The northern Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is part, was conquered by Imperial Russia in the 19th century and later forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Chechens, a warlike mountain nation, rose up repeatedly and declared independence as the USSR was collapsing in 1991.
An invasion launched by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 killed an estimated 100,000 people, mainly civilians, and ended in Russian defeat two years later. But a de facto independent Chechnya became a nexus for crime and subversion throughout the region. After a wave of apartment bombings, blamed on Chechen terrorists, that killed 300 Russians in 1999, the Kremlin again ordered Russian troops to invade the tiny republic.
That war, now almost a decade old, created a flood of refugees and left terror-stricken survivors living a tenuous existence amid the shattered ruins of Grozny and other Chechen cities. In 2004, the Russian human rights group Memorial estimated that the two wars had killed more than 200,000 civilians and up to 40,000 Russian troops.
In addition to thousands of civilians killed as "collateral damage" in antiterrorist military operations, human rights groups allege that Russian security forces also ran special squads that targeted potential opponents for abduction, torture, and summary execution.
"Over 5,000 people have disappeared without a trace, the vast majority at the hands of the security forces," says Ms. Lokshina. "Only one Russian officer has ever been convicted for such violations. There is no accountability for the past; thousands of loved ones have no hope to find justice, and this remains an ongoing source of deep instability."
Tough leader for a tough land