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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens: Army Runs Oil Racket

GROZNY -- Before the war in Chechnya began last fall, truck driver Rakhman Usmanov had to pay local warlords for the right to drive his tanker truck on the highway and deliver oil to a local refinery.

After Russian armed forces occupied most of the rebellious republic, one thing has changed: Now he pays Russian commanders for the right to drive his truck and make oil deliveries.

"The only difference is that we have to pay the Russian troops at checkpoints," Usmanov said. "The Chechen field commanders used to send out their people to collect the money."

Oil is the only industry to survive two wars in six years, and Russian commanders have stepped in to take the place of the brutal warlords who once controlled the profitable business, Chechen civilians say.

About 2,000 primitive mini-refineries - most of them unlicensed and unregulated - have sprung up in oil-rich Chechnya over the past decade.

Advancing troops destroyed many of the smaller refineries, setting them on fire and producing thick smoke that still hangs over the devastated capital, Grozny, and other areas. But many of the larger refineries remain intact and have become a good source of revenue for the military, said civilians who work in the illegal oil business.

For the most part, the invading armed forces control the oil trade by controlling the roads, Chechens say. Soldiers at the numerous checkpoints on the republic's highways extract payments from trucks before allowing them to pass, they say.

"Once we get to a checkpoint, we negotiate a deal with the officers or with the military commander, pay them and drive on," said Sultan Pashayev, 40, who owns an illegal refinery in the Chechen town of Shali. "Sometimes, if the officers are in a good mood, or if we pay them well, they even provide a security escort for the convoy. Business is business."

Russian officials have repeatedly denied charges that their forces engage in widespread illegal conduct in Chechnya, including allegations of systematic looting of goods from Chechen homes, rape and summary execution of civilians.

In Moscow, Defense Ministry spokesman Gennady Dzyuba acknowledged that some soldiers might occasionally accept a bribe to let a truck pass through a checkpoint. But charges that his country's armed forces have taken over the Chechen oil business are nothing but rebelpropaganda, he said.

"The only time that Russian troops come into contact with such refineries is when they blow them up," Dzyuba said.

Pashayev, the refinery operator, charged that the Russians have destroyed the smaller, less profitable refineries while allowing the larger ones to keep operating. "I can understand their position very well," he said. "They needed to report their successes in blowing these refineries up. At the same time, they wanted to make some money on this highly profitable business and line their own pockets."

The creation of primitive, illegal refineries began in 1991 when the late separatist leader Dzhokar Dudayev came to power and Moscow effectively lost control of the republic. The small refineries operate along the same lines as homemade stills used to make moonshine. They follow no health or safety standards and foul the air, farmland and water supply with petroleum byproducts.

Refinery owner Pashayev said the soldiers and the Chechen oil traders have settled into a business relationship that serves everyone in the region by permitting the distribution of fuel to the civilian population."Soldiers know us and our drivers by face, and the whole business rolls on like a well-oiled machine," he said.

Dzyuba, the Defense Ministry spokesman, denied that Russian forces have a business relationship with Chechen oil traders.

"Chechens are notorious for their anti-Russian propaganda, and myths about Russian commanders running the illegal oil business in Chechnya is a classic example of such propaganda," he said.