Four Putinist years in Chechnya
Ilya Maksakov, special to Prague Watchdog
The terrorist act in the Moscow metro in early February brought the issue of resolving the Chechen crisis again to the forefront. Russian liberals, human rights activists and some Western politicians formed a clear conclusion: terrorism had become possible only because nothing tangible result has been achieved by the Kremlin's policy towards Chechnya or because the policy effectively failed.
These critics categorically reject the question whether this increased activity has something to do with the upcoming* presidential elections in Russia. "No," they insist, "it is the question of truth, and the truth is everything that has been wrongly done in Chechnya."
Several Russian presidential candidates agree, and in fact, "The full truth about Chechnya" has become their main campaign slogan. It's funny though that none of them connect this tough position with the impending election.
It's true that things are not going all that well in Chechnya; yet the situation is really much better than it was in 2000. For Kremlin opponents however, that's not the point. They're calling for a "genuine" political solution, and by that they mean holding discussions with Aslan Maskhadov.
But whether it be granting Chechnya international autonomy or establishing a dialogue with all levels of Chechen society, one way or another all these plans require talks. According to them, everything that's been done in Chechnya during the past four years has been a farce.
Yet in 2003 many political measures were taken in Chechnya. So let us now try to find out whether they resulted in genuine resolutions.
Farces and facts
It is difficult to imagine any form of "dialogue with the entire nation" than a nationwide referendum and elections; during the past year Chechnya has had both.
Because European governments and NGOs branded both plebiscites as a farce, they sent no official observers to either one. The reason given was that the only news they received about everything connected to these two events was from human rights activists and a few journalists whose observations could not be used by governments throughout the world as official information.
The adoption of the Chechen constitution and election of the Chechen President are indisputable facts and, in essence, are real steps toward a political solution. No other will occur in Chechnya, at least not under the current ruler of the Kremlin. And the next Russian president won't be willing to hold talks with the separatist leaders either, unless Irina Khakamada or Ivan Rybkin are elected.
The political process in Chechnya culminated in Akhmad Kadyrov's election as president. Frequently described as a nefarious character who rose to power on Russian tanks and terrorized the entire population, he is a man who is able to one day become a thorn in Moscow's side. Nevertheless, it should be noted that any newly elected president of Chechnya would have also become the target of universal criticism.
Kadyrov is both bad and good in the same way that Putin is. However, Kadyrov actually appears not to be the worst option for the republic. He is obviously a Moscow-installed stooge, but he's lived in Chechnya all his life.
Any other candidate, such as Ruslan Khasbulatov, who would not be installed by Moscow, would have brought far more problems to the country by opening another resistance front against the Kremlin. Nevertheless, there are many myths surrounding Kadyrov.
Acts and myths
What did Chechnya and Russia have to gain by Kadyrov's election? Let us first recall what Moscow expected from holding presidential elections in Chechnya and supporting only one candidate, Kadyrov.
Vladimir Putin answered this question himself the day before the elections. In an interview with The New York Times he, first of all, cited the election as a very important element of the political solution, though not as important as the Constitutional referendum. That means the Chechen president is merely one of the subjects of the Russian Federation.
Secondly, he remembered that Kadyrov had fought as a separatist against the federal forces and therefore "his contacts with those who are still against us in Chechnya... will be positive." And establishing those contacts will turn out to be Kadyrov's main task.
In addition, there is Chechnya's having to participate in the elections to the State Duma and then of the president. Thus Kadyrov is president for an interim period, a link between the wartime past and the peaceful future of Chechnya.
He cannot, nor is he expected to, achieve a flourishing of the republic; during the years he will be in power, no matter their length, this is unrealistic. He is supposed to just act as a buffer, taking all the blows while administering Russian power in Chechnya. All under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.
One of the main jobs assigned to Kadyrov by the Kremlin is tackling the problem of the guerrillas and their leaders who continue in their resistance against the federal forces. Until recently, the results of these activities have probably been the most covert part of his work.
It's an undisputed fact that many of the guerrillas have gone over to his side. But another of the myths now circulating is the fear that one day he and his units will take off for the mountains. But this will never happen. Kadyrov will never join the separatists again, nor is there is any chance that a "third force" would crop up to fight against either the rebels or federal troops.
How much under control of the federal center are the Interior Ministry and Kadyrov's security services is quite another matter. However, this is a question for the leadership of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian Interior Ministry. Kadyrov claims that all actions of his units are sanctioned by Nikolay Patrushev, director of the FSB and by heads of other federal forces. Clearly the truth is somewhere in between. His units are not controlled by Russian forces as they follow their own exploitive goals; but when it comes to an armed fight against the guerrillas, they are uncompromising.
The units of Kadyrov's son Ramzan as well as those of the Yamadayev brothers have sustained losses in battles against the supporters of Maskhadov and Basaev. This has led to an emergence of another myth, a favorite among various human rights activists, that the conflict is being "Chechenized".
There is no doubt that a civil war has been going on for a long time in Chechnya; yet it wasn't Kadyrov who started it. It was not he who killed the heads of district and village administrations, nor the Imams of mosques or Chechen policemen who paid with their lives for cooperating with Moscow; it was not he who promoted in Chechnya the radical ideology known as Wahhabism; nor is it he who trains suicide bombers.
The situation here is rather ambivalent. On one hand the Kremlin is asked to leave the fate of the country in Chechen hands while on the other, it is blamed for inciting Chechens against each other.
As for a political solution to the guerrilla problem, some results appear to be at hand; but they are not manifest and Kadyrov's role has only been marginal. The separatist political elite have practically lost all their leaders. Only four actually remain - Maskhadov and Basayev in Chechnya, and Zakayev and Udugov, who are abroad.
Until recently there were also Gelayev and Yandarbiyev, but the former was killed in the mountains of Dagestan, and the latter was assassinated in Qatar. More than half of Maskhadov's Parliament has declared its loyalty to Moscow, while his former representative, Salambek Maigov, supported Kadyrov. However, Kadyrov can get very little credit for this – all the work was done by the Kremlin.
A simple official
Kadyrov as an official head is a unique phenomenon. Some form of administration has been set up in Chechnya, sufficiently independent and able to carry out various official functions. Yet his relationship with the federal center is characterized by an effort to grab even more – more money, more power, and more concessions. Still one must admit that anyone else in his position would probably do the same.
Any president of Chechnya would want to negotiate an agreement with Moscow about the division of powers, to control all of Chechnya's oil, to receive huge customs fees, taxes, and other concessions. No other way is really possible to find the money needed for restoring the republic.
In the end, the issue lies with Moscow rather than Kadyrov. The extent to which Chechnya's requests will be met depends solely on the Kremlin. Although Kadyrov is one of the most obedient heads of the Russian Federation and supports all of Putin's decisions, he is a true man of the Caucasus and so hints this is exactly what he wants. That is one of his peculiarities. All decisions that have been worked out over a long period of time in the Kremlin, he presents as his own. So this nurtures the belief among the general public that Moscow is dancing to Kadyrov's tune.
The point that all processes in Chechnya are directed from Moscow is illustrated by the preparations being made for the parliamentary elections. Originally, they were to be held in March, simultaneously with the Russian presidential election. The Kremlin's reasoning was that in case the situation in Chechnya started deteriorating, it would be better to have Chechens elect their deputies in March in order to mitigate their energy. But in the event everything went relatively well, this political leverage could be saved for another time.
Everything is more or less calm in Chechnya these days, so parliamentary elections will be held sometime in October. Kadyrov, of course, presented this as his own solution, citing several reasons to back him up. One of the conclusions we may draw from the fact that no one seems to care very much about these elections is that Moscow considers its own work in Chechnya to be satisfactory.
By placing its bet on Kadyrov as the leader of Chechnya, Moscow expected that he would take on a diplomatic role. For example, he went to Saudi Arabia, but not of his own accord, even though gaining investments from the rich Saudis did have some influence. Kadyrov has become a sort of Russian envoy to the Islamic world, which is important in view of the upcoming conference between Russia and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Kadyrov received a respectable reception from the Saudis as befits an official representative of Russia and Chechnya. They could offer nothing more because the U.S. has included Chechen separatist leaders on their terrorist blacklist. Therefore, maintaining any closer ties carries the threat of ending up like Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Europe Kadyrov does not enjoy much popularity, but this is only temporary. The wave of criticism over the Chechen elections will soon pass and he will then be accepted as a regular president rather than someone appointed-from-the-top. Meanwhile, political leaders of Western countries consider his presidency to be legitimate.
The West's attitude to Moscow's actions in Chechnya was loud and clear during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Moscow. He called the Chechen problem an internal matter of the Russian Federation and expressed his expectation that Moscow would resolve it by political means in full consideration of the necessity to observe human rights and international obligations. That was Powell's answer to a question made by a Russian human rights activist.
He also stated that the presidential elections that took place in Chechnya were a step forward. Having said that, he looked understandingly at the activist and remarked: "Perhaps this is not a satisfactory answer."
In other words, both Europe and America conscientiously keep pointing out to Moscow the ongoing serious problems in Chechnya, as they have no intention of ignoring the political steps that have taken place there.
Ilya Maksakov is a correspondent for Russian daily Izvestiya and a regular contributor to Prague Watchdog.
* Editor's note: The article was written in late February, i.e. before the March 14 presidential elections.