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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Folk Group Seeks Finnish Asylum

For MTThe Zhowkhar folk ensemble posing on the cover of their 2004 CD release.
Members of one of Chechnya's most prestigious folk ensembles have requested political asylum after arriving for concerts in Finland, suggesting that life in the war-torn republic is not as friendly as presented by authorities there.

Eighteen Chechens, seven of whom are children, applied for asylum after they arrived by train in Helsinki on Sunday, Mikael Storsj?, a local human rights activist said Tuesday. The group consisted of Bislan Saraliyev, the manager of the female vocal group "Zhowkhar," four singers, two male musicians plus their spouses and children, Storsj? said in a telephone interview from Helsinki.

He said he had arranged their long-planned visit and that they were to perform a few gigs in Finland. But at the train station, they told him that they wanted to apply for political asylum. "So, we went to the police that night with them," he said, adding that the performances had been postponed.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov tried to downplay the incident, calling it an act of political opportunism. "It was not the whole ensemble, just four former performers who went, and they did not leave for political reasons, but simply changed their place of residence," he said in a statement released by the Chechen presidential administration Tuesday. "Any citizen has the right to choose his residence and if they want to live in Western Europe, they have the right to do so," Kadyrov said.

The ensemble members in the group had officially resigned their posts before leaving, Saraliyev confirmed by telephone from Helsinki. "We came as common people and have no political ambitions," he said. He would not elaborate on his request for asylum.

Storsj? said the Chechens had stated that their reason for leaving was that life in Chechnya was unbearable. There is always a risk of violence, he said, and if people were in the wrong place at the wrong time, they might become victims of the so-called mop-up activities.

The republic has officially been peaceful since the second Chechen war was declared over by Moscow a few years earlier. But despite the declared return to normalcy, notably in cities like Grozny, the region has been fraught with violence. Two soldiers were killed when a bomb detonated in the mountainous Vedeno district in July. Neighboring Ingushetia has seen a flurry of attacks with several dead in recent weeks.

Storsj? said the refugees could not see any future for themselves and their families in the present situation, which differed from official pronouncements.

The Chechen culture minister, Dikalu Muzakayev, also tried to strike a different chord. He refuted the idea that the whole state-sponsored ensemble had fled the country. "Their members are in Grozny and stage concerts every day," he was quoted as saying by Interfax. He added that he had been approached a month ago by four women and two young men from the ensemble who said they were invited to go on tour in Finland. But when the minister was told that the invitation came from private persons, he told them that such invitations would not qualify as a tour, the agency reported. Muzakayev said the musicians then requested to resign from the group, which they were allowed to do.

The group will now have a good chance to get asylum status in Finland. Whoever can rightly prove that he is from Chechnya will get official status, Esko Repo, head of the asylum department in the Finnish immigration service, said in a telephone interview. Up to 15 percent of the 176 applicants from Russia in 2006 were Chechens, he said.

Storsj? said he thought there were 210 Chechen refugees in the country.

According to human rights activists, Scandinavian countries have become a haven for refugees in recent years, after legislation on the admittance of refugees was tightened in much of Western Europe. Storsj? said Norway had a Chechen refugee population of around 2,000. Most prominent among them is Anzor Maskhadov, son of former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed by Russian forces in 2005.

Zhowkhar, which means pearl in the Chechen language, was founded in the 1990s, a rebel-controlled web site,, said. According to a report by Ekho Moskvy radio, the group's former head, Aiman Aidamirov, was severely injured when he performed while a bomb exploded in Grozny's Dynamo stadium in May 2004, which killed the republic's President, Ahmad Kadyrov, the father of current leader Ramzan.

Another reason that more Chechens decide to leave the republic might be the recent easing of restrictions on issuing passports. This year authorities in the republic have started handing out passports to citizens who did not have international travel documents.

In Grozny, many people are waiting for their passports and eager to leave their homes for good. "We are waiting for our passports so that we can go to Norway," said one woman, who only gave her first name, Zara, adding that she was taking her 23-year-old son. "There are many Chechens there, and they write that conditions for refugees are very good there," she said.

Timur Aliyev contributed to this report from Grozny.