International Rescue Committee (IRC)

The Crisis in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus at a Glance

Violence first erupted in Chechnya in 1994, when 250,000 people were forced to flee to neighboring territories because of a civil conflict between Chechen separatists and the Russian army. After a short-lived and unstable peace from 1996 to 1999, war resumed following actions blamed on Chechen militant groups. An estimated 100,000 people were killed in both conflicts and many more displaced.

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of displaced people almost doubled the population of the small neighboring republic of Ingushetia, putting a great strain on already thinly-spread resources. Forced closure of tent camps for displaced families in 2003 and 2004 drove many back to an uncertain future in temporary shelters in Chechnya (where many remain today, stranded), while others sought a precarious existence in abandoned industrial sites or with local host families. Their legal status is fragile and they are still subject to pressure from authorities to return.

While the situation now in Chechnya has become quieter and many displaced families are making their way home voluntarily, some 36,000 people still remain in exile in the nearby republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan (some 38,000 within Chechnya itself are also still unable to return to their homes), humanitarian and reconstruction needs retain their urgency, and human rights abuses still occur on a significant scale. Some 800,000 of Chechnya’s estimated 1.1 million people are recognized by the UN as being especially vulnerable. In addition, other Northern Caucasian Russian republics – such as North Ossetia (site of the Beslan siege), Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Dagestan – are sliding into greater instability.

Effects of the Conflict

Human right abuses: Serious abuses – including unlawful arrest, robbery, rape, torture, and murder – are reported on an almost daily basis by human rights organizations. They are committed primarily by law enforcement agencies and private militias operating in Chechnya. According to the latest reports from Memorial (a leading Russian human rights NGO), a total of 1,799 Chechen civilians have been kidnapped since 2002, with about 1,000 of them yet to be found. 316 people were abducted in Chechen territory in 2005; 166 of them were released, 23 were found killed, and 127 are still missing.
Spread of instability: There have been signs of instability spreading to other republics in the Northern Caucasus, with increased levels of militant activity (including hostage-taking, bombs, and armed attacks).  The Belsan siege in September 2004, large-scale attack in Nalchik in October 2005, and escalating daily violence in Dagestan all illustrate the unpredictability of extremist actions and political instability that continues to simmer throughout the entire region. The spread of violent rebel activities throughout the Northern Caucasus has also contributed to an increase in tensions between ethnic groups. This tension has become especially evident following the Beslan school hostage crisis since when relations and daily interactions between ethnic Ingush and ethnic North Ossetians have become markedly strained.

Spread of terrorism: The further deterioration of the political, social, and economic situation in the whole of the Northern Caucasus has the potential to engender more violence, seeding further conflicts, and creating a breeding ground for international terrorism. The lack of opportunity or future prospects already acts as a push factor for youth toward extremism and there are numerous reports of Chechen fighters in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Corruption & organized crime: Russian authorities themselves - including President Putin - have highlighted corruption as a pervasive problem in public life in the Northern Caucasus. Governmental, social and commercial life remain hobbled by graft, bribery, kidnapping, extortion and other criminal activity. Basic public services – such as health – which are supposed to be free are in fact rendered inaccessible to poor households because bribes and ‘private’ fees are required. Governments throughout the region are widely perceived to be corrupt and unresponsive. Reports by the Russian government’s own envoy to the region estimate that 26% of the Northern Caucasus’ economic activity is in the organized crime sector (twice the Russian average).

High poverty and unemployment levels: According to the Chechen Department of Labor’s figures, the unemployment rate in Chechnya stands at 80%. UN OCHA estimates the unemployment rate of Chechens displaced in Ingushetia as 90%. The UN Transitional Workplan for 2006 acknowledges that poverty levels across the region are much higher than the Russian average – a recent study by ICRC found that rural areas were especially badly hit – for example, two thirds of the rural population of Dagestan lives below the poverty line. The WHO estimates the infant mortality rate for Chechnya and Ingushetia at twice the average for the Russian Federation as a whole.

Harassment of NGOs by government agencies: 2005 saw an increase in the harassment of NGOs in the Northern Caucasus by government agencies. This ranged from petty bureaucratic harassment (through unannounced and often illegal ‘checks’) to a concerted attempt by most lawmakers in the national parliament to pass a new NGO law that would have effectively strangled all civil society activity. While some of the worst aspects of this law were removed at the last minute following international and local pressure, the resulting law – signed into law by President Putin in early January - provides the Russian government with extensive powers over civil society organizations, including arbitrary denial of the ability to operate or exist.

Addressing the Conflict

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one of only a handful of international NGOs working in the region. IRC recognizes that the following actions would help address the conflict and lead to durable solutions.

IRC urges international donors – particularly the US government to:

  • Maintain support and funding to humanitarian assistance, while providing support for a transition to longer-term solutions in social and economic recovery, peace-building, and the promotion of good governance;
  • Continue to raise issues of the protection and promotion of human rights under domestic and international standards; and
  • Assist the international humanitarian and development community to maintain a stable and constructive operating environment, where the priorities of people in need are placed first and foremost within a framework of respect for national rule of law;
  • Maintain vigilance on the implementation of the new NGO law, seeking to ensure the Russian authorities do not use it as a means to stifle civil society action.

IRC urges the Russian government to:

  • Provide displaced persons with documentation that allows them to live wherever they choose to live; 
  • Allow displaced persons live free of direct and indirect harassment and pressure to return to Chechnya; 
  • Provide effective and efficient means to improve the security, economic, and social situation of the war-affected population of the Northern Caucasus; 
  • Facilitate the effective delivery of international humanitarian and development assistance in the Northern Caucasus; 
  • Stop human right abuses (kidnapping, torture, unlawful detention, murder, racketeering, etc.) by security forces and government-linked private militias in Chechnya; 
  • Prosecute and punish members of security forces (Federal and Republican) that have committed human right abuses and prosecute and punish government officials involved in corruption; 
  • Provide a fair, transparent and constructive legal framework for NGO and wider civil society activity in the Russian Federation, and end the close surveillance and obstruction of civil society organizations by domestic security agencies and other organs of the state authority.

What Can I Do?

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