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Europe’s debt to Chechens

Harold Chambers is a political and security analyst focused on the North Caucasus.  

The European Union has finally decided to reward those who face up to the Russian threat.  

Ukraine and Moldova have been granted candidacy status, and Georgia has been assured that, upon fulfilling certain conditions, it will receive the same status as well — not exactly what Georgians had hoped for, but it’s still better than where they previously stood.  

These rewards aren’t being handed out to everyone, however — including Chechen refugees and exiles. Europe’s refusal to treat Chechen refugees humanely, much less reward them, is an affront to the values upon which the EU was founded, and we must acknowledge that, all too often, Europe has been complicit in their persecution.  

Collectively, the Chechen diaspora in Europe has faced more threats from Russia than perhaps any other people. Centuries of struggle against Russian colonial rule have resulted in genocide, two post-Soviet wars and, after being subsumed back into President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, an oppressive environment of violence and human rights abuses.  

And if the Chechens’ own fight for survival against Moscow was deemed insufficient for Europe to (minimally) observe the rules of the international asylum system, it’s also true that many have mobilized to fight alongside Ukrainians, starting in 2014. 

In addition to Russia’s history of war crimes and genocide against Chechens, back home, the warlord Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov has a well-documented proclivity for violence against civilians. Kadyrov’s private army, which doubles as the republic’s security services, has conducted kidnapping sprees, purges of the LGBTQ population and extrajudicial executions.  

Not satisfied with domestic oppression, he has also hunted down his opponents globally, primarily conducting assassinations throughout the Chechen diaspora in Europe and Turkey. 

Many cases of the regime’s violence have already been brought before the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). And according to the records of the Stichting Russian Justice Initiative, which provides legal assistance to victims of human rights violations in the Caucasus, the ECHR has so far heard 583 cases on violations in the Chechen Republic. This total excludes cases from the diaspora — such as the assassination of Umar Israilov and various deportation proceedings — and those of Chechen security services operating outside the country, like in the kidnapping and detention of Zarema Musaeva in Nizhny Novgorod and the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow. Many violations aren’t even reported or brought before the ECHR. 

Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov arrives to attend a ceremony inaugurating Vladimir Putin as the new Russian President at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2018 | Sergei Savostynov/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

This means that Europe is well aware of the threats faced by Chechens from a vengeful Kadyrov, both in their homeland and overseas. 

In February, for example, it was announced that Daud Muradov, who was deported from France in 2020, had died in the custody of Kadyrov’s forces. The French authorities allegedly gave Russia confidential information concerning Muradov, his family and the human rights organizations that backed him too. Later, just how Muradov was tortured and used by the Chechen authorities in their campaign against opposition factions was revealed in a Kavkaz.Realii interview with religious teacher Abdullakh Elmurzaev. 

A few months later, as Chechen refugees began fleeing before Putin’s onslaught in early March, Amina Gerikhanova was also detained on the Romanian border with her 7-year-old son. Gerikhanova had asylum in Ukraine, but despite assurances from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office that she was welcome to return when safe, Romanian authorities continued to hold her. Many Chechen refugees from Ukraine have since complained about discrimination in Romania. 

And the list goes on from there. 

In May, Swedish authorities began the extradition process for “Artur,” a refugee who was tortured in the Chechen Republic. In July, VAYFOND reported that Germany had detained a 60-year-old Chechen because of a Russian Interpol red notice — the man had been granted asylum by Austria in 2004, which should have prevented his name from being added to Interpol’s list. And just this month, Estonia arrested a Chechen at the behest of Russia, despite the person having been given asylum in Austria. 

Even more dramatically, the Washington Post’s recent exposé on Russian influence within Austrian intelligence raises serious questions about officials’ involvement in Zelimkhan Khangoshvili‘s assassination in the center of Berlin. Following a police raid on the home of the Austrian agent at the center of the scandal, a file appraising the mixed success of the Berlin operation was discovered on his phone, bringing the country’s earlier decision to release a Russian assassin responsible for the 2009 hit on Umar Israilov further into question. 

European countries have a legal and moral obligation to protect asylum seekers, including offering asylum to those who meet internationally accepted standards. And the evidence for Chechens facing severe threats back home in Russia is overwhelming. At a minimum, the EU must stop deportations and begin to critically appraise Russian demands — especially those made via Interpol “red notices,” which Russia has long abused. 

So far, Europe hasn’t just failed to protect Chechens seeking refuge, it has all too often participated in transnational repression against them. And it owes them the safety they’ve heretofore been deprived of.  

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