Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed his envoy for human rights in Chechnya, turning over the task of overseeing the issue to Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov. The move is sparking renewed concern about the potential for ongoing violations in the separatist region.
Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov told Russian news agencies that President Putin has determined that President Kadyrov bears full responsibility for observing human rights in Chechnya, now that presidential elections have been held there and his new administration is in place.
The October poll, roundly criticized by the West and international human rights groups, brought pro-Moscow administrator and Putin ally Akhmad Kadyrov to power.
The deputy director of the Moscow office for Human Rights Watch, Anna Neistat, says President Putin's move is an interesting choice, given that President Kadyrov's personal security service is said to be more feared by residents of Chechnya than Russian federal forces.
Ms. Neistat also says President Putin's move will change nothing in Chechnya - a region that Human Rights Watch says is awash with human rights violations.
"[Mr.] Kadyrov has been there on the scene for the last three years, at least," said Anna Neistat. "And during all those years, violence and human rights violations continued in Chechnya unabated and unpunished. So, I do not think that Kadyrov has any devotion to protecting human rights in Chechnya, and I do not think he is eager or willing to go ahead and establish a different regime in Chechnya right now."
Ms. Neistat says she believes President Putin is trying to show that the Chechen conflict is over, before Russia's presidential election in March.
President Putin, who captured the presidency, in part, on pledges of stamping out Chechen separatists, has long claimed that the area is returning to normal and that it is now safe for refugees to return home.
But Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch says evidence from its monitors shows otherwise.
"I think that despite [the] Russian government's efforts to present the situation as normalizing, the situation is very far from normal," she said. "And according to our data, human rights violations and crimes committed by both Russian forces and Kadyrov's forces are still a daily routine in Chechnya. Under the circumstances, we think that instead of trying to present the situation as stable and normal, the Russian government should take steps to address real problems, including accountability for crimes committed in Chechnya and this is not being done."
Tens of thousands of people were displaced when Russian forces poured into Chechnya for a second time to quell a separatist insurgency in October 1999. Many have since returned home, but many others remain in neighboring Ingushetia, including thousands in poorly equipped refugee tent camps.
Chechen authorities announced recently that the tent camps in Ingushetia would be closed by March 1, sparking renewed concerns about the refugees being forced to return to an area plagued by daily unrest.
Some refugees and human rights groups have complained that officials are forcing people to return against their will - a charge both Russian and Chechen authorities deny.