Thursday, July 12, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Urged to Combat Slavery in Caucasus, Neighboring States

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 12 – Given mounting evidence that many people are being held as slaves in the northern Caucasus and other parts of the former Soviet Union, Moscow must make the fight against slavery “one of the most important directions” of its domestic and foreign policy, according to a Russian commentator.
In an article posted online yesterday, Yegor Kholmogorov suggests that this is not just a question of morality and remaining true to Russia’s longstanding position on slavery but also politically important in coping with problems in the northern Caucasus and winning friends abroad (
During the first post-Soviet Chechen war in the mid-1990s, many Russian writers and politicians focused on the problem of what they said was the enslavement of Russian soldiers captured by Chechen fighters, and like Kholmogorov, they pointed to Russia’s long history of fighting slavery wherever it found it.
But now, Kholmogorov says, few Russians are paying attention even though there is growing evidence that slavery not only remains a widespread problem in many parts of the post-Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia but also may in fact have the support of officials there and actually be on the rise.
He reproduces a recent blogger report concerning a young Russian who fought in Afghanistan and then in Chechnya. Following his capture, Valentin was forced into slavery in Abkhazia. There he learned that “every resident had a slave” and many had more than one (
The young man said that the slaveholders were often brutal but treated those who were baptized and wore a cross somewhat better than the others. He himself fled his “owner” twice only to be returned by corrupt local officials. Only on his third try did he manage to reach the Russian border and ultimate safety.
Russian legislation outlaws slavery, Kholmogorov says, but its provisions need to be toughened and more widely applied. He argues that anyone who uses force or engages in sexual abuse of prisoners should e subject to life imprisonment, anyone who kills “a slave” to executive, and anyone involved in this evil to confiscation of property.
But it is equally important, Kholmogorov adds, to make this anti-slavery effort part of Russian foreign policy. If “unfriendly” states provide a haven for slaves, Moscow should impose sanctions against these regimes or even use force to free those held against their will.
And with regard to “friendly” countries or “unrecognized states” – such as Abkhazia “where this problem exists” – the Russian government must insist “on the immediate and unqualified liberation” of slaves and ensure that Russian peacekeepers have a mandate to liberate slaves wherever they find them.
Kholmogorov talks a great deal about the “evils” of slavery, but his reasons for speaking out may be less noble than he tries to suggest. On the one hand, his article was a response to a suggestion that ethnic Russian experts should return to Chechnya to help it recover (
And on the other, he makes it very clear that he would like to see the campaign against slavery in Chechnya or anywhere else to be employed propagandistically to undermine the position of Russia’s opponents and to portray Moscow and the Russian people in the best possible light.
Fighting slavery is beyond any question a noble pursuit, but using the fight for narrow political purposes as Kholmogorov clearly indicates could backfire, reducing rather than increasing the ability of those in Russia and elsewhere who genuinely care about human freedom to liberate those held in this most ugly form of bondage.

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