Corruption in Chechnya (interview with Jonathan Littell)
Jonathan Littell (b. 1967) is a Franco-American author who lives in Barcelona. He is bilingual. and writes in both English and French. His recent novel, Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones, 2006) tells the story of the Second World War and the Holocaust through the eyes of an unrepentant German SS officer. The book won the 2006 Prix Goncourt and the Grand prix du roman of the Académie française. As a member and consultant, Littell has worked for humanitarian organizations in Eastern Europe, Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, including Chechnya. The following interview was translated from Russian.
Prague Watchdog: What are the main things that prevent Chechens from settling down to a reasonable existence now? What are people dissatisfied with, and what are their principal complaints against the regime?
Jonathan Littell: I think that what prevents people from living a normal life has less to do with the arbitrary violence and the peculiar nature of their political system than it has with to do with corruption. Above all, the corruption affects employment. No one is able to find a job and stay in it without paying a bribe. In order to obtain any job, any post at all – whether it’s as a nurse, a bus driver, a firefighter or a police officer – you need to pay.
Corruption is taking such a firm hold of people’s lives that they can scarcely draw breath. In order to get an education even at elementary school level, never mind at institutions of higher learning, you have to pay. You have to pay at every step of the way. And this is really suffocating people, because they’re almost totally deprived of the opportunity to create something they could see their own, something that would depend on their personal initiative in a non-free economic environment. For example, a lot of people used to earn their living as private taxi-drivers. The job didn’t bring in much money, but at least it let them earn a little cash. Now all those taxi-drivers have been told they can’t just drive around and pick up fares. There’s now a central taxi depot, and you have to pay for a registration, a license. As the fares are so low, few people can afford to buy a license. They can’t justify the expense. Now the money goes upstairs, and there aren’t any private taxi-drivers any more.
The street markets are an interesting story. They, too, are no more: a few years ago, when the Gantamirov market beside the maternity hospital was dismantled, the very busy Central Market was also closed down, ostensibly for renovation. People didn’t pay for trading spaces there. Then the Berkat market was built on the site where the Krasny Molot plant used to be, and now you have to pay a lot of money to have a stall there. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost as though the republic has become the private property of one man.
PW: High levels of corruption are a more or less universal problem for Russia, and the North Caucasus in particular. Does Chechnya have its own special problems in that area?
JL: The difference seems to be that Chechnya is the only part of the Federation where public employees give the government part of their wages. In the other regions of Russia the corruption lays claim to the revenue of organizations and businesses, both large and small, to public funds, the officials take bribes. But nowhere else does corruption encroach on the ordinary doctor or teacher.
PW: All the power is virtually concentrated in the same hands. Does that mean that all the money falls into those hands, or does each small-time boss place his subordinates under tribute as the big-time bosses do, as a source of personal enrichment?
JL: The cycling of money from the bottom to the top is not just a machine that extorts cash for personal accounts in Swiss banks – some of that money goes back into the economy, to fund building and reconstruction. So it’s hard to draw a line between obvious corruption and what is really a sort of unofficial tax. This money is put to good purpose, it’s used for large-scale projects like the construction of the Central Mosque or the Centre of Islamic Medicine, which ultimately serve the people. These are not public institutions, they were built with private funds. Most people are pleased that they have such a beautiful mosque and many smaller ones.
The second factor is the complex workings of the state budget. Moscow has to pay for the restoration of the republic, but the federal centre is very slow about transferring the funds. All the small-time bosses place their subordinates and employees under tribute, following a pattern that’s worked out at the top. But after that, they’re obliged to contribute part of the money to the work on restoration. For example, if you’re the director of a state institution (a school, a hospital, etc.), and Kadyrov decides that your institution needs to be reconstructed, you will pay for the work out of your own pocket, as will the head of profile management, too, as far as is possible. It’s a system of compulsory donations.
Kadyrov and his entourage have a good idea of how much you’ve made and how much you’re able to pay. When they demand five or ten million rubles from someone, they have detailed information which tells them that this person is able to contribute that amount. And the most interesting point is that they collect money from directors, government ministers, or heads of campaigns for specific construction projects, and then report back to Moscow on the work they’ve done. Naturally, the report will show a sum four times greater than what was actually spent. Twenty percent of the money must remain in Moscow as a rollback, and the rest comes to Chechnya. And then it’s distributed among all the people who have paid – in other words, they get back their investment. The remaining funds are returned into circulation. Then more projects are started: new roads, buildings, businesses.
PW: Another question: is it correct to talk about the “clan-based” nature of this corruption, when the representatives of one family or clan are the main beneficiaries?
JL: In essence, yes. If you’re not a native of Benoi, you’ll find life much more difficult. But any lad from Khosi-Yurt will get a job simply as his birthright.
PW: So it's really less a matter of what teip one belongs to than of the Kadyrov clan’s inherited land and property rights?
JL: Yes, of course. The Benoi teip is a very large one, and in the corruption process it gets narrowed down to a village, or to close and distant relatives. But if you’re a native of Benoi, you will have an easier time than the members of other teips. Here’s why. While it’s certainly true that Kadyrov’s entourage contains men who are not from Benoi – Grozny’s Mayor Khuchiyev, for example, who belongs to a teip from Itum-Kali – those men are isolated individuals, and they can’t provide protection to their fellow teip members, i.e. they can’t create their own clans in government.
As far as I know, Ramzan Kadyrov simply doesn’t trust strangers, people who are not his relatives or who don’t belong to his teip. And so what you have in the government are its representatives – not the whole teip, of course, but a segment of it – the Kadyrov family.
PW: But aren’t people surprised that Moscow doesn’t intervene to sort it out?
JL: Everyone knows who Ramzan is and what he is – they only have to look at the patronage he gets from influential people in Moscow to understand that. On the other hand, everyone can see the changes, which are more or less positive. Homes are being built, new roads are being constructed, there’s gas and electricity. It can’t be said that there is any serious or far-reaching dissatisfaction with the authorities. "The only thing that’s missing now is equal opportunity and justice," is how the Chechens see the situation. They want to be able to work and earn money without it all going into the pockets of Ramzan and his entourage. But I wouldn’t say that they want any radical change. "Yes,” they say, “there’s corruption, but at least Ramzan is building. Before, we had corruption, but nothing got built at all."
(Translation by DM)