Swiss back drive for peace in Chechnya

Civil society is in ruins in Chechnya after years of war between the Russians and separatists Keystone

Human rights groups and non-governmental organisations from Russia and Chechnya have met in Switzerland as part of efforts to bring peace to the shattered republic.

This content was published on October 4, 2003 - 13:52

The Swiss branch of the Society for Threatened Peoples hosted the first meeting of the coalition just ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The Chechen Civil Society Forum aims to promote peace in the republic, which has endured almost a decade of conflict.

“We have been working on the topic of human rights violations in Chechnya for a long time,” Hanspeter Bigler, the agency’s director, told swissinfo.

“We thought that with the war still going on in Chechnya we could do something to get local organisations together and see if they are interested in creating a civil society forum.”

The first meeting in Bern brought together representatives from local human rights and NGOs in Chechnya and Russia, and laid the groundwork for a second meeting in spring 2004, when more organisations will be invited.

Situation in Chechnya

The infrastructure and the economy of the southern Russian republic are in ruins after years of war between separatist fighters and Russian forces.

A Russian-backed administration has been in charge since June 2000, but Chechnya - and especially the capital Grozny - is still on a war footing.

Out of a population of around one million, almost 100,000 live in refugee camps in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

It is a situation that requires constant monitoring, according to Libkan Bazaeva of the human rights organisation, Memorial.

A member of the new civil society forum, she believes it is a vital element in laying the foundations for peace in Chechnya, even if the political and democratic institutions are not in place.

“Building civil society structures is preparation for peace, because our society cannot switch from war and fighting to peace that easily,” she told swissinfo.

“Even though a war is going on and there’s no democracy in place, we have to take the fate of our society in our own hands and try to build up these structures,” she added.

Conflict resolution

Bazaeva also welcomes the move to bring Russian civil society and human rights organisations into the forum, as she believes it is the best hope of ensuring a peaceful solution to the conflict in Chechnya

In May a referendum approved a new constitution that gave Chechnya more autonomy, but also confirmed that the republic remained part of Russia.

Sunday’s presidential election, which was won by Akhmad Kadyrov, the current head of the Moscow-backed administration in Chechnya, was seen by many as a foregone conclusion.

International organisations refused to send official observers to the poll, but Natalija Nelidova, also a participant in the forum, insists it was the right decision.

“It’s good that no international observers are going because that would give the elections some sort of legitimacy,” she told swissinfo.

“This is not a legitimate election and we shall be making sure that all manipulations are well documented.”

Bern meeting

Holding the first meeting in Bern also gave participants the chance to meet Swiss politicians and outline the problems many Chechens and their support organisations experience in everyday life.

Nelidova, who helps Chechen refugee children in Moscow and traumatised women in Ingushetia, says her projects are in desperate need of extra funding. She is hoping to drum up backing from foreign NGOs.

“I represent a Russian civil society organisation, but we don’t get any sort of financial or moral support from the Russian authorities,” she said”

“But still we think it’s important that we exist, because we cannot afford to wait for political support.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

In brief

The Chechen Civil Society Forum is due to start on October 22, 2004.
Chechnya has a population of around one million people.
Almost 100,000 Chechens live in refugee camps in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.
Human rights organisations say that 20-30 people have disappeared or gone missing in the last couple of months in Chechnya.
Moscow-backed Akhmad Kadyrov is the favourite to win Sunday’s presidential poll in Chechnya.

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