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Chechnya's Mobile Scramble

SIM cards are changing hands on the black market as demand for mobile phones outstrips supply in the war-torn republic.
By Kazbek Vakhayev

Twenty-year-old university student Marina Suleimanova came out of the office of the Megafon telephone company in Grozny with a joyful smile on her face.

She had queued outside the office for three days before paying 16 US dollars for the precious right to own a mobile phone.

“Here’s the SIM card,” she said proudly, before rummaging in her handbag for a mobile phone to insert it into. Happily punching numbers into the handset, Marina became one of 70,000 owners of a sparse commodity in a republic virtually bereft of all normal communications.

The rush for mobile phones in Chechnya is unstoppable as the republic’s citizens are desperate for a convenient, practical means of communication.

The need for some sort of telephone connection is immense. Landlines have been destroyed and there are no public phones, so mobiles are the only option.

Although mobile phones have a relatively long history in Chechnya, very few people have them. This is partly due to lack of competition, poor network coverage and problems with connection.

Chechnya’s first mobile system, MSS, set up in 1995 during the first military campaign, was destroyed at the beginning of the second war in 1999.

The mobile network was only restored in February 2003, although large-scale military action had ceased some time before this. At that time, only the government and members of the armed forces were allowed to access the network, and then only after checks by the security services.

Last May, the local leadership in Chechnya took the decision to give mobile access to ordinary citizens, too. At that time, there were some 2,000 users in the republic.

But the green light for general use was finally given only a week before last August’s presidential elections.

There are plans for the telecoms company Vympelkom, which owns the B-Line company, to open in Chechnya and become the second mobile operator.

Mikhail Umarov, the company’s head of public communications, said, “In principle B-Line is ready to move into the Chechen market, but we don’t know when this will happen.

“We need to do research on the market and furthermore many restrictions on the mobile network have not been removed.”

“We are ready to begin providing our services, but we are held back by the restrictions placed on mobile connections in the republic,” said Umarov of Vympel.

He did not explain what these restrictions were, but from conversations with telecoms experts it is likely he was referring to continuing obstruction from the security forces. Only Megafon, a Russia-wide company, appears to be exempt.

Other mobile companies are wary about moving into Chechnya, and their concerns are understandable.

In 1999 the mobile network in neighbouring Ingushetia was shut down along with the one in Chechnya.

“The explanation was Ingushetia’s proximity to Chechnya,” said Magomed Ozdoyev, an expert with the company IngMobil.

Ozdoyev told IWPR that there had been a government decree forbidding mobile coverage within 100 kilometres of Moscow’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Chechnya. The security forces were worried that rebels were picking up signals in Ingushetia to make phone calls.

Those who sign up to Megafon are unable to use its services outside the republic and do not have “roaming” capability. This also means that Megafon subscribers from outside Chechnya cannot use their phones inside the republic. This is because a “probe” set up by the military covers the entire territory of Chechnya and cuts out all outside phone signals. Megafon possesses special codes which enable it to bypass the apparatus.

Tahir Kholikberdyev, Megafon’s public relations officer, said, “Unfortunately the question of the probe does not depend on our company alone. We have to come to an agreement with various different federal government bodies.”

An official in the intelligence service, FSB, in Chechnya who gave his name only as Sergei confirmed that the restrictions were put in place as part of the “anti-terrorist” operation in Chechnya.

In spite of such restrictions, demand is still high at the four outlets in Chechnya where you can acquire mobile phone SIM cards. On average, between 20 and 40 cards are sold a day.

The service providers deny that they are deliberately narrowing the market and driving up prices. “We are forced to restrict sales because there are so many customers in Chechnya and lines are over-burdened,” said Kholikberdyev.

However, if a customer really wants to acquire a phone in Chechnya, there are ways.

Forty-year-old Hussein from Avtury explained, “From early morning till late evening I am at work – I need to keep in touch with home.

“I have a grown-up son and daughter who are students at the university, and I worry about them. The environment is not calm – there are frequent clean-up raids and checks in our village and all over the republic. If something happens they can ring me.”

People like Hussein are prepared to go to the black market and pay exorbitant rates to get connected.

In the centre of Grozny, near the central market and Selkhoz Bank, well-heeled young men and women line the street, waving packets of roubles, dollars and euro around. This is the hard currency black market. Now SIM cards are available here too.

This, plus Megafon’s monopoly, helps explain the extremely high telephone charges from mobiles in Chechnya. A call to another mobile costs around 30 US cents a minute, and a call to a land line is half as much again. In Ingushetia the rates are often a tenth of that cost.

Kholikberdyev defends his company against accusations of poor service, “Mobile connections in Chechnya are developing faster than in any other Russian region. Every 40 days we put up a new mast. The more masts there are, the better the signal will be. We only need time.”

Kazbek Bakhayev is a correspondent for the newspaper Zov Zemli in Chechnya.

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