The European Union has decided to stop its humanitarian aid programs in the North Caucasus. The EU’s representative to Russia, Fernando Valenzula (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru) announced that while visiting Ingushetia in April, explaining that “the situation in the region is changing and accordingly the EU is shifting its priorities.”
Why? Because of a “lack of necessity” for aid in the region. Instead, the EU will focus on attracting European companies to invest in the North Caucasus.
The announcement came as no surprise amid previous reductions in aid to the North Caucasus. According to Relief Web, international donors allocated only $8 million in 2009 for all the humanitarian needs in the North Caucasus, in comparison to $25 million in 2008. In the last two years a number of International NGOs such as UN agencies, previously focusing on humanitarian assistance in the Caucasus, have started shifting their priorities steadily from humanitarian aid delivery to development and rehabilitation. Plans to eventually terminate humanitarian aid to the region had been made as early as 2007 when John Holmes, the UN Deputy Secretary General for Humanitarian Aid, met with officials of the Russian Parliament (www.rian.ru).
However, the final step in the reduction of Western humanitarian aid was the official end of the “counter-terrorism” operation in Chechnya on April 2009. The “lack of necessity” explanation been emphasized repeatedly by the Russian authorities and the North Caucasian heads of states, attributing it to the transition from a conflict-affected area to post-conflict development. Authorities in Chechnya and Ingushetia in particular began returning Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their home republics. The process, which often involved the involuntary resettling of IDPs in their original pre-conflict areas of residence, often coincided with the loss of their IDP status and the benefits associated with it. In 2009 the government of the Chechen Republic reported the return of 60% of Chechen IDPs from Ingushetia and Dagestan to their homes in Chechnya. Nevertheless, most returnees have no adequate housing and means of livelihood, and therefore still need humanitarian assistance.
Unemployment is high in the autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, so the newly resettled IDPs are in a highly precarious situation. Also, those republics still experience insurgency-related violence. Regardless of the military success of federal forces in tackling the insurgency problem and eliminating high-profile militant commanders, the rates of violence in Ingushetia, Dagestan, Chechnya, and Kabardino-Balkaria have either risen or remained stable during the last two years. The escalating militant attacks are met by stringent security measures, which often target the most insecure layers of the population, including returnees and former IDPs who are finding it difficult to adjust to normal life. Moreover, an increasing number of disappearances has been reported. Despite the Russian officials’ claims of a near collapse of the armed underground, the North Caucasus recently experienced a rise in suicide bombings that shook not only the turbulent region itself but also reached Moscow.
As long as even low levels of armed conflict continue, the Russian authorities’ proposals for economic development in the North Caucasus, which are supported by the international community, will be challenging, since these depend on attracting foreign investment and building tourist resorts in the area.
The timing is wrong for post-conflict transformation and development, and for ending humanitarian assistance. The ongoing armed conflict and potentially insecure social and economic environment in the region clearly indicate that to be the case. Despite the official end of “counter-terrorism” operations in Chechnya two years ago, the conflict continues to steadily claim more lives. In fact, the “counter-terrorism” operation was officially conducted only in Chechnya, so there were no military activities in other republics of the region. Hence there was no legal necessity to engage in post-conflict rehabilitation and peace-building in other parts of the North Caucasus. That partially explains the rapid transformation from humanitarian assistance to development aid.
The forcible return of IDPs has received little international attention, while Russian authorities have convinced the international community that the North Caucasus is being transformed from a war-torn region to an area of stability and development. Recent moves by the Norwegian government to revoke asylum status to dozens of refugees from the North Caucasus, mainly from Chechnya, shows how successful the Russian officials have been in this regard.
What remains questionable is the willingness of the Russian and local authorities to support IDP communities and ensure their safe, voluntary and coordinated return to their home republics, adequately assisting their resettlement, employment, education and health care, as well as respecting their human rights and security.
Mr. Aliyev is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand, working on civil society and peace-building issues in the Caucasus.