chechens from morning to night. There was one fighter there, but all the others were just village boys. “The fighter got beaten in the most appalling way. They would take him away, and for the first three days you could hear the sound of breaking bones all the time.”

Amnesty International released a report on Chernokozovo in April 2000 describing a 21-year-old man whose spine had been fractured after being forced to run a gauntlet of two dozen soldiers armed with blunt weapons. It also described how a 14-year-old girl came to visit her mother and was held for four days and repeatedly gang-raped. Later that year, Human Rights Watch published a parallel study with the title “Welcome to Hell”.

There was little coverage of the abuses on Russian television; most Russian reporters were keen to avoid the fate of Babitsky (although he was eventually freed, he now lives and works outside Russia) and thus they accepted Putin’s line that he was restoring “constitutional order”. One prison inmate did do her best, however, to make sure that news got out.

Russian soldiers detained Zura Bitiyeva, a resident of the village of Kalinovskaya in the Naur District, in January 2000. Bitiyeva, who had been a vocal anti-war activist, was held in Chernokozovo for a month, denied medicine for a heart condition and hospitalised for several weeks on her release. She argued that her detention had been arbitrary and her treatment inhumane, and sought justice at the European Court of Human Rights.

She never got it. In May 2003, while the ECHR was still considering whether to accept the case, armed men returned to her house. One of Bitiyeva’s sons heard them and hid behind an armchair, having had the presence of mind to cover his unmade bed with a blanket so that his room looked unoccupied.

The rest of the family was not so quick. The soldiers herded them together and bound their hands with adhesive tape. When the soldiers were gone, Bitiyeva’s son found her lying on the floor. She had been shot in the face. Her husband, brother and other son shared her fate. Memorial, a leading Russian human rights group, called the massacre a “political murder”, punishment for her appeal to Strasbourg.

The motive for the killing was never officially established. Although Putin, on coming to power, had promised a “dictatorship of the law”, there was no proper investigation into the murders. Bitiyeva’s daughter, who also survived, and who is identified in ECHR documents only as X, refused to drop the case. In 2007 the court ruled that the Russian state had murdered her mother.

“The murder of members of the Bitiyeva family was a particularly egregious incident, the European Court concluding that they had been extrajudicially executed by state agents,” says Philip Leach, a lawyer whose European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, based in London, helped bring Bitiyeva’s case to court. But “the gravest human rights violations”, according to Leach, “have become endemic (including the practice of torture and disappearances) and, with no one at all being found responsible or called to account, there is a culture of absolute impunity”. Although X now lives in Germany, she declined through her lawyers to be interviewed for this article, out of concern for the security of her family.

The Bitiyev family’s home village, Kalinovskaya, is about a half-hour drive from Chernokozovo, down yet another long straight road, bordered to the left by a railway line. Far off to the right is the River Terek and beyond that is the first range of hills that eventually swells into the Caucasus Range.

This road and those hills have been strategic assets for the Russian army during the two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya. Russian troops pushed into Chechnya this way in 1994 as they sought to crush the region’s self-declared independence. They drove back out by the same route two years later after the outgunned Che­chen rebels overcame seemingly insup­erable odds and defeated them.

Sympathisers and journalists from Russia and elsewhere made sure that the defeat was broadcast around the world. The victorious Chechens failed to build a viable state, however, and Chechnya collapsed into chaos. Western sympathisers left after a spate of kidnappings and killings, including the beheading of four telecoms engineers. That helped ensure there was little uproar about the war restarting under Putin. The war on terror proclaimed after 11 September 2001, and the need to keep Putin as an ally, left atrocities such as the murder of Bitiyeva little remarked on by western officials.

The turn-off to Kalinovskaya is opposite an old collective farm. It is a collection of single-storey houses, with doors facing the dusty street and windows encased in carved wooden frames painted cool blues or greens. A middle-aged woman in a headscarf answered the door at Bitiyeva’s old address. Unable or unwilling to speak Russian, she said in Chechen that the surviving family members had moved since the massacre and that she did not know where they now lived. Other people in the village, which is home to a military base, had no more information on their whereabouts, shaking their head and shrugging their shoulders in the sullen summer heat.

The road out of the village passed a graveyard with two of the long poles that mark the burial place of a Muslim who has died in a holy war. 

A little further on was a picture of Kadyrov, beneath the slogan “Ramzan, thanks for Naur”. On 4 March, all 1,916 of the valid votes cast in Kalinovskaya went to Putin.

After 40 minutes’ drive, I reached a bridge over the heaving beige waters of the Terek, which drains the whole central Caucasus – and after that, the road crept in bends up the first bluff of hills, down through a valley, past an oil facility, and up again. From the next ridge, I could already see Grozny. Kadyrov has transformed the city, ripping down the shattered hulks of buildings left by the Russian bombardments of 1995-96 and 1999-2000 and replacing them with tall tower blocks visible from miles away.

The towers are on Putin Avenue, which is dotted with pictures of Kadyrov. At the end of the street stands a gigantic new mosque, named in honour of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, who also lends his name to the avenue beyond. The towers, the mosque and the posters combine to make Grozny resemble a city in the Gulf. Local people say that the resemblance is more than just superficial.

“Chechnya is an emirate and Kadyrov is a sultan,” said a government official responsible for monitoring human rights in the north Caucasus. “I’m not scared, you understand, but don’t quote me by name. You know the situation. 

I would have problems – that man has no limits.” He justified his caution with reference to how even the fame of Natalia Estemirova, a human and civil rights activist and head of the Chechen office of Memorial, had not saved her from murder. She was killed three years ago and her murderers have never been found.

“What we have in the Caucasus, the rest of Russia will have, too,” the official continued. “They are happy now – they work – but they should look at it. The problems are growing. What starts in Chechnya spreads to the rest of the country.”

He pointed out how extended detention without charge has spread beyond Chechnya under Putin, most notably in the case of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed a corruption scandal. He was arrested in 2008 and denied medicine until he died in detention the following year. The courts, which showed some signs of independence in the late 1990s, have been subordinated to the Kremlin’s will. He also reminded me of the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon and once the richest man in Russia, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2005, then convicted again in December 2010.

Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, was confiscated as part of the process against him. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience, saying he was prosecuted because of his political activities, which included supporting opposition politicians and highlighting corruption. Even starker has been the trial of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot for protesting against Putin in a cathedral. Although many observers think Khodorkovsky may have been guilty of something, if not the crimes for which he was prosecuted, the two-year sentences given to Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich appear vastly disproportionate. The women were held in pre-trial detention for five months, and then tried in a process so farcical that the presiding judge repeatedly had to warn journalists visiting the court to stop laughing.

“We are freer than all those who sit opposite us on the side of the prosecutor, because we can say what we please and we do,” said Tolokonnikova, in a closing speech to the court that could have been written by a Soviet-era dissident, “and they can only say what the political censor has allowed them to say.”

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Russians are following Bitiyeva’s lead and appealing to the ECHR in vast numbers. It is the only independent court to which they have access. About 34,800 Russian cases were pending before the Strasbourg court in June, almost a quarter of its backlog. Bitiyeva’s case is just one of more than 200 in which it has ruled that Russia has murdered one of its own citizens.

Politically, Chechnya is an extreme but exemplary case of the system that Putin has created across the whole Russian Federation. Ramzan Kadyrov is a member of the Supreme Council of the ruling United Russia, as are many of the heads of the other Russian regions. They receive a free hand at home in exchange for delivering the votes that Moscow needs in federal elections.

The evening that I arrived in Grozny, I tried to track down relatives of Bitiyeva to ask their opinion of Putin’s election result, and how Chechnya had changed since her murder in 2003. I eventually found one, but he asked me not to use his name.

“Nothing will return my relatives to me,” he told me by telephone. “They were all I had and they were killed. You never recover from the grief if you have lost people like that, never. If the murder had been for a reason, you could forgive it, but like that, no.” He said that it made no difference to him if things had improved or grown worse. “I live now in the way I have lived ever since they were killed.” 

Oliver Bullough is the author of “Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus” (Penguin, £12.99)