Human rights activist Igor Kolyapin on Chechnya and democracy in Russia

Article published on March 2, 2012
Article published on March 2, 2012
One in five Russians will be a torture victim at least once in their lifetimes. The Moscow-based 'committee against torture' brings these cases to court and is also one of the few NGOs to work in the southern republic of Chechnya. We meet the organisation’s chairman to discuss regional politics and why it's worth bothering to fight

cafebabel.com: Mr. Kolyapin, how would you describe the current situation in Chechnya?

Igor Kolyapin: Chechnya is a dangerous place as the republic is virtually governed by criminals. The political executives are former resistance fighters who ended up defecting to the Russian powers because they owed money or were offered other carrots. Our (Russian) government has simply given them power over an entire region: bandits who can do what they want.

cafebabel.com: What does that mean exactly?

Igor Kolyapin: Men who fought in the war for years have suddenly become politicians and so have lost sight of what human rights means. You can imagine what that means for this republic: whoever goes against the Chechen authorities is a felon who loses any legal rights, and ends up disappearing without a trace. That is how the Chechen justice system works – and the Russian government is fully aware of it.

cafebabel.com: How can you be sure about these facts?

 Igor Kolyapin: We can even prove it: the committee of torture has documented instances of torture, kidnappings and even murders from a juridical point of view. Of course we have also sent these documents to the Russian state – to the public prosecution service, to party chairmen and even personally to the president. No single case has been impeached. 

cafebabel.com: Why is it in Moscow’s interests to cause chaos in Chechnya?

Igor Kolyapin: The war is officially over and Russia had to withdraw its troops and tanks. However they didn’t want to lose control. You can see how much both governments are in league with each other based on the election results of 2007: president Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia got almost 99% of the votes from the southern Russian republic.

cafebabel.com: Do Chechens have hopes that they can live in peace for once?

Igor Kolyapin: You need a political thaw to understand this region better. I’d rate the political thermometer in the whole country at around minus fifty.

cafebabel.com: How do you keep track of this political ice age?

Igor Kolyapin: All you need to do is watch the evening news. Our news is not news! In Russia you would never hear anyone speaking about its problems. The government is only criticised when it becomes absolutely unavoidable not to do so - that basically means when the whole country is already aware of an issue.

cafebabel.com: You’re referring perhaps to the protests which have been taking place over Russia for the last month (February)?

Igor Kolyapin: The media couldn’t stifle people’s voices anymore, but they’re still not showing the whole truth. Our powers try and stop anyone from protesting or causing them grief using any methods they can. The first protests last year were halted. Opposition members were beaten and arrested. Whoever gets involved often puts themselves in a dangerous position.

cafebabel.com: Does this threat also go for your organisation?

Igor Kolyapin: Up until two months ago we could go about our work in peace. Then suddenly our employees were being stopped on the streets and some of the media were branding us ‘agents of the west’. One of my colleagues was arrested in January. His laptop was taken away from him and of course, all of the data within it. We’re still waiting for an official explanation and the return of that equipment. Many NGOs have gone through similar things recently. I am sure that it’s all got something to with the campaigns before the elections on 4 March.

cafebabel.com: In whose interests is it to keep you quiet?

Igor Kolyapin: One part of the system sees us as a threat. That’s democracy in Russia: on television Putin gives all of these nice speeches about civic participation. In fact that’s exactly what they’re trying to stop the population from doing, from mixing politically or socially.

cafebabel.com: The voice of the population seems to be changing though; thousands have protested on a weekly basis for free and fair elections.

Igor Kolyapin: Even then though, people don’t have a real alternative to Putin. You don’t just find elections taking place on a specific day. They begin months in advance, where political partys come together with their programmes and prime ministerial candidates. In Russia only one party is allowed to that, and they’re called United Russia.

cafebabel.com: It all sounds so pessimistic. What’s the point of even getting protesting in the first place?

Igor Kolyapin: It’s never in vain to stand up for what you believe in. I mean our organisation has never managed to get the Russian police to renounce their violence. Yet we have won over seventy cases. That’s worth fighting for, and I for one can’t allow myself to sit back and do nothing.

cafebabel.com: Do you think that Russia could be a real democracy one day?

Igor Kolyapin: Let’s be honest – not as long as Putin is in power. That’s going to stay the case though, with or without protests.

Images: main (cc)Boris SV/ flickr