No return of the prodigal sons
By German Sadulayev, special to Prague Watchdog
There is a new twist in the story of the return of Akhmed Zakayev. Zakayev is not returning to Chechnya. He has let it be known that his remarks were misunderstood – he never had any intention of going back. This has prompted the head of the Chechen Republic, insulted to the very depths of his soul, to perform a U-turn and say some not very nice things about him.
If Zakayev were to return, it would not change anything much. The Chechen singer Timur Mutsurayev recently returned to Chechnya – and what difference did it make? Perhaps he never even went back at all. As usual in such cases, there is a fog, and Mutsurayev has vanished in it. The same thing would probably happen to Zakayev. Mutsurayev is in a better situation – he is a national singer and poet. He grew disillusioned, revised his views, altered his position, but people throughout Russia went on listening to his songs, which are still extremely popular there.
If he feels like it, Mutsurayev can change his convictions five times a day or disappear from ordinary life altogether, but his songs will go on having resonance, and the young will be inspired by his courage, steadfastness and heroism in war – any war they fancy. Young people tend to have a soft spot for heroics. And Mutsurayev the national bard will live for a long time yet, his call sign will persist on the airwaves.
For a public figure like Akhmed Zakayev, however, such a vanishing act would mean death. He has written no songs, and nothing of him would remain.
But that, too, is not important. What matters is that Mutsurayev has not been followed back to his homeland by the thousands of genuine fans of his talent. The supporters of Zakayev’s undeniably balanced and reasonable position would not follow him back either. Nowadays it is every man for himself. Everyone must decide where it is better to be.
And it is better to be in Europe than in Chechnya. True, life in exile is not all roses. Not everyone has managed to make a success of it. There are the people who languish forgotten in the Polish camps, there are those who have waited for years for their asylum pleas to be accepted, those who on having their pleas rejected cross over to a difficult and dangerous clandestine existence. Yet they are in no hurry to go back to Chechnya – they still have hope. It seems that no matter how dark the prospect of life in Europe appears to the migrants, the prospect of returning to Chechnya is even worse.
Why are the Chechen authorities so eager to persuade all the refugees to return? Is it because grandiose projects are underway in the Chechen Republic and there is a severe shortage of labour? Or is it because there is no one to man the seventy factories that former President Zyazikov built in neighbouring Ingushetia? The questions are rhetorical, for some work is being done, after all: some projects really are under development, new factories are opening, the new construction and the restoration of what was destroyed during the war are continuing. But the volume of this activity is not nearly sufficient to provide employment for all the people who live in the republic today. According to unofficial estimates the actual rate of unemployment there is close to 80%. What would the government do with another several hundred thousand hypothetical immigrants?
It is not simply a matter of percentages. There is no labour market in Chechnya. Or rather, there is a labour market, but of a very special kind, the reverse of what is normal: people have to pay for the right to work – a nightmare that no economist, whether Marxist or liberal, could have imagined. There is also a problem with skilled employment. People with specialized training or higher education often find themselves redundant. The republic’s economy has a very low level of diversification. Nor does it have the benefits of regional specialization – Chechnya has not been able to find a place in Russia’s overall economy, or even in the regional one. It is a consumer economy, to a large extent depending on imports, and only just managing to fulfil its own needs. Its main export is oil, but by its very nature the oil industry cannot provide general employment.
If the Chechen leaders hope that the refugees will return to Chechnya with billions of roubles sewn up in their pillowcases and invest them in the economy of their homeland, they are at the very least being naive. Those who return will do so in poverty. In addition to paying an "entrance fee" in order to obtain a job or start a business, the returning Chechens need to have the right connections, and in emigration such links will have inevitably grown weaker. In democratic Europe the migrants will also have failed to develop the special skills that will be needed in order to enable them to adapt to the very unusual circumstances that prevail in today's Chechnya.
Far from needing an influx of new citizens, Chechnya has few serious demographic problems. Despite the loss of life incurred in two wars, the republic is well populated. My house in Shali used to stand on the outskirts of the town, abutting the fields of a collective farm and a strip of forest. Nowadays the house is almost in the centre, which is constantly growing. New homes are being built, and they are occupied by families, often quite large ones. The streets are full of children playing and teenagers loafing around.
What do the authorities plan to do if the newcomers suddenly reject en masse the delights and difficulties of life abroad, and return to the graves of their fathers? What, apart from "the graves of their fathers”, will the newcomers find when they arrive? Is the government going to implement a civilized repatriation policy like the ones in Germany, Greece or Israel? Will it provide subsidies for housing and work, will it give professional training if it is required, will it provide instruction in the Chechen language for children who may not have learnt it abroad?
There is no word of anything of that sort. It is assumed that the migrants will solve all their material problems at their own expense. Or – another option – perhaps Europe will allocate a repatriation subsidy to provide grants for each returning family? The subsidy to be paid into the republic’s budget, or a well-known charitable fund? Perhaps the migrants will also be able to get hold of some of the money – a half or a third of the amount, the rest of which will have to be spent on “kickbacks”?
No, that is all nonsense. People are smarter than that. They are more practical. They are not going to walk blindfold into a provocation, take a leap into a dark unknown void without a safety net or parachute.
And another question: surely the Chechen government (and the Russian one, for they are the same thing) knows this? Of course it does. Therefore all the calls to Chechen refugees to return home are just plain demagoguery, contrived in order to show Europe once again that there is no reason to grant asylum to our citizens, we are fine, we have law and order, we don’t persecute anyone, we are calling everyone back home. Let them return, we are waiting.
It isn’t true. No one here is waiting for them. All that is waiting for them are the graves – the graves of their fathers.
(Translation by DM)