Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya: Property Black Hole

Chechens finding out that property they once considered their own actually belongs to the state or someone else.
By Aminat Abumuslimova

Malika Musayeva, a resident of the Chechen capital Grozny, bought a two-room apartment from Anna Kornienko, a neighbour who was leaving Chechnya.

Musayeva received an occupancy permit, but delayed acquisition of the title deeds, thinking she had all the time in the world.

Then in 1994 the Russian army invaded Chechnya and Musayeva fled the capital. When she eventually returned, she found Saihan Isayev living in her apartment. Isayev said it now belonged to her, producing title deeds issued to him by the district authorities.

The case went to court. There, Musayeva found out that her difficulties stemmed from the fact that her apartment was considered “abandoned” property without a legal owner.

It transpired Kornienko, the original owner, had, once she was outside Chechnya, successfully argued that the sale to Musayeva had been conducted under duress as she had been forced to flee her home.

For this she received cash compensation and the apartment was declared government property.

Musayeva is just one of many Chechens who have, as she describes it, “bought a pig in a poke”, and found that apartments and houses, which they considered their own, now belong to the state or someone else.

After more than a decade of brutal warfare, including the mass destruction of Grozny, most Chechens are still living in uncertain circumstances and tens of thousands are still homeless. More than 60 per cent of homes in the republic were destroyed, most of them in Grozny.

Tens of thousands of the capital’s citizens have fled the republic and only some have returned. As of March, this year, within Chechnya itself were some 190,000 displaced persons, of which only 33,000 have been provided accommodation in “temporary housing facilities”. The rest have been left to fend for themselves.

Entering into this confusion is Russian Executive Order No. 510, which provides for cash compensations for individuals who left behind properties in Chechnya to which they said they do not plan to return.

The executive order, according to officials and supported by anecdotal evidence, has allowed numerous cases of fraud, as Musayeva discovered.

According to officials, the fraud is performed as follows. Before leaving Chechnya, an individual collects as many official documents and witnesses statements that prove he or she is the owner of a particular property.

One arrived in their new place of residence, emigrants use these forms and personal testimonies to prove they had, in fact, lived where they claim, but were forced to flee. In addition, they will assert that, if the property has been sold, the deal was concluded under duress.

The local court confirms the ownership title, and with the court ruling and registration as a forced migrant in hand, the emigrant proceeds to the migration office and claims compensation.

According to official figures, there are nearly 37,000 abandoned apartments in Chechnya. Half of these have been sold at least once. Some apartments have changed hands several times.

“Up to 30 per cent of the complaints coming to us involve some sort of fraud,” said Aslan Musayev, deputy head of the office of housing records and allocation in Grozny. Every month, he adds, his office receives around 250-260 complainants.

Musayev blames migration authorities outside Chechnya, who never check claims of forced displacement, but will issue compensation on the strength of court rulings obtained through misrepresentation.

“Executive order 510 clearly says a court ruling and forced migrant ID are not sufficient to claim compensation,” Musayev said. “The least they could do is contact the Chechen migration office to check who the property belongs to. But they never do.”

Greatly aiding would-be criminals is the fact that many of Chechnya’s official archives were destroyed in the war, and that many Chechens, as well as officials, are not familiar with the details of the law.

“The majority of people are unaware of certain legal subtleties, and criminals manipulate this to their advantage,” said Luisa Baskhanova, a lawyer in Argun.

A large number of the fraud cases seem to involve ethnic Russians, such as Anna Kornienko. Around a quarter of the Soviet-era population of around one million was Russian and nearly all of them have fled since 1991 and set up house elsewhere in Russia.

Popularly-held misconceptions throughout Russia of the nature of the Chechen conflict help muddy the waters and assist claimants in the demands for compensation.

“Outside Chechnya, people and authorities believe all Russians were forcibly evicted from their homes in Chechnya,” said Yesengeri Kharigov, deputy prosecutor of the Leninsky District. “It is very difficult to prove them wrong. Those who had fraud in mind when they left had planned for it meticulously and well in advance.”

At the same time, officials in the pro-Moscow Chechen government say that Chechnya’s status as a breakaway republic throughout the 1990s, when it was outside Russian federal jurisdiction, has further complicated matters.

Chechen authorities have introduced legislation requiring all questionable deeds from the period 1991-1999 - a period of “lawlessness” in their words - to be exchanged for new ones. This will permit officials to create a single property database to combat fraud.

The local authorities say they are attempting to deal with cases of fraud. “We will look when the sale was closed, whether it was legally valid, and whether the seller had officially given up their property as of the deed date,” said Musayev. “If they hadn’t, we will void the transaction, and send the plaintiff to the prosecutors with our decision.”

The paperwork is sent from the Chechen prosecutor’s office to the region where the person who received compensation lives, and the local district court considers the ruling.

Chechen lawyers claim such lawsuits are starting to work, but so far not one case has been overturned.

The average Chechens professes little faith in the system. “Whenever the fraud was perpetrated by a Russian, we have no chance of winning,” said Shamsudin Geldibayev, who suffered a similar fate to Musayeva, after his Russian neighbour sold him her house and move to Stavropol.

“The courts will believe them [Russians] more. The myth about Chechens as robbers and terrorists has been formed over years in the collective mind, and this will be the main argument of those Russians who have left.”

Aminat Abumuslimova is a reporter for Groznensky Rabochy newspaper