Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by David Levine

In August 1999, an unremarkable, previously unknown KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin shot out of the shadows like an imp out of a snuffbox and landed in the center of the stage of Russian politics. His extraordinary ascent to the highest rung of state power took only six months, during which Yeltsin’s administration orchestrated the equally rapid consolidation of his position among the country’s power elite, both in and out of the State Duma.

Most surprising of all was his confirmation, in March 2000, not simply as Russia’s new president, but as a triumphant and popular president, no less popular, and perhaps more so, than Boris Yeltsin had been at the peak of his glory. Popularity is a prize not often bestowed on post-Soviet politicians; competition among Russian politicians over the last five or six years has amounted to trying to convince the electorate that one’s rival is even more repulsive—“I’m the lesser of two evils, so vote for me and not for him.”

The political show that brought Putin to power—he was the “dark horse” in Yeltsin’s circle—is familiar. Entangled in their own intrigues, up to their ears in corruption scandals, and scared to death, the entourage of Russia’s first president decided it needed an actor to play the part of a “strong man” capable of “establishing order in the country.” The actor wasn’t especially talented but, as it turned out, he was diligent and a quick study.

Whether or not the Kremlin’s “president makers” achieved their main goal—to ensure their own safety through the transition of power—is a quite different question. If these people were the least bit familiar with literature and folklore, they would know that when artificial creations come to life, they pose the greatest danger for those who made them. About a year ago, in the heat of an argument in the State Duma, I called Boris Berezovsky, who was then a supporter of Putin, a “puppeteer.” “Better a puppeteer than a puppet,” answered the quick-witted Berezovsky. Nowadays Berezovsky is financing the Russian human rights movement from abroad. It is out of the question for him to enter the territory of the Russian Federation.

As for the first steps taken by Putin, a necessary condition of the Russian political game was that the candidate project a reticent, enigmatic image. A large part of the electorate holds conservative or even reactionary views and was intended to see in Putin a man with the potential to restore old Soviet values, a bearer of the imperial idea, a proponent of the “strong state” in the traditional Russian understanding of this concept. If he was to please the public, the new president should be anti-Western, and it was to his advantage that he was a former employee of the KGB. In order to win the affection of these conservative voters, Vladimir Vladimirovich unleashed the second Chechen war, gave speeches about the necessity of reviving the military-industrial complex, dedicated a memorial plaque to the late Yury Andropov, toasted Stalin’s birthday with Zyuganov, declared he was proud of his service in the KGB, and swore allegiance to his Chekist past.

However, another part of the population, which is much smaller, but nonetheless important in our society, feared restoration of the Communist system more than anything. To reassure them Putin also declared that “we cannot return to the past”; he promised to carry out liberal economic reforms; he made an alliance with Anatoly Chubais and the “rightists” who advocate those reforms; and in a speech to employees of the Federal Security Service mentioned the Cheka’s responsibility for the political repression of the Soviet era and said that henceforth the special services should not allow any violations of the law.

Communists and nationalists noted the patriotic rhetoric of Putin’s pub-lic statements with satisfaction, and feared only that this rhetoric would be abandoned after the elections. The liberals recalled hopefully that at the beginning of the 1990s Putin had been a close associate of one of the legendary figures of the democratic movement, Anatoly Sobchak, the then mayor of St. Petersburg, and so they forgave Putin his nationalist pronouncements, writing them off as a necessary populist maneuver. Curiously, neither side was certain that it had read Putin correctly, and everyone waited impatiently for the March 2000 elections when, it was felt, the mask would be taken off.

And then the most interesting part began. It became apparent that Putin had no intention of taking off any mask and revealing his true face, whatever that was. After his election as president of Russia, Putin continued a double, if not a triple or quadruple, game.

He appointed the extreme “market-oriented” economist Andrei Illarionov as his adviser and included the economists German Gref and Alexei Kudrin in the government—a bow in the direction of the liberals. He brought army generals and his KGB colleagues into the Security Council and appointed them to high government positions to satisfy those favoring a strong hand. In his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly he spoke of the importance of freedom of speech. However, in this same address he talked of “journalists’ responsibility” and said that the mass media should not take an “anti-state position.” For anyone even vaguely familiar with contemporary Russian political language these words were a clear signal: the President intended to take control of the mass media.



In order to understand the current policies of the Putin administration, one must consider what it has actually done since coming to office. What actions can in fact be attributed to the President? First, it is absurd to attribute Russia’s relative financial stability and the slight economic growth of the last year or so to Putin. Ordinary common sense suggests that since stability and the beginning of growth correspond exactly to the new administration’s tenure, it follows indisputably that the foundation of Russia’s economic success was laid down before Putin came into office. One can argue whether to credit Primakov, Kirienko, or Chernomyrdin, or even Gaidar. But it is certain that Putin had little to do with it.

What is to the President’s credit is that he seems not to have taken any idiotic steps or signed any foolish decrees and resolutions that would impede the normal development of the economy. (In Russia it is always thus—the bosses rarely do much that is positive, but they can always do harm.) Putin, like Yeltsin, speaks about economic problems very little, quite unwillingly, and only in the most general terms. Even his talk of reviving the military-industrial complex is probably more a political move than an economic proposal. Some observers believe that Putin’s economic team is passive, slow, timid, and doesn’t fully recognize the dangers lying in wait in the event of a change in today’s favorable international economic situation—favorable above all in the demand abroad for oil and natural gas. They claim that most members of his team cannot (or perhaps do not want to) reduce Russia’s druglike dependence on oil exports and that in the near future this will lead to a new disaster. Perhaps they are right. The liberal economists I know and trust criticize the President and the government only for moving inconsistently and slowly, albeit in the right direction. They agree that serious tax reform is needed, that the government must cut down bureaucratic obstacles to business and investment, and they approve of steps to deregulate the economy.

I am afraid, however, that such faint praise is the only positive thing I can say about Russia’s second president. What notable actions can be attributed to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? The most important of course has been the prosecution of the second Chechen war, which has proved every bit as criminal, bloody, and hopeless as the first, but is perhaps even more cynical in purpose. Leaving aside the Chechen war, however, there are only two. The first is the so-called “strengthening of vertical authority” or, to put it more simply, victory in the war with the governors of Russia’s eighty-nine regional governments. The second is the campaign by Putin to seize control of Media Most, the relatively independent, privately held communications conglomerate founded by Vladimir Gusinsky, which owned the influential television station NTV.

Everything else Putin has done is largely an expression of intention, though his intentions are in themselves fairly symptomatic. For example, he has sponsored a draft law on the Constitutional Assembly that, if enacted, would allow the executive branch to change the constitution virtually at whim. According to this draft, the Constitutional Assembly, which would have the right to make changes in the main articles of the constitution, would consist of the president, the full Federal Council, one hundred deputies of the State Duma, the judges of the Constitutional Court, the chairs of the Supreme and Higher Arbitration Courts, and one hundred “well-known” lawyers appointed by the president himself.

In other words, most of the four hundred members of the Constitutional Assembly would be people who have not been elected to any office. Most of them would have been appointed directly by the president or by bureaucrats nominated by either the president or the presidential administration. In addition, the draft law violates the separation of powers: sitting judges, who are sworn to uphold the law, would take part not only in the legislative process, but in changing the fundamental law of the land.

Another such example is the law on political parties, which has passed its final reading in the Duma. This law establishes strict rules for associations that want to register as a “political party.” One condition for doing so, for example, is that a party must have at least ten thousand members and branches in no fewer than forty-five of the country’s eighty-nine regions. This would preclude the emergence of regional parties and, accordingly, regional participation not only in federal but in regional and even municipal elections.


Given the current state of affairs, however, it is hard to view this outrageously antidemocratic law as a tangible blow to Russian democracy and a victory for Putin. At present political parties play almost no part in Russia’s political life. Potentially, however, the law could affect the foundations of social life; basic constitutional rights and basic mechanisms of democracy are under attack even before they have begun to work. The law on parties would exclude most members of Russian society from the political process. It would give the executive branch almost exclusive control over political activity not only for the present, but for the future.

Consider how the President has organized his two main political campaigns: first, reining in regional governments, and second, “lining up” the electronic mass media. The former was conducted under the slogan “Put a Stop to the Regional Barons!” And of course putting a stop to the regional barons is not a bad thing. The political bosses running regional governments are often corrupt and repressive. Under Yeltsin, a legalized feudalism of local baronies flourished. Am I, a human rights activist, going to intervene in favor of that feudal system? Hardly.

It is true, too, that the provisions for federalism in the current constitution are poorly formulated. The key question for any federal state is the allocation of powers and jurisdictions between the federal government and the regional authorities. The Russian Constitution of 1993 is incoherent and vague on these points. Furthermore, a fundamental flaw afflicts Russian federalism. The eighty-nine regional governments of the federation include different kinds of units—republics, federal cities, oblasts, and autonomous okrugs—which each possess different rights and different degrees of autonomy. (Republics, like Tatarstan for instance, which are generally designated for non-Russian ethnic groups, have their own “constitutions,” elect their own “presidents,” and are allowed greater control over natural resources and tax collections.)

Regional leaders have made use of the constitution’s ambiguous and contradictory formulations in order to strengthen their own political power and to amass great personal fortunes. By the end of the Yeltsin era, many of the local and regional laws blatantly contradicted the federal constitution. This situation could result, among other things, in the political and legal inequality of Russian citizens.

These are genuinely troubling problems. How has the Putin team gone about resolving them? The regions are being required to bring their laws into compliance with federal legislation and the constitution. However, no attempt is being made to deal with the key question—defining the respective jurisdictions and powers of the federal and regional governments.

Instead, with a certain maniacal persistence, the Putin administration is trying to subjugate all regional officials—elected or not—to Moscow bureaucrats and the President himself. Putin divided the eighty-nine regions into seven administrative districts, thereby adding another layer of state bureaucracy. Each district is run by a presidential “envoy” (five of them military generals) charged with enforcing federal laws and policies in the regions. The executive branch in Moscow (not, I emphasize, the judicial) is now allowed to remove elected regional officials, a power that provides Moscow with an effective form of blackmail. In exchange for this concession, the governors have been allowed to do the same with elected officials at a lower level—they may, for example, remove the elected mayors of cities, large and small.

The governors were removed from the Federation Council—the upper chamber, or “senate,” of parliament—thereby losing their parliamentary immunity from prosecution and thus becoming more vulnerable to pressure from Moscow. In exchange, they have been allowed to appoint half of the “senators” to the newly set up Federation Council, whose function now amounts to rubber-stamping the decisions of the executive branch. The other senators are elected by regional legislatures rather than by popular vote. As a result, citizens in the regions have lost virtually all opportunity to influence decisions of national importance through officials who, whatever their faults may be, have at least been elected.

And what about the governors of the eighty-nine regional governments, who, because of their misuse of power and unchecked stealing, have been dubbed “robber barons” by the press? Well, they are doing just fine. No one has any serious intention of prosecuting them for their sins. The outrageously corrupt governor of Primorsky Krai was persuaded to resign voluntarily—and then given a lucrative federal appointment. Others have been threatened with being removed from their posts; but those who are obedient have been allowed to run for third and even fourth terms. The situation is clear to the point of indecency.

Despite his rhetoric, Putin has not destroyed the feudal bastions of power, nor has he even attempted to replace the principles of federalism with those of a central state power. No truly efficient “vertical authority” has been built up; the governors have simply been made to toe the line. This they did without much resistance. Why not demonstrate your loyalty to the higher authorities, especially if it doesn’t threaten the size of your under-the-table income?

As far as the Putin administration’s attitude toward the rights of ordinary citizens is concerned, the situation in Russia was best articulated by Liubov Slizka, who is a member of the pro-presidential faction Unity and serves as deputy speaker of the lower house: “Why should the authorities allow the results of the regional elections to be put in the hands of the voters?”


The second campaign is the war with Vladimir Gusinsky’s information empire. It ended this spring with the destruction not only of the independent NTV but also of the magazine Itogi and the newspaper Segodnia.1 The popular radio station Moscow Echo, also part of Media Most, appears to be next in line, to be followed by Boris Berezovsky’s TV6—where many of the former NTV journalists now work—and others.

This campaign revealed the dim-witted vengefulness of the people who make up the “brain” of Putin’s team, not to mention the Soviet and Chekist mentality of the President himself. The campaigns against regional government and against the media have much in common. Both appealed to the law and made fairly careful use of the opportunities offered by existing legislation. Both show the imprint of Putin’s legal training as well as his former employment by the KGB. (In 1993–1994, working on the commission Yeltsin appointed to purge the KGB, I observed firsthand what I had long suspected: KGB officials are far more literate in legal matters than judges or employees of the prosecutor’s office.)

In both cases the public was deliberately misled by official rhetoric, which asked, for example, “Are you for or against regional barons?” and “Should the law apply to ‘oligarchs’ [i.e., Gusinsky]?” Putin continues to act as though he were still an agent in an enemy country rather than the head of state. In his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly, scattered among plentiful assurances of support for freedom of the press, Putin, as I’ve mentioned, didn’t forget to drop reminders to his audience that this freedom must not be used “for anti-state purposes.” The President is convinced (sincerely, I imagine) that the state has its own rights and interests, which differ from the rights and interests of its citizens, and that the state has the right and indeed the obligation to defend its own rights and interests from irresponsible journalists and ill-intentioned owners of the electronic media.

This logic is familiar to every Soviet citizen. The very same logic (and not Communist doctrine) was used to justify the persecution of dissidents. Though Putin apparently was not directly involved in such persecution, many of his statements clearly bear the stamp of “the Office” (as the KGB employees refer to their organization). For that matter, he doesn’t hide his origins and isn’t ashamed of them.

In one of his interviews with the foreign press last autumn, Putin declared in effect that the law must not be used as an empty threat—but if the club of the law is raised, it should come down hard enough so that everyone understands that the state does not engage in empty threats. What is notable here is that the law is not seen as an independent force to be applied by an independent judge, but as a club in the hands of the state, with which the state may selectively crush its enemies. The main characteristics of Putin’s new style, then, can be observed in the two small, successful wars with the governors and the mass media (the Chechen war is neither small nor victorious). From these, we can draw several conclusions:

First, the President and his entourage are concerned with one thing above all: concentrating as much power in their own hands as possible. It looks as if this will continue to be their primary concern over the next few years.

Second, Putin seems unlikely to restore the totalitarian Soviet state and start prescribing literary opinions to newspapers, philosophical and scientific doctrines to scholars, or sexual preferences and rules for family life to citizens. A part of the State Duma likes to meddle in such things, it is true. Putin, however, like a true Chekist, is more concerned with controlling public life, particularly information, than with dictating tastes. He is not likely to revive the Gulag, or even censorship, relying, and not without reason, on the people’s habit of self-censorship.

The only sphere which he wants to rule absolutely—while allowing no criticism of his methods in the electronic mass media—is the exercise of political power in the narrow sense, i.e., control of the state apparatus. The slogan of some of his right-wing allies—“Authoritarian politics with a liberal [i.e., relatively free market] economy”—may indeed suit him just fine, until, that is, the liberal economy begins to produce political opposition. This hasn’t happened yet.

Putin is not likely to engage in open political repression, except, perhaps, against the environmental movement, which is capable of arousing public opinion—over pollution and health hazards, for example. That movement is also capable of interfering with large-scale financial deals in which the administration or its allies have an interest.

Particularly intractable environmentalists and obstinate journalists can easily be dealt with through criminal charges. In fact, this is already being done. The active prosecution of espionage charges against the environmental journalist Grigory Pasko by the KGB’s successor, the FSB, for instance, dates precisely from the time when Vladimir Putin was its director, and Pasko still faces prosecution. The case against him is typical: the information that this “spy” allegedly gave or intended to give to the Japanese was not delivered to the Japanese secret service but to Japanese newspapers. The “secret documents” did not contain information about military technology but data on pollution by the ships of the Russian Pacific fleet.

Third, the games played by the new president have little to do with Russia’s real problems.

Who (or what) will be the next target of this “vertical lineup”? Quite recently there have been indications that Russia’s fledgling civil society is next—in particular, human rights organizations. A campaign against “disloyal” groups has begun to unfold in the press. On June 12, Putin held a widely publicized meeting with “leaders of civic organizations.” None of the most active, well-known—and allegedly “disloyal”—groups were included. Ten days later, Vladimir Kartashkin, chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, publicly declared, according to the RIA-Novosti Agency, that “many human rights activists, especially in the capital, unfortunately continue a destructive struggle, not forgetting their dissident past, although the situation has changed completely.” “Certain leaders of ‘Memorial,'”2 Kartashkin complained, “call for a struggle against the state and the authorities….”

Not to worry: Kartashkin also promised that he would begin to “develop the human rights movement” and “coordinate the activities of all human rights organizations, while preserving their complete independence.” There is a painfully familiar smell in the air these days.

Of course, when I speak of the new president, I refer not only to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin—an unremarkable person in many respects—but also to the entire Kremlin team, many of whom are his former colleagues from the KGB. What are the ideology and fundamental values of this new team? There is so-called “order,” which is increasingly referred to as “directed” or “managed democracy.” Managed by whom? It might seem that democracy by definition would mean self-governance by a civilian nation. But proponents of this astonishing expression are not concerned with contradictions in terms.

Another component is patriotism, expressed for the most part through the search for foreign and domestic enemies of Russia. The flip side of this patriotism is the readiness to demonstrate friendship with anyone—whether President Bush or the most odious dictator—who is willing to respond to attention from Moscow. It is significant that this policy was prepared by Foreign Ministry bureaucrats; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is one of the most reactionary state institutions in Russia, far more so than, say, the army or the security services.

In keeping with the old principles of Soviet newspeak, the Foreign Ministry bureaucrats say Putin’s new foreign policy is based on “the concept of a multipolar world.” This concept is meant to counter the Yankees’ intention to construct a world in which the United States is the only center of power. This entire construction appeals to the archetypes of the Soviet political subconscious. Notwithstanding an hour’s meeting with Bush in Ljublana, in the mind of the Putin administration, Russia’s main geopolitical enemy remains “American im-perialism.” So it appears that we Russians are countering American imperialism by renewing friendships with Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il, while managing to appear “trustworthy” to the American president.

This idea was elaborated quite some time ago and was actively promoted by such reactionary think tanks as Sergei Karaganov’s Council on Foreign Policy. Today the theory is useful to the new authorities and Putin himself. True, the government isn’t asking Kim Jong Il or Fidel Castro for credits or direct investment in the Russian economy.

It seems to me that our current leaders are tormented by deeply sublimated feelings of guilt, which they themselves don’t fully recognize, toward the isolationist and “anti-globalistic” dictatorships—the “younger brothers” of the USSR—whom we abandoned ten years ago. In the mind of Soviet leaders (as well as most Soviet people for that matter) a “pariah complex” has always existed; it was partially overcome under Yeltsin, but has flared up with renewed strength under Putin.


These are the main features of the new ideology, the ideology of Putinism. It’s nothing new; simply the ideology of the Great Power, what we call in Russian derzhavnost, that is, the view of the state as a highly valuable mystical being that every citizen and society as a whole must serve. That ideology was not alien to the Russian political elite under Yeltsin either, but subscribing to it is now obligatory as a sign of membership in that elite. In today’s Russia it is bad form not to be a derzhavnik.

Why specifically derzhavnost? First, this approach to the tasks of the state eliminates the messy issue of civilian control. The elite today likes to talk about the “mechanisms of responsibility,” for example—the responsibility of the mass media. What kind of “mechanism” is meant and to whom should the press be responsible? Some answers emerge from the notorious “Doctrine on Informational Security”—the paper concerning state policy on matters of intellectual property, the Internet, and the mass media that was prepared in 2000 by Putin appointees in the Security Council. Despite the document’s lack of specifics, it is clear that the “mechanism” for ensuring a “responsible” mass media is simple: the state should increase control over media activities. Journalists must answer to the state, not to their readers, listeners, and viewers. The same holds true in every sphere. The authorities need not be responsible to society; instead, they demand that society devote itself to all-encompassing state goals and values—that is, to the continuing power of the authorities themselves.

The psychology of derzhavnost, moreover, corresponds to the political thinking of the former KGB agent who became the head of state thanks to political intrigues involving the bloody war in Chechnya. One particular trait of this psychology is the ability to take tactical steps assuring state control without having any strategy for solving the real tasks that confront the country, for example, serious legal reform and modernizing the educational system. Putin seems to have only one goal: to keep himself on the tightrope of power through a careful balancing act.

There is no “enigma of Putin,” just as there really isn’t any such thing as Putinism. Russia is a huge country with a great and tragic history, a great culture that is an integral part of European culture. And Russia is crawling rapidly into the swamp of a new era of stagnation, on the margins of contemporary civilization. The country finds itself with a president who seems well suited to carry out the process of marginalization.

We should not be surprised by this: marginalization and stagnation are the lot of many countries of the so-called “third world.” Why should Russia necessarily be more successful than any other country with a similar population and natural resources—Nigeria for instance? Because Russia has nuclear weapons? Nigeria will undoubtedly have them before long, too; Pakistan already does. Because Russia is much larger than Nigeria? But is size sufficient grounds for pretensions to greatness?

The real question for Russia, it seems to me, lies elsewhere. How did it happen that in a country in which millions of citizens quite recently perished as a result of political repression, the party that initiated and carried out the repression regularly receives the largest number of seats in the parliament? How is it that the country elected a president who worked for the organization that carried out that repression?

It is now clear that Russia has little prospect of entering the club of developed democracies any time soon. What has been the reaction of the political elite and the leaders of the democratic Western countries to this loss? Ten years ago it was already clear that without an extraordinary degree of support from the West, Russian reforms were doomed to failure. And what happened? George Soros writes that when he talked about the need for a new Marshall Plan for post-Communist Russia at the beginning of the 1990s, people laughed in his face.

The reasons for this mirth are understandable. Western politicians were certain that the West had defeated Russia in the cold war. The American administrations of the last ten years have seemed to see the situation in precisely these terms. The prevailing view seems to be: “Why should we, the victors, solve the problems of the vanquished? Let them solve their own problems.”

One could argue, however, that what really happened in August 1991 was that European Russia—not in the geographical, but in the cultural and social sense—defeated Asiatic, despotic, Communist Russia. And this victorious Russia desperately needed support. Not cosmetic support, not just “technical credits,” but an all-around, large-scale rescue operation. No such luck.

What might be the consequence if Russia again turns to the West its “Asiatic face” (to borrow a phrase from Alexander Blok’s poem “The Scythians”)? A bipolar world of a somewhat different nature may quite possibly revive in front of our very eyes. This “superfluous country” could be transformed into a “pariah country”—into the biggest and most powerful pariah in the world and the potential leader of the planet’s other pariahs, the ally of Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. This would mean one of the greatest defeats for world democracy since 1933—the defeat of all those who naively supposed that the cold war confrontation between 1946 and 1991 was not a geopolitical competition between two superpowers but a historical struggle for freedom, human rights, and democracy. “You wanted freedom? You thought that human rights were a universal concept equally applicable in any corner of the globe? Just look what has become of Russia after communism! They chose Putin themselves”—so anti-liberals of both the left and right will say. And what can those of us who have not lost faith in the constructive power of democracy answer?

If this transformation takes place, responsibility for the defeat would lie first and foremost with us, Russia’s democrats. But not with us alone: responsibility would also rest with the Western leaders who see the great globalization of the twenty-first century not as a process of integration but of segregation.

If we bid farewell to the dream of a democratic Russia, does that mean that we should also bid farewell to the hope that globalization will lead to a fundamental restructuring of international relations in the interest of humanity’s welfare? After all, Russia is only the biggest and most obvious example of a country that got bogged down in a “transition period.” And Putin is only a symbol of this failure. There are many Putins in the so-called “third world.”

Since December 2000 Russian “Putinism” has had its own symbol—the national anthem, based on the old Soviet hymn; it was proposed by the President and ratified by the Duma. The author of the “new” hymn is the very same tireless Soviet poet Sergei Mikhalkov who wrote the previous two versions. Stalin, the Party, and communism have been replaced with God, loyalty to the Fatherland, etc. “Russia—you are our most sacred statepower, will and glory the greatest….” But it is the reincarnation of the melody that reflects our current situation. How can one describe for the Western reader the repulsive sensation of returning to a past only slightly refurbished? It’s something like being forced into filthy old clothes several sizes too small that you thought had been thrown out long ago. With each new modification the inanity of the text only grows. But the new anthem ideally corresponds to the political regime established since Vladimir Putin came to power.

—Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell


In late February 2001, fifty-one bodies were found in Dachny, an abandoned village less than one kilometer from the main Russian military base in Chechnya. According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch in May, of the nineteen victims whose corpses were soon identified by relatives, sixteen were last seen as Russian federal forces took them into custody.

Two weeks later, the authorities buried the unidentified bodies without prior notice and without performing adequate autopsies or collecting crucial evidence that would have helped to identify the perpetrators. The Russian government failed to provide help or resources for the one forensic examiner for Chechnya, whose only tools were a scalpel and a pair of rubber gloves.

In April the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution on Chechnya that condemned serious human rights violations by Russian forces, and raised concern about forced disappearances, torture, and summary executions. Sponsored by the EU, and with strong US backing, the resolution called for UN special rapporteurs to investigate these abuses in the wartorn republic and for credible criminal investigations by domestic agencies into all human rights and humanitarian law violations. Russia rejected a similar resolution adopted by the commission last year, and refused to comply with its requirements. It has vowed to do the same this year.

The full text of the Human Rights Watch report, “Burying the Evidence: The Botched Investigation into a Mass Grave in Chechnya,” is available at www.hrw.org/reports/2001/chechnya2/.

This Issue

August 9, 2001