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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Envoy Promises to Look Into It

As new information emerged about alleged killings of civilians in Chechnya, Russia's new official for human rights in the region pledged Tuesday to investigate all such allegations personally and ensure that international organizations are able to work in Chechnya.

While many observers were skeptical about the creation last week of the post of the president's special representative for human rights in Chechnya, some human rights advocates were cautiously optimistic. They said the man appointed to the position, Vladimir Kalamanov, had earned a solid reputation in his previous post at the helm of the Federal Migration Service.

Kalamanov said at a news conference that his main tasks were "to create one more channel for people to address the president directly" regarding alleged abuses in Chechnya and to guarantee that international organizations, such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, are able to work in the region.

"I hope to be extraordinarily open for you any time night or day," Kalamanov told journalists. "I am planning to conduct my work only on an open basis."

He pledged to work closely with nongovernmental organizations and visit sites of alleged abuses.

"I give you my word, I will visit every [detention] point and every jail on Chechen territory, possibly with press accompaniment, and we will see for ourselves," Kalamanov said.

But it was still unclear - apparently even to Kalamanov himself - what kind of powers the new position will give him.

"It's hard for me to say what kind of machinery we'll have, what kind of possibilities we will have," he said, adding that he was awaiting further instructions following last week's vague decree.

"The main question is what functions will he have?" said Valentin Gefter, director of Moscow's Human Rights Institute. "I get the impression this is all just window dressing."

Russia has been under pressure from the West to observe international law and allow monitors into the region. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said last week that the Russian government had denied her permission to visit.

The Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly in January censured Russia over its conduct in Chechnya and vowed to review Russia's membership in the council in April if improvements are not made.

"It is entirely possible that this is just a screen being put up until the elections or until the April meeting of the Council of Europe," said Alexander Cherkasov of the human rights organization Memorial. "But even in this case, we have to use the opportunity that has been created. We intend to give Kalamanov all our materials."

Cherkasov said he believed Kalamanov was sincerely committed to being more than just a figurehead.

"He thinks [acting President Vladimir] Putin needs an independent channel who doesn't depend on the military," he said.

He added that Kalamanov's previous experience in the North Caucasus, where he served as the president's representative to North Ossetia from December 1997 to March 1999, could also be seen as a plus.

But Malcolm Hawkes, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Kalamanov would be judged by a tough standard. Unless he works with the Prosecutor General 's Office to investigate violations and bring perpetrators to justice, "we can't but view his appointment as a cosmetic gesture," he said.

As head of the migration service, Kalamanov was one of the officials in charge of dealing with the flow of refugees from Chechnya into Ingushetia. At various times in the war, the border was closed or opened for only a few hours at a time, and refugees were lined up for several kilometers.

But this problem may have been caused more by the military, which ran the checkpoints, than by Kalamanov's service.

Yelena Burtina of the refugee-assistance organization Civil Assistance said Kalamanov enjoyed a good reputation among her colleagues.

Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, said Kalamanov was shifted to the new post from the FMS because of a conflict with Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose ministry administers the refugee camps.

Volk characterized the appointment as a demotion. "Kalamanov has a lot fewer levers now than he did as the head of the migration service," he said.

Although Kalamanov's post is new, Russia has another similar office, that of human rights commissioner. But the commissioner is appointed by the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, while Kalamanov was appointed by and will answer directlyto the president.

The current human rights commissioner, Oleg Mironov, is a former Communist legislator and tends to emphasize what he considers human rights violations on the economic front.

In general, he has not devoted much attention to the problem of Chechnya, though in recent weeks he harshly criticized the government over the case of missing Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky.