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The Legacy of Separatism

The Russians are faced with the daunting task of tackling ecological damage caused by pre-war economic anarchy in Chechnya
By Mikhail Ivanov

There is an old Russian proverb which goes, "It is easier to destroy than to build." As the Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov makes his first overtures to the rebel warlords, the Russian administration in Chechnya is attempting to tackle the legacy of Aslan Maskhadov's regime - "an Islamic state with a Chechen slant", as the president once described it.

The most obvious manifestation of this "Chechen slant" was economic anarchy. For years, criminal gangs were given carte blanche to counterfeit money, traffic drugs, take hostages and, last but not least, run extensive pirate oil refineries. According to the Russian army's top ecologist, Boris Alexeev, these refineries have caused more damage to Chechnya's environment than the eight-month military campaign.

In a statement to the press last week, Alexeev said that the devastation caused by the fighting was equal to "a mere 2-3% of the damage inflicted by the pirate oil business over the past 10 years". Recent tests had shown that 25% of the republic's lowlands were no longer fit for any kind of agriculture because the soil had been so badly polluted by the bootleg refineries.

Before the first war, Chechnya produced three million tons of oil a year. After 1996, however, it became impossible to estimate the true scale of the output as the bulk of production had come under the control of criminal oil barons. Even in the summer of 1999, long before Grozny fell to the federal forces, the Chechen capital was hit by severe fuel shortages. For a time, only bootleg petrol with octane levels as low as 56 was available.

Untouched by any agreements between Russia and OPEC, the rebel warlords were free to convert their oil reserves into hard cash - money which was later used to finance their military adventures. Russian military ecologists have estimated that an average pirate refinery could earn its owner up to 400,000 roubles ($14,300) a night. Around 15,000 such refineries have been discovered across the Chechen republic - figures which give a disturbing insight into the funds available to the rebel warlords in the years before the Russian invasion.

On top of this, the oil buccaneers took to plundering the pipeline running between Baku and Novorossiisk. By the summer of 1999, the problem had reached such epidemic proportions that Aslan Maskhadov had guards posted at one-kilometre intervals along the pipeline - but it was already too late. In July 1999, the Russian fuel and energy ministry arranged for oil to be shipped from Azerbaijan to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, and then by rail to Novorossiisk, thereby circumventing "the Chechens' hospitality".

However, when Russia stopped paying Grozny for the use of pipeline, the Chechen oil mafia devoted their efforts to increasing output from the pirate wells. Some observers have speculated that this move was one of the economic factors which prompted Chechen extremists to invade Dagestan in August 1999.

Unable to operate a sophisticated refining process and eager to make a quick buck, the oil pirates carelessly dumped their waste materials into local rivers. As a result, catastrophic pollution levels were recorded in the Terek River, which runs through Chechnya and Dagestan into the Caspian Sea. After the Russian military shut down the bulk of the illegal refineries, these levels were halved.

In the wake of Russia's "anti-terrorist" drive in the breakaway republic, the pirate oil business shifted from Chechnya to northern Ingushetia where the controversial president, Ruslan Aushev, is well-known for his sympathetic attitude to the "Chechen cause".

Boris Alexeev told the daily newspaper, Kommersant, last week, "If we don't take urgent measures in the near future to stamp out the illegal oil trade in Chechnya and Ingushetia, the concentration of oil products in the Caspian Sea could soon exceed critical levels". Before long, he joked, everyone could afford to eat "black caviar by the tablespoon". It would have been funny if it wasn't so tragic.

Chechnya's ecological problems -- as if the republic didn't have enough problems as it is -- could be solved in the next 10 years "provided the entire nation comes to her assistance," claims Alexeev. One likely solution proposed by the military ecological experts is to use bacteria to fight the pollution. Bacteria help to process the oil by-products and eliminate hazardous waste. The Russian military gained considerable experience in the use of bacteria when cleaning up the massive oil spill which hit the Valday region in 1997.

But there are other bacteria which need to be tackled in Chechnya - not least the spectre of Islamic militancy which was awakened by Boris Yeltsin in the late 1980s when the genie of separatism was released from its bottle in order to help the pretender oust Mikhail Gorbachev from the Kremlin. And those who have remained immune to these "bacteria" may want to remember peaceful times when the "freedom-loving" republic was "under the Russian jackboot". It was the industrial development of the oil-rich Grozny region - which began at the turn of the century - that brought Chechnya the Beslan-Grozny railway which paved the way for rapid economic growth.

Doubtlessly, there were negative side-effects to the industrialisation process but Russia's first oil pipeline was laid across Chechnya in 1914 and, by 1917, there were 386 (legal) oil wells in the region.

In Soviet times, Grozny's Oil Institute was one of the most highly respected in the USSR while the city's university enjoyed a formidable reputation. Now, the bulk of the students - with the exception of those who have taken up arms with the rebels - have moved to Ingushetia. This June, the university made its first steps towards resuming studies but only 500 students attended these tentative classes - apparently, they will study for a month, then catch up with the academic syllabus at home during the summer.

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with oil? These facts serve to illustrate the disastrous consequences of unbridled separatism in Chechnya. In every field - the oil and gas industry, education, agriculture - the picture is pretty much the same. A blind hatred for the Russian overlord, fanned by the rebel leaders, has driven the Chechens to destroy all the fruits of Moscow's patronage. Now it is incumbent on the Kremlin to rebuild whatever has been destroyed - by human greed as well as by war. And only now is the true scale of the damage coming to light.

It recently emerged that Grozny's State Art Museum, which once boasted an extensive collection of valuable paintings, had been pillaged by criminal groups - no doubt to finance some "noble cause". A few weeks ago, the Russian security services salvaged a painting by Franz Roubeau, valued at several hundred thousand dollars, which had been stolen by Chechen thieves. The canvas - which is symbolically entitled "The Capture of Shamil" - was rolled up to be smuggled abroad and consequently is now in need of extensive restoration. It goes without saying that the bill will be picked up by the Russian government.

Such tales of piracy and adventurism in a land of black gold rarely have a happy ending.

Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.

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