Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechnya region of Russia.
AP Photo/Musa Saduayev
Russia’s neighbours fear the country is downplaying coronavirus outbreaks in two of its notoriously unstable regions.
An intelligence source in Georgia told Insider that the country believes the regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia have larger outbreaks than reported.
The two regions have done only 3,000 tests on their two million people, and there are fears that levels of oppression there could worsen outbreaks.
The regions have cracked down on journalists and people there reportedly don’t trust the government, meaning some people view the virus as a conspiracy.
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Neighbors of Russia fear that a largely unseen outbreak of COVID-19 is ravaging the restive Chechnya region and its surroundings, made difficult to trace due to poor testing and oppressive authorities there.
An intelligence source in neighboring Georgia told Insider that the political situation in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia could worsen the virus there, as the government responds by crushing dissent and limiting the flow of information.
The two provinces have recorded a total of about 800 cases of COVID-19 with about 20 deaths.
The figures are small compared to Russia’s overall case load of just under 70,000, with by far the largest known outbreaks in and around Moscow.
However, regional officials fear that Chechnya and Ingushetia could be vastly undercounting their outbreaks, having made only 3,000 tests conducted among its population of two million.
A map showing Russia’s Chechnya region in relation to Georgia.
Google Maps/Business Insider
From Georgia, an intelligence official told Insider: “We believe Ingushetia, Chechnya and possibly North Ossetia have much higher rates of infection that the authorities have admitted — or perhaps they haven’t tested enough and share our fears the outbreak is out of control.”
The official spoke anonymously as he does not have permission to publicly criticize Russia.
Georgia has mostly controlled its COVID-19 outbreak, with the support of a US government-funded laboratory that has been producing test results within hours. It has cases in the low hundreds and just a handful of deaths.
But officials there fear importing cases from Russia, where the situation is different.
The official continued: “The numbers they have admitted to are very worrisome, and because of the political climate in this part of Russia, we doubt anyone is being candid about the extent of the problem or the measures being taken to contain it.”
Although Ingushetia is within Russia’s formal borders, it has a decades-long history of insurgency and occasional terror attacks against rule from Moscow.
It is also one of the poorest regions of Russia. Poor security, and a lack of economic development, have hampered containment efforts there, the Georgian official said.
“Ingushetia is run as a police state by the FSB [Russia’s domestic security service], whereas Chechnya is a literal police state run by [Russian-backed strongman Ramzan],” said the official.
“Neither is a place where you can safely criticize the authorities’ public health response.”
April 24 is the start of the holy month of Ramadan for much of the Muslim world, and Ingushetia and Chechnya both have majority-Muslim populations.
Ingushetia has already seen its top Muslim cleric, Abdurakhman Martazanov, die of COVID-19 in early April.
However, that has done little to convince the people in the region that the threat is real, according to a local journalist interviewed in The Moscow Times.
Instead, many believe that public health interventions are a power grab by the authorities, according to Izabella Yevloyeva, an Ingush journalist who now lives in Prague.
She said: “Trust has completely collapsed between the government and the people,” said Yevloyeva. “A lot of people just assume that the coronavirus is a government conspiracy to keep them under control.”
A man looks into a burnt-out car near the Press House building, a local media agency, in the Chechen capital Grozny, in December 2014.
Just over the border into Chechnya, the situation is also difficult, with Kadyrov regularly threatening local journalists who report on negative news of the virus.
Kadyrov has taken his usual hard line even further and has threatened journalists whose coverage irritates him.
One was 42-year-old Elena Milashina, a journalist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who has been physically attacked in the past over her reporting.
She told AFP: “[Kadyrov] was direct in saying what he was going to do with me — and how. This was the first time he said it this way, so concretely. If the threat was real… I wouldn’t be able to secure my life by taking any measures. It’s not possible.”
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