Thursday, 31 March 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 3- Nalchik to Elbrus

We wended our way up into Kabardino-Balkaria's mountains, aiming for a ski resort near Mount Elbrus (Europe's highest peak). Along the way we passed seven checkpoints with armoured cars, trucks and troops. The mountains towered up on either side of the valley, bright with sunlight, skinny clouds wreathing their peaks. Pylons and gas pipes snaked along beside bright, narrow river lines. The landscape looked somewhere between green Switzerland and brown Pakistan. Only the shells of ruined ore extraction plants reminded us were in ex-soviet territory.

We were stopped at our eighth checkpoint. Our driver had to sit in a police car for 10 minutes shuffling documents. Two checkpoints later we were stopped again and this time no pictures were allowed, I managed to snap one before they stopped us, here.


They were a lot more heavily armed this time. Three soldiers stood around two trucks. Bullets had cracked their thick windows. After a thorough document check we were sent back to a previous checkpoint to gain permission to continue. A policeman explained that a counter-terrorist operation was underway up ahead. They were searching for militants in the mountains. This is the area where on February 18th this year three Russian tourists were gunned down inside their minibus on the way to a skiing holiday. We would have to get a special permit which meant coming back another day. Looking at the sun flooded mountains and the happy village girls giggling by on the footpath, I realised it's sometimes hard to tell there's trouble in such an idyll. We wended our way back to Nalchik.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 2- Pyatigorsk to Nalchik

The central square of the Kabardino-Balkaria's capital Nalchik, the scene of a huge militant raid in 2005.

Now we were heading from the relatively calm administrative capital of the North Caucasus to a much more troubled place. Kabardino-Balkaria lies to the west of Chechnya and Ingushetia. Recent incidents there include the murder of the republic's mufti (an Islamic leader) two months before, attacks on Federal Security Service (FSB) buildings and police and the emergence of a new, an Islamist vigilante group, the Black Hawks.

We travelled a snowy road into Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, Nalchik. An army convoy was waiting outside the town. There was a very heavy police presence. We arrived as the 12.30pm call to prayer rang out across a city that had recently found itself dragged once again into the region's ugly insurgency.

The majority religion here is a traditional form of Sunni Islam much tempered by local Caucasian culture.

We headed to the city's, and the republic's biggest mosque. The ethnic Russians here, at around 25% of the population call it a cathedral mosque. Before and after the prayers security guards scanned the approaches on the roads around and searched the mosque's grounds.

There we talked to the deputy head of the region's Islamic department. He is an imam and was a deputy to that murdered mufti, Anas Pshikhachev. He told us that Muslim extremists had threatened Anas Pshikhachev repeatedly that he wasn't preaching the right sermons. He ignored their threats. They arrived at his house one December night and when he opened his door to them, as he did to all visitors, they shot him four times. "They lost a lot of sympathy that day when they killed such a moderate figure," our imam said, adding that their reading of Islam is twisted. He was firm that to commit suicide is a sin in Islam too. "To commit suicide and murder innocents in the process will not lead to paradise," he said.

Nalchik has seen an increase in militant attacks in the past few months, breaking a calm that has lasted some years. One of my colleagues remembers the carnage of the central square in 2005 when over 150 militants attacked points across the city. There is calm here on this day, but it is fragile.

The majority of the population are Muslims, including the militant's victims.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 1- Grozny to Pyatigorsk

It had been a cold night and I kept my sheets wrapped tight to keep the warmth in. Up at 6.30am, I looked out on a snowy Grozny. It had fallen the day before and was busily turning to brown mush everywhere except on roofs and verges.

We set out, four of us packed into a lada priora, (a less than salubrious Russian saloon) crossing the thin wedge of territory that is Ingushetia and into North Ossetia, passing through check points, all staffed by heavily armed police. A man wearing a balaclava checked our documents and tried to ‘fine’ one of us for not having his documents in order. Only about £5, a little extra cream I’m sure he feels he deserves. Our guy dug his heels in and we didn’t end up paying. We drove on.

Although there are hills in the distance the land around here is wide and flat, not dissimilar to Lincolnshire, though snow still covers most of the fields. Next we passed through Beslan, the site of the infamous 2004 hostage taking of over a thousand children and teachers in the town’s School No1. The botched rescue raid turned into a bloodbath with the Islamist terrorists from neighbouring Ingushetia and Chechnya butchering most of the 330 casualties, over half of them children. The town is busy today with some new building amidst the heathland and half derelict apartment blocks and a lot of cars and vans passing past the packs of scrapping dogs.

After another 30 minutes we entered the foothills of the Caucasus. When we stopped to stretch our legs the air was rich with the scent of sheep dung (not helped by me treading in it) and the soil was loose and moist. It probably looked richer and thicker than it was. We arrived in Pyatigorsk to a lot of snow but not too much cold. The town is part of Russia’s Stavropol region but is an administrative centre for the North Caucasus.

Our first interview was with the head of a local university. Two students from Pyatigorsk recently brought home the threat of radical Islam in a shocking way. The first, Zeynab Suyunova, was arrested on suspicion of being involved with the group that accidentally blew one of its female members up in Kuzminki park on New year's eve 2010/11. The group was later thought to have carried out January's Moscow airport bombing as a contingency plan. Suyunova was arrested in Volgograd.

Also linked to the group was Maria Khorosheva, another student from Pyatigorsk. She was an ethnic Russian who fell in love with and was converted to Islam by another Russian student, Vitaly Razdobuko. They became more extreme in their views, and joined the group planning the attack on Moscow. When it went wrong they fled back to the Caucasus. But they knew the net was now closing in. On Valentines day they both blew themselves up in Gubdan in Dagestan, taking two policemen with them and wounding twenty five others. It was a terrifying end to a tragic tale.

The rector of Pyatigorsk Linguistic University laments what happened and notes how unusual it was for ethnic Russians to have been radicalised as well. "It starts with people who are believers anyway," he says, then extremist groups prowl mosque attendees looking for those they can control. "Of course it requires more detailed psychological research," he adds, "but those doing the indoctrinating probably have a good grasp of psychological techniques for controlling potential suicide bombers.”

The answer, at least on the university's part is to encourage students to have strong personalities, and to engage with society and other cultures, including Islam. Cultural and language centres have been set up to help students learn more of other cultures, including ones from the Arab world and the North Caucasus. As he points out Islam has its own local identity in these regions. In the north Caucasus, it’s a traditional form of Islam tied up with local customs. This is important, as Sharia law or Wahhabism is not the norm here.

When we leave the main entrance, with flocks of students milling about, we see it, a MacDonalds, sat just across the road. Is that a symbol of tolerance and free choice, or of moral decay and selfish individualism? I wonder how many students here see it as a threat rather than a treat.

Portrait of a Russian- A Sweeping Tale

She's Moscow's only female chimneysweep. A chemistry graduate from the ecological faculty of the Moscow Chemical Technical Institute in 1981, Galina Yuryevna now runs 'Art of the Chimney sweep', a chimney cleaning business in Moscow.

She says she started out in her dream job as a fashion designer. Gradually though she made more contacts amongst people who worked with fireplaces, and when she learnt there was no company dedicated to maintaining Moscow's fireplaces, she saw a gap in the market and hasn't looked back.

Whilst showing me round her company's workshop Galina tells me about some of the more interesting chimneys they've cleaned in their time. Some years ago she was phoned by the Russian army. They had seen an article in a Russian tabloid which had made fun of her 'cleaning Putin's chimney', (they have, in fact, cleaned the Kremlin's chimneys). But when the officers saw the article they invited her to clean the flues of the old Red Army's wartime headquarters, and the one in Stalin's bedroom!

When she heard I was from England she related to me a story about her invite to a wedding. As folklore has it William the Conqueror was saved from being trampled by a wild horse when a chimney sweep stopped it. As a reward the sweep was invited to his daughter's wedding. Ever since it was deemed good luck to have a chimney sweep at one's wedding, and even in far away Russia Galina and her crew were invted to a colonel's wedding, 'in the English tradition'.

In another odd call out a man explained to Galina down the phone that they needed her and her team's expertise to extract a bag from the inside of a chimney flue. When they arrived they saw that their clients had already tried to get the bag, and as they worked with long poles and a remote camera they realeased the bag was full of money! They never retrieved the bag, she adds with a rye smile.

What is it like being the only woman in the chimney sweep business and boss of a team of men? Galina takes it in her stride. 'They can be difficult', she muses, 'but they're easier to control than a team of women!'

When we asked Yevgeny, one of her workers, what she was like as a boss he said he has the deepest respect for her. 'Clients are sometimes scpetical when they hear she's in charge,' he adds, 'but they soon change their mind after five minutes on the phone.'

We finished our tour on top of an old roof in central Moscow. She and her team spend much time up here, in a space above most people's heads which is seldom tread. She says the job really is quite romantic, with every roof in Moscow, even on buildings designed exactly the same, turning out to be unique. She says she never gets bored of the varying challenges.

Which is good because it must take some kind of motivation to stay up here in the snow and wind!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Russian Police Reform- What's in a name?

As of the 1st March the Russian ‘militsia’ have a new name, the ‘politsia’ or police. According to the government this change, and the reforms behind it will transform the country’s widely feared and mistrusted police into a shining force of honest bobbies.

The reforms behind the name change include evaluation of all personnel with up to twenty percent expected to be fired. A strict code of conduct will be introduced and salaries will be tripled to help discourage the need for bribe extraction.

Most Russians however view the reforms with scorn. One Russian radical art group has taken it a step further. Watch this hilarious video released on youtube on the day on the day of the name change.

Many consider the militsia in Russia to be one of the biggest things holding the country back. Violent, drunken and riddled with corruption one member of parliament described them as ‘waging a war against their own people’.

For a specific example lets look go back to October 2009.

Two Russian traffic policemen are dead, police Lieutenant Ayap Pavlov has shot himself and Viktor Lesnik has lost his job. What happened?

Polive Lieutenant Ayap Pavlov failed to show up for training on Saturday. Two hours later, he was pulled over by two traffic police whilst driving. They found their colleague, a policeman, was driving drunk. They made Pavlov get into their car to take him to hospital where they could record the state he was in. The causes of what happened next are unknown, like the causes of Pavlov’s absence from training or his drink driving. He shot one of his fellow policemen in the back of the head and wounded the police inspector driving. He then shot himself.

Tragic, certainly. And for the moment baffling. Dmitry Medvedev sacked the regional interior affairs minister, Viktor Lesnik and the Russian Interior Affairs minister, Rashid Nurgaliev will report will report back to Medvedev on the findings.

However this is not an isolated incident.

On the 22nd of October 2009 a drunken policeman went on a shooting rampage in a Moscow supermarket. He shot one man at point blank range in the head in front of the man’s girlfriend then frog marched her round the supermarket shooting at other shoppers. When police arrived they refused to arrest him saying they understood he was drunk and had family problems. Police General Vladimir Poronin later apologised for the comments and was reportedly sacked.

On the 21st of that month two senior policemen had criminal charges filed against them for going on a shooting spree in the Eastern city of Samara wounding three people.

On the 20th the Eastern Republic of Buryatia’s Interior Minister (in charge of Police) Viktor Sosyura was suspended pending investigations. He has since been charged with 44 episodes of contraband. He is suspected of taking bribes to allow a gang to import large quantities of the precious stone nephrite into Russia whilst ensuring his own department didn’t discover the crime. Nephrite generates huge income in Russia and the money made from the crime could amount to 50 million roubles.

These were, even back then, the tip of a truly horrifying iceberg. As of October 22nd 2009 Russian authorities were, according to the prosecutor general’s office, investigating 16,000 cases of corruption within the establishment. 12,000 cases have been opened this year. The cases include:
842 ‘persons of special status’
500 people’s deputies and local government officials
15 deputies of regional legislatures
19 judges
33 prosecutors
86 lawyers
Over 100 police and drugs investigators
On 6th November 2009 Alexey Dymovsky, a senior detective from Novorossisk send a youtube appeal to Prime Minister Putin asking him to intervene to stop widespread fraud in his force. He said crimes were frequently invented in order to fulfill quotas for their solving. He was fired from the police and arrested the next January, on suspicion of fraud. In 2010 it was no better. Even by the police’s own records its officers broke the law or violated their code of conducted 125,000 times last year.

For business owners in Russia it’s common practice to pay some policemen a fee to provide a ‘roof’, or protection in case of a dispute with competitors. They can then be called in to arrest the other owner, beat them up or even kill them. Many Russians are more afraid of the police than they are of criminals or thugs on the streets.

This law sees the right sentiments written down but critics say such a corrupt system is incapable of reforming itself. The ones doing the interviews for the new police jobs are current top policemen. To imagine they don’t have cliques and favourites they know will maintain their rackets is na├»ve.

Hopes are, as so often in Russia, high. But lets not forget, the reason Lenin changed their name to the militia the first time round was because the Tsarist police were so hated.