Oleg Orlov: Two systems and the fight against coronavirus

6 May 2020

Oleg Orlov, board member of Memorial Human Rights Centre, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]

Over the past decade, human rights activists have constantly compared two systems, two models of the relationship between government and society in two neighbouring North Caucasian republics, populated by peoples who are very similar in language, culture and religion: Chechnya and Ingushetia. During this time, a totalitarian regime has been established and solidified in Chechnya. In Ingushetia, over the same period, the regime has changed: from openness to dialogue with society, to moderate authoritarianism, and then (since March 2019) to repressive authoritarianism. But even now, against the backdrop of the political repression developing in Ingushetia, the regime in this republic cannot be compared with Kadyrov’s in terms of the level and cruelty of the suppression of dissent.

Moreover, on the issue of the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism and against illegal armed groups, the comparison was not favourable to Kadyrov’s Chechnya. Over this period, the armed underground has been practically crushed throughout the North Caucasus. But in Ingushetia, this happened not only much faster and more efficiently, but also at significantly lower cost than in neighbouring Chechnya.  Here, the fight against terrorism did not mean the introduction of militants’ relatives collective responsibility, the creation of secret prisons, and judicial executions.

Little Ingushetia, which had been, in absolute terms, the leader in militant activity among the other North Caucasian republics in 2008-2009, had by 2013 transformed into one of the most peaceful territories in the region. At the same time, in Chechnya, where, under the pretext of combating terrorism, any manifestations of criticism of the authorities were equated with support for terrorists, with the most serious consequences for critics, protest subliminally accumulated, especially among young people. And they became susceptible to terrorist propaganda. It was no surprise that time after time we saw how very young people, sometimes even children, carried out suicide attacks on law enforcement officers and various institutions. State terror is becoming the routine response.

How are these two different systems resisting the coronavirus epidemic?

Of course making a comparison is complicated, since the authorities in both republics have persistently misrepresented and continue to misrepresent the statistics, and they have lied and continue to lie about the presence of necessary equipment in hospitals, and about the supply of protective gear to medical personnel. But even in this context the lying of North Caucasus officials is striking.

We have compared, first and foremost, how officials of the two republics have been able to organize quarantine measures and related actions. We often received news from Chechnya (mainly during the first stages of introducing quarantine measures) on the actions of law enforcement officers who were clearly exceeding legal limits. For example, people who violated the quarantine, even in insignificant ways, were arrested and turned over to police stations, and often placed in illegal detention centres. Dozens of people, some of whom may have been infected, were gathered there in confined spaces.

But then we started to get good news from Chechnya: quarantine measures were being observed in practice, there were relatively few people on the streets, people were wearing masks. Quarantine measures are being observed in many stores. An intelligently organized system of passes is working. Passes have been issued for various times, so people have not crowded in stores, which is reasonable. The provision of food for families in isolation was decently regulated. Needy persons also received assistance. True, the government intimidated the population and clearly went beyond the pale with public announcements comparing quarantine-breakers to terrorists. As a result, victims were sometimes afraid to report their illness, preferring instead to suffer and die at home.

At the same time in Ingushetia, republican authorities effectively withdrew themselves from enforcing quarantine measures. And the majority of the population generally ignored the measures. At a time of increase in the number of illnesses Zikr [sometimes spelled Dhikr] (a collective religious ceremony) was held, as well as heavily attended funerals. All of this could only contribute to an increase in the rate of infection and mortality, but authorities covered up the true numbers. 

This created the impression that strict measures by the Chechen authorities in the given situation were justified.

But then on 24 May came the great day of Uraza Bayram, the Eid al-Fitr, or end of fasting following the holy month of Ramadan. On that day people traditionally visit one another, greet loved ones, close friends, and neighbours, and receive guests. Crowds of children go from house to house, and it is customary to give them candy and other sweets.

Obviously, during a pandemic, this could lead to dire consequences. But it is interesting that in Ingushetia, where, seemingly, given the behaviour of people and authorities in previous weeks, mass festivities were to take place, nothing of the kind happened. While the authorities were in a state of paralysis and powerlessness, society itself realised the danger of the situation. Networks of the traditional Vainakh society used modern information technology; representatives of a number of teips made public statements, sharing them on social networks. Well-respected members of the community calmly but convincingly called on the population to refrain from engaging in traditional events that day. They did this not at the request of the authorities (there was no such request), but on their own initiative. People heard and understood this call.

At the same time, the opposite was happening in Chechnya. It’s clear that the republic’s authorities gave a strict order to the security forces on the eve of the holiday to use any means to stop quarantine violations. And Kadyrov’s forces set about enacting these in the only way they know how, rudely and unceremoniously. This caused the opposite reaction from people who are worn down by constant pressure from the authorities. What happened would be impossible to imagine in Kadyrov’s Chechnya of late. In one place, young people who’d gone outside were not prepared to put up with insults from the police, in another, people discovered how the local police chief was talking rudely about them, and somewhere else something happened to cause explosions of indignation. In a number of villages there were clashes with the police, and officers were beaten up. The situation reached the point where the chief of police apologised to the village residents. This kind of thing hasn’t happened since Kadyrov came to power. 

Could the Chechen authorities have ensured that the representatives of teips had also issued statements, as in Ingushetia? It seems clear enough – it would have been enough to give them the instruction and everything would have been taken care of. Kadyrov conforms to tradition in convenient and inconvenient situations alike. This seemed like the perfect time to use this traditional instrument. But no, they didn’t even try; so, there was no kind of alternative to the established totalitarian ‘vertical’. 

In any case, who would take such statements seriously in Chechnya?! Everyone would have understood at once – the elders were only fulfilling the will of Kadyrov. They’ve banned all of the structures of community there, both contemporary and traditional. There’s only one thing – pressure, control, and violence on the part of the authorities. 

It’s too early to come to any conclusions regarding the fight against the coronavirus; the epidemic is by no means defeated. It’s clear that the authorities of both republics behaved inadequately in the circumstances. Who is worse, the future will tell. But it’s important to understand that without mutual understanding between society and the authorities, it is impossible to beat the infection. And there is clearly not enough of this, and not just in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Mark Nuckols and Mercedes Malcomson

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