Chechen Villages: We Bribe Generals
By Yevgenia Borisova, Staff Writer
In the Chechen village of Kater-Yurt, locals say they paid a top Russian military official about 150,000 rubles ($5,555) and a big-screen television as a bribe to spare their homes from shelling and looting. In another village, Kulary, locals say they offered up tribute of basic foodstuffs, including sugar, meat and flour. And in Achkhoi-Martan, locals say bombs rained down on their homes until someone passed the hat around the community and gathered an unspecified amount for a bribe - and once it was paid, the shelling stopped.
These are the stories heard in interviews across the federally controlled northern Chechen steppes. In several villages visited by The Moscow Times in late December, ordinary people cowed and subdued by three months of war said their communities were spared only because they agreed to pay "ransoms" to top-ranking Russian military officials.
Many of the villagers interviewed named specific generals and officers who solicited such tribute - though all of those making such allegations would only do so anonymously, saying they feared reprisals.
Tales of Russian officers sparing Chechen villages in return for bribes have also been heard by other observers of the war, including Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization that has conducted extensive interviews among Chechen civilians in refugee camps.
"We have a lot of second-hand information about the paying of such ransoms, but no evidence, which is hard to get," Alexander Petrov, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said. "We have also heard, again without any evidence, that when federal troops tell Chechens to put down their weapons, and the villagers reply that they don't have any, the army insists that they buy some - and then surrender them as if they were from combatants."
Asked whether officers in federally controlled Chechnya could be accepting bribes from entire communities, the Defense Ministry was curt. "There are no confirmed facts of bribery or ransoms in Chechnya," a duty officer in the ministry's press center said. "There is no use in talking about this."
"A Commercial War"
Chechens say otherwise. In interviews, they derided the three-month-old Russian "anti-terrorist operation" as "a commercial war" - an opportunity for Russia's men in uniform to enrich themselves personally.
As evidence they point to the long lines of Russian servicemen outside of currency exchange offices in Nazran, the Ingush capital, where officers can be seen changing large ruble sums into more portable dollars.
They also point to looting, which has been documented by Western and Russian news media and human rights groups. It is an element of both Chechen wars that has seen top brass implicated in shipping furniture, household goods and other spoils out of civilian areas on military transport, to be sold elsewhere, and the profits pocketed. One market that Chechens say sees many such looted goods, in Assinovskaya, has been dubbed "the soldiers' market."
And they point to the prevalent practice of bribery at checkpoints - where the Russian military controls access to areas in Chechnya. Getting quickly past a checkpoint can cost roughly from 100 to 1,000 rubles, depending on the soldiers being dealt with, the look of the person paying the bribe and the length of the line at the border. A young Chechen man driving a Mercedes through a checkpoint will pay top ruble; a busload of refugees might pay 500 rubles to expedite passage.
"I was leaving Grozny via the northern safety corridor, and Russians detained one young fellow there," Malika Khusainova, 38, recounted in an account that was typical of dozens heard by The Moscow Times in Chechnya. "They took off his clothes up to his waist and started to shout at him that he had simply shaved off his beard [beards being worn by the opposition Chechen fighters]. His sister gave them $200 [to leave him alone], we all saw it."
Another account of the brisk business in checkpoint bribes was offered in the Dec. 23 edition of Novaya Gazeta, where journalist Rustam Kaliyev recounted being soaked for 1,000 rubles.
But Yevgeny Ryabtsev, head of the press center for the Interior Ministry troops, said Kaliyev's report was the only such allegation the Russian authorities are aware of. "This [Novaya Gazeta] publication is already under the control of our ministry. But until now, we have had no appeals from people regarding bribes extorted from them. We would have already started investigating such cases [if they had been reported]."
Tarkhan, 50, from Kater-Yurt, replies with a rhetorical question.
"Appeals? Who would appeal in Chechnya?" he asked. "It is not acceptable among Chechens, it is a norm of life here. Everything is sold and bought here."
Cooperation, or a Shake-Down?
When Russian forces approach a village, the top officers and the village leaders routinely meet - to share information and grievances, and to explore whether they are willing to work together. And if Chechen elders were to offer up "gifts" - ranging from foodstuffs to cash - as marks of respect, it would not be surprising.
But Chechen villagers allege more. In their ground-level view, the Russian campaign is explicitly a protection racket.
"Federals come and start firing toward the edges of a village, causing panic," one resident of Achkhoi-Martan, who did not want to be named, said. "They know that someone will come out and will beg for mercy for the village, and it will be possible to make a deal. Normally the terms include us kicking out rebels - if there are any - and bringing the federals money, food and other valuables. In exchange, the commander promises not to fire."
In Kater-Yurt, residents say that after about 20 civilians were killed by airstrikes and artillery fire, they approached the Russians. One local man, Zelimkhan, 30, said they paid 150,000 rubles and a big-screen television, but another villager interviewed, Khamzat, 33, put it at 200,000 rubles.
"We did not have looting in our village at all only because of that [offering]," Zelimkhan said.
Or perhaps the troops entering Kater-Yurt were simply well-disciplined. In any case, in Kater-Yurt locals and federal forces work together to keep order in and the rebels out. The village has its own locally raised militia, which is armed and goes on patrols jointly with the Russians. At night the local men can be seen warming their hands at the same campfire with federal troops, and even standing guard alone while Russian troops sleep.
Elsewhere such cooperation has been less successful. The village of Gekhi, for example, is in ruins.
"Last war we paid a ransom. There were businessmen and they put their money together. Now we were not even asked for the ransom, we obviously couldn't pay it and the village was destroyed," explained Akhmed, 41, from Gekhi.
Alkhat, 48, from Alkhazurovo, said that his village was heavily bombed in the first week of December, then occupied by federal forces hungry for a ransom; interviewed last month, he said the villagers were in the process of raising the money.
"We have just had a lot of refugees here in our village and our resources are exhausted. I had 57 people here living in my home when they had to flee Tengi-Chu and Martan-Chu overnight," he said. "Most likely we will go and buy food cheaply in Urus-Martan, sell it here for a markup and pay the ransom [from the profits]."
Sharip Asuyev was a correspondent for Itar-Tass, the official Russian government news agency, during the 1994-96 Chechen war. He said that the first time around, villages routinely paid "ransoms" or tribute to the army so as not to be shelled.
"The size of the ransom was discussed at the village meeting. Crates of alcohol were then offered to federal forces, and money, and sheep. Money was collected from the villagers. However, I have never been sure that all the money that was gathered this way was paid to the army - some of what was collected might have been stolen [by some of the more unscrupulous village leaders]."
Another old Chechnya hand, Vyacheslav Izmailov - a retired Russian army major who has brokered the release of scores of kidnap victims and war prisoners from the Caucasus republic - also says the tribute-paying practice was common during the first war.
"In Shali, even high-ranking pro-Russian police officers told me that the people collected money to pay tributes [in 1994-96]. And people who appealed to me for help [in organizing POW exchanges] told me about this, as did members of the electoral commission during the  presidential elections in Chechnya. ... But it is de facto a bribe and it is hard to prove."
Kharon, who fled Shali on the eve of the first war and now lives in the Stavropol region, said relatives who remained behind recounted paying tribute on three occasions to the entourage of a top Russian general.
"My relatives and even pensioners all paid at least a 100 rubles each. Overall about 1 billion rubles [or 1 million re-denominated rubles, then about $200,000] were paid," he said, adding, "This time I haven't heard anything of this sort from Shali."