MOSCOW (AP) – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday ordered officials in the North Caucasus to ensure what he called the “normal work” of human rights groups operating in the volatile region.
Human rights activists in and around Chechnya have been attacked and even killed in recent years in incidents Kremlin critics blame on local authorities who have little patience for their work. The activists spend most of their time investigating accusations of rights abuses by police and the personal security forces of the regions’ leaders.
Convictions have been almost nonexistent in such attacks and critics have blamed Putin for allowing an atmosphere of impunity.
Putin arrived in the southern city of Pyatigorsk to chair a meeting of the leaders of the provinces that suffer the most from violence linked to Islamist separatists.
“I ask the representatives of regional authorities … to do everything for the support of normal work and daily activity of rights-defending organizations in the Caucasus,” Putin said in televised remarks. “Those who work within the framework of the law and help people,” he added.
The rights movement in the North Caucasus has been decimated in the last few years as fear of being the next target has driven those who fight for the accountability of the authorities out of the area. Leading rights group Memorial was forced to close its Chechnya chapter in the aftermath of the July slaying of rights activist Natalya Estemirova.
Estemirova’s bullet-ridden body was found in Ingushetia hours after she disappeared in neighboring Chechnya. A few months before Estemirova died, Stanislav Markelov – a lawyer she had worked with in Chechnya – was gunned down in a daylight attack in central Moscow.
Lilia Shvetsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a Kremlin critic, said Putin’s history as a hardliner against dissent who restricted the work of nongovernment organizations during his eight-year presidency cast doubt on the sincerity of his words.
“Who will believe that he wants to ensure the safety of rights activists?” she said.
But Memorial’s chief, Oleg Orlov, told RIA Novosti that he welcomed Putin’s words.
“I hope that they are not empty words and that actions of some kind will follow them,” Orlov said. “It’s a signal, primarily to local authorities, that they should somewhat turn down their desire to crush any independent structure.”
Authorities appear intent on improving living standards for the southern regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, which host most of the separatists in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin recently grouped the three provinces together with four more stable nearby regions into a new North Caucasus Federal District and promised increased federal investment.