Finnish reporter and writer Anna-Lena Lauren talks about her book and experience in what is considered one of Russia's most troubled regions
The Caucasus with its amazing nature, abundant history and vibrant culture had always lured and enchanted travellers. Anna-Lena Lauren went to the Caucasus to reveal violations of human rights and corruption, in addition to enjoy the scenes. The Ukrainian Week talked to her about her impression of the mysterious region during her visit to Ukraine to present her book In the Mountains There Are No Masters in Kyiv and Lviv
UW: Was it difficult to draw the attention of the Finnish public to the Caucasus?
The Caucasus is such an unknown to the Finns! When I was a reporter for the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, my colleagues always laughed at me, because I always wanted to go to these obscure little republics with the strange names nobody heard of. But luckily I had a very good boss who realized that it is important for us to cover what is happening there because it is one of the most troubled areas in Russia, and the most troublesome in terms of human rights. So, I'm very grateful to my boss who gave me the opportunity to go there again and again. People in Finland are not interested in the Caucasus but if you write in a certain way, people are interested. You have to open it up to them, and that is what I am trying to do.
UW: It seems that the people in the Caucasus are the emotional opposites of people in Scandinavian countries. Was it difficult for you to work with Caucasians?
Being a complete stranger makes it a lot easier, because people in the Caucasus open up to me. For them it is a completely natural thing that I am a foreigner. I talk differently, I dress differently, and as a woman I travel on my own. So they trust me and that makes it a lot easier for me to work than in other parts of Russia.
UW: You mention that for you as a woman it was easier to work in the Caucasus. Do you believe in the emancipation of Caucasian women?
In many Caucasian cultures women are actually quite strong. They are educated, they talk to you, they do not wear a veil (it is usually only the Wahhabi women who do). According to tradition of course, the man is more important than the woman, but in practice it is not always this way. Women in the Caucasus are not afraid to speak out. For example, in Chechnya it was a lot easier for me to interview women. They are more open and they talk more easily. But with regard to your question, in general I would say no. I think Russia as a whole is not a very emancipated country. And the Caucasus is a lot more traditional, a lot more conservative. There is no feminist movement in the Caucasus, but the women there have so many problems that it would be a luxury for them to talk about emancipation. However, I don't want to give the picture that Caucasian women are oppressed. They are very strong.
UW: Many people seem to respect Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov for stability in this republic. Is that so in reality?
When I wrote this book in 2008-2009, that was the case. It has changed now. For many years after the war the people in Chechnya were happy that the war was over, but now the situation is changing. As everywhere in the Caucasus, Chechnya is a very equal society. No man is better than another. You have to earn your respect. And with Ramzan Kadyrov ruling Chechnya as his own fiefdom, that is not working any more. You may see some protests even now. Maybe not in the open so far, but they will come. People will get more and more unhappy with him and so I worry about Chechnya; there are many signs that things are getting worse. And Ramzan Kadyrov will not be able to deal with them. He only knows force, but Chechens are not afraid, he has to discuss things with them.
UW: Some say that only an authoritarian personality like Mikheil Saakashvili could have implemented all the reforms needed in Georgia and eradicate corruption there. Do you agree?
Yes, given a limited amount of time he had to behave in this way. But now there is no longer any justification for such behaviour. His increasing authoritarian tendencies are very worrisome and in no way justified. The special services are listening to the telephone calls of the opposition and journalists, and they are being threatened. And it is a huge pity, because Saakashvili did a lot of good things for Georgia. And now he himself has gone back to the authoritarian methods he overthrew in 2003.
UW: In Caucasian conflicts sometimes it is impossible to say who is right and who is wrong, who is the aggressor and who is the victim. How did you solve this dilemma for yourself?
I try to listen to all sides — that is the most important thing. As a journalist, you have to always realize that it is impossible to be completely objective. As far as my book goes, I have a lot of sympathy towards the Caucasian people because they suffered so much under the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. I don't want to say that everything would be great in the Caucasus if not for Russia. Russia did some things wrong, but also some good things. Unfortunately, they did not always work out in the best possible way. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov has actually achieved independence in Chechnya, and I think the Kremlin is really nervous about that.
UW: What might be the best policy for Russia in this region?
The best answer for the Caucasus (and for the rest of Russia) would be to build local civil society, the rule of law and democracy. But in the Caucasus it is a bit ridiculous to talk now about the rule of law and democracy. I think Russia should let the republics choose their own leaders like they did before. That is very important. As long as Moscow appoints their trustees to govern the republics nothing good will happen, because in the Caucasus you have to earn respect. People do not respect figures appointed from Moscow. And then of course real investments should be made in order to fight the poverty there.
UW: Do you stay in touch with the people who helped you in the Caucasus? Did they have any problems because of cooperating with you?
They are an extremely brave people. They have done everything they could for me, they risked their lives, and sometimes I realized it only afterwards. (You should read one story in the book about how I drove in the middle of the night from Grozny to Nalchik.) But I call them, we talk. And I know that at least some of them did have troubles. But they didn't complain, because in Caucasian cultures people never complain to a guest. So, I feel a great deal of respect for this people. Sometimes people tell me: Oh, you are so brave to go there. And I always answer: They are the brave ones, because they stay there.
Anna-Lena Lauren was born in Pargas, Finland, in 1976. She studied politics and Russian language at the Abo Akademi. In 2006-2010, she reported for YLE, public Finnish TV and radio broadcaster, from Moscow. Today, she works as a Moscow-based reporter for Hufvudstadsbladet, the highest-circulation Swedish-language newspaper in Finland. Last year, her book They're Not All There, Those Russians was published in Ukraine.