Nalchik Bemused by Charity Charade

Why a Russian charity expedition to the North Caucasus smacked of hypocrisy

Nalchik Bemused by Charity Charade

Why a Russian charity expedition to the North Caucasus smacked of hypocrisy

Friday, 22 December, 2000

It's been a while since the town of Nalchik has witnessed such a crude and transparent farce as Unity's "Mercy Mission for the Children of Chechnya".

Representatives from the Moscow political bloc visited the Kabardino-Balkarian capital during a charity bus trip across the North Caucasus aimed at raising money for "the innocent victims of territorial conflict".

But, if the children of Chechnya received just one fraction of all the money supposedly raised in their name, they would be bathing in ass's milk and dressing in ermine.

The sad fact is that Unity - like many other Russian "fund-raisers" -- was far more interested in furthering its own political goals than in alleviating the suffering of Chechen children. And they didn't even have the decency to stage a convincing charade.

By the time the Unity buses arrived in Nalchik, the stars of the show - the film actors Dmitri Kharatyan and Alexander Shaganov - had already flown back to Moscow. So had the State Duma deputy Alexandra Burataeva, head of the Unity presidium and the ideological heavyweight behind the expedition.

We had to content ourselves with ORT TV host Alexander Shkolnik, Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politovskaya and the memory of Burataeva's stirring words in a previous TV interview: "We won't be able to help every Chechen child materially but we want to support them morally. We want to remind everyone that they are just children who have become victims of a territorial conflict and they have the same rights as any other citizens of Russia."

It was just as well that Burataeva had outlined Unity's governing ideology because the Nalchik press conference was nothing if not confusing. For a start, the delegation announced that it was taking 200 boxes of parcels for the federal troops serving in Chechnya - a gesture that seemed at odds with the task of "morally supporting" Chechen children.

Then the organisers themselves appeared unsure of their own political agenda. At one point, Shkolnik told the Nalchik journalists that the mission had been inspired by the Russian emergencies minister and chairman of Unity, General Shoigu.

But Politovskaya swiftly interrupted her colleague and said, "At the beginning of the war, together with a group of other journalists, I made a formal appeal to General Shoigu to take action to help the children who had suffered during the campaign but he just ignored us.

"Apparently he was in a bad mood and didn't lift a finger. We pestered him for a long time to do something about the children and the refugees. And it was only after a series of feeble excuses that he agreed to take the matter in hand. So, Mr Shkolnik, I'd ask you not to tell us fairy-tales about General Shoigu's noble heart!"

Shkolnik made no attempt to argue with Politovskaya, instead he changed the topic of conversation by handing out souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with the Unity logo (the T-shirts, incidentally, reeked of diesel and it later turned out that they had been stuffed in among the minibus's fuel canisters which had leaked along the way).

On the following day, an unattributed article appeared on the front page of Izvestia focusing on the Unity visit to Nalchik. The article described how a "bored and apathetic" town mayor, Kharetali Berdov, welcomed the delegates and then was himself greeted by whistles and catcalls when he addressed the audience at the musical theatre.

The article went on to express the composer Grushevsky's intense dissatisfaction with the local cognac. It concluded, "Kabardino-Balkarian cognac is crap and Karachai cognac is crap too."

I don't know what is more surprising - that these enlightened visitors expected to find decent cognac selling for 20 roubles at a local kiosk or that they weren't in the least bit ashamed of admitting that the "mercy mission" rapidly degenerated into a drinking spree.

But it has to be said that the visitors from Moscow and their diesel-soaked T-shirts were soon forgotten by the people of Nalchik. Here in Kabardino-Balkaria, we are used to seeing clowns pass through the republic - and it was clear to everyone that the mercy mission was little more than a popularity drive for Unity and a free excursion for the delegates.

The Unity group was scheduled to visit Rostov-on-the-Don, Maikop, Pyatigorsk, Cherkessk, Karachaevsk, Nalchik, Vladikavkaz and Magas. In the event, the majority of the delegates only went as far as Pyatigorsk and abandoned the group as soon as it entered the "national republics".

And yet, the hospitals of Nalchik are full of Chechen children recovering from amputations, tuberculosis and stress. But the sight of all that suffering might have spoiled Unity's party mood...

Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor

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