Chechnya: Aid Groups Face Hostility From Moscow

Foreign aid organisations in Chechnya find their hands are tied by Russian bureaucracy and suspicion.

Chechnya: Aid Groups Face Hostility From Moscow

Foreign aid organisations in Chechnya find their hands are tied by Russian bureaucracy and suspicion.

Thursday, 1 September, 2005

In July, the Czech aid group People in Need was forced to leave Russia after more than five years working in Chechnya. The Russian media accused the group of having links with Chechen rebels, a charge it denies.


The departure of People in Need is only the latest expression of Moscow’s attitude of mistrust, and sometimes outright hostility, towards foreign non-government organisations, NGOs, working in the North Caucasus.


“NGOs on the ground in Chechnya and Ingushetia are often harassed, and there is a certain distrust between NGOs and the security services,” said Stephen Tull, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNOCHA, in Russia.


Aid groups have repeatedly been accused by the Russian government of misconduct, intelligence gathering, and even collusion with the Chechen rebels.


In May, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service, FSB, accused several foreign aid groups of working against Russia. Patrushev told the state Duma that the United States government-funded Peace Corps, the British charity Merlin, Kuwait’s Social Reforms Society and the Saudi Red Crescent Society were out to harm the interests of the Russian state. He called for more scrutiny over the activities of aid organisations.


All four of the groups named by Patrushev had stopped working in Russia even before he made his allegations. They have all denied any misconduct. The US State Department called the charges against the Peace Corps “cynical”.


Neil MacFarlane, professor of international relations at Oxford University, told IWPR, “It appears that some Russian security policy-makers suspect that humanitarian organisations are infiltrated by foreign intelligence agencies.”


MacFarlane said Moscow’s disdain for foreign aid groups was partly a legacy of Soviet-era attitudes. But he also suggested that the presence of humanitarian organisations on the ground made it harder for the Russian military to pursue indiscriminate strong-arm tactics.


Tull said relations between UN agencies and various Russian government offices are generally good, but vary from place to place, and there are cases of harassment


“People sometimes come to NGOs without even producing proper identification documents and start asking questions and checking papers and computers,” he said. “In some cases, humanitarian agencies feel they are not welcome, and it makes it harder for us to work in the region.”


The Danish Refugee Council, DRC, the UN’s largest implementing partner in the North Caucasus, is a prime example of the problems facing foreign organisations. After years of working in the region, DRC secured a renewal of its permit to work in Russia only after two months’ close scrutiny by the authorities, a UN source told IWPR.


Nonetheless, Per Albert Ilsaas, the head of DRC’s office in the North Caucasus, said that the organisation was generally able to carry out its work.


“There is always room for improvement in getting through to the beneficiaries, but by and large, we succeed reasonably well in reaching the majority of the most vulnerable members of the population,” said Ilsaas.


“We have been able to operate in all districts of Chechnya and I cannot really say we have had major obstacles in that. This is not to say that the monitoring we do now is entirely the same as it would have been had we had completely free access. There is an element of [monitoring by] remote control, but the access is satisfactory.”


Responding to Russian claims that some of the humanitarian aid ends up in the hands of Chechen rebels, Ilsaas said, “We cannot stand over all 200,000 IDPs [internally displaced persons] and see what they do with the humanitarian aid. There is never a 100 per cent guarantee about anything in life.”


In March, the Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty published a story entitled “UN rifles fire at our soldiers”, accusing the UN and other humanitarian agencies of providing support for the rebels, evading taxes and trafficking drugs.


After filing repeated complaints about the article, UN officials were told by the Russian foreign ministry that it had no evidence of misconduct by the UN.


Other aid agencies say the poor security situation in the North Caucasus has badly hampered their efforts. Some believe the Russian government is not interested in improving security for them, because that would bring an unwelcome influx of aid workers.


The international medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF, stopped sending foreign nationals to the region after four of its staff were kidnapped between 1996 and 2002. The last of these, Dutch citizen Arjan Erkel, was seized in August 2002 and released only 20 months later. The Netherlands government later admitted to paying one million euros for his release.


MSF now employs only locally-hired staff for its operations in the North Caucasus.


As Andrew Cunningham, head of mission for MSF-Holland, told IWPR, “It is not at all a normal situation for us. Internationally, we never run programmes like this, completely by remote control. It’s a major compromise that the organisation has to make.


“We all think that it is so important for us to be in Chechnya, to provide assistance in Chechnya. We are going to have [to make] very fundamental compromises.”


Philippe Royan, of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office ECHO in Moscow, said security remained a concern. “Honestly, I must say the security situation has not improved recently. We can’t tell our partners the situation is much better – that they should go more often to Chechnya, do more monitoring,” he said.


Royan said a further complication is that many IDPs have moved back to Chechnya from refugee camps in Ingushetia and Dagestan, a factor which made it even harder for aid agencies to help them.


“Humanitarian agencies follow the beneficiaries. More and more aid is being shipped to Chechnya. And it has become more difficult to reach the beneficiaries,” he said. “When there were tent camps in Ingushetia, it was quite easy to access them in a few hours and to check what was done with the food aid, the sanitation aid. When they returned to Grozny and you don’t have good access, it becomes more and more difficult to monitor the aid.”


Royan said obtaining permits from the Russian authorities to visit Chechnya had also become more difficult, “You never know if you will be given an access permit or not. It’s a lottery sometimes - some days permitted, some days refused without explanation from the office.”


In addition, he said, the Russians sometimes close the Chechen administrative border to foreign nationals for days, citing expectations of heightened tension or an outbreak of fighting.


The UN says 62 million US dollars’ worth of aid was distributed in Chechnya through its offices in 2004. The total amount of aid sent to Chechnya is greater, since some donors fund NGOs directly rather than through the UN.


Professor MacFarlane believes the Russian military and its pro-Moscow Chechen allies should do more to provide security for aid groups, “It would be good if Russian and associated forces could provide adequate security, but they are probably not capable of it even if they wanted to.”


MacFarlane said that Russian officials could at least ease bureaucratic hurdles that prevent aid groups from travelling freely or securing visas for their foreign staff.


He believes that the tension between Moscow and the aid agencies may begin to resolve itself, as - unless there is an upsurge in the Chechen conflict - the level of international humanitarian engagement will necessarily diminish.


In any case, the economic benefits brought by the foreign NGOs’ presence may well outweigh any animosity that Moscow harbours towards them.


According to MacFarlane, “Humanitarian organisations reduce the burden on the Russian state budget. More importantly, perhaps, I think Russian policy-makers rightly take the view that the political costs of driving humanitarian organisations out exceed the political costs of having them there.”


This was also the view of an official with an international aid agency, who did not want to be identified. This official told IWPR, “We often discuss how it is that Russia tolerates international humanitarian organisations. We arrived at the conclusion that it’s because it would be no good for Russia to kick us out.


“As long as humanitarian organisations mind their own business [and] do not make too much noise, they are tolerated.”


Valery Dzutsev is IWPR’s coordinator in the North Caucasus.


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