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Russia’s Chechnya Pullout: Compromise Over Victory

4 minute read
James Marson

Russia’s declaration last week that its counterterrorist operation in Chechnya is over effectively brings down the curtain on a war that began in 1999. The news is being feted in Russia and Chechnya as a victory over the terrorist threat of separatist rebels in the North Caucasus republic. “We have eradicated the threat of international terrorism and extremism, and defended the integrity of Russia,” said Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Moscow-backed president.

But analysts in Moscow warn that the insurgency problem in the region is far from finished, and express concern that the decision gives even more control to the heavy-handed Kadyrov. “It’s not a victory for Moscow, it’s a compromise,” says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “For Russia, it’s necessary to save the money spent on assistance to Chechnya because of the [economic] crisis. For Kadyrov, he now has the chance to become a dictator.” (See pictures of Putin’s patriotic youth camp.)

When Vladimir Putin was appointed Russian prime minister in 1999, Chechnya was a de facto independent region where Russia had already fought one bloody war. One of Putin’s first moves, before he became President, was to launch the Second Chechen War. Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, was installed by Moscow as part of its new strategy of “Chechenization” of the conflict: turning power over to local rebels-turned-allies.

After Akhmad was killed by a bomb in 2004, Putin installed Ramzan as prime minister, and later president; the two continue to enjoy a close relationship. “If it were not for Putin, Chechnya would not exist. I owe my life to Putin,” Kadyrov said of his political patron in a recent interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

Kadyrov has overseen the rooting out of insurgents and the reconstruction of Chechnya with billions of dollars of aid from Moscow. But human rights groups have questioned the tactics employed to achieve Chechnya’s much-vaunted “rebirth” and relative current stability. “The legacy [of the counterterrorist operation] is one of absolute impunity for blatant human rights abuses, such as disappearances, murder and torture,” says Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch speaking by phone from Chechnya. Human Rights Watch estimates there have been 5,000 disappearances since 1999.

The number of abuses has fallen in the past few years, but Lokshina notes that Kadyrov’s security forces continue to commit “serious human rights violations.” “Kadyrov plays by his own rules,” says Lokshina. “Under his rule, Chechnya became an enclave outside Russia’s legal framework where the Kremlin didn’t interfere.”

And while the insurgency in Chechnya has been subdued over the past two years by Kadyrov’s aggressive tactics, violence is on the rise in neighboring republics. “The contagion has spread to surrounding areas,” says Aslan Doukaev, director of the North Caucasus service for independent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “The rebel movement and anti-Russian sentiment has spread across the North Caucasus, even into [neighboring] Ingushetia, which used to be loyal.”

Nor is Chechnya quite as peaceful as Kadyrov claims. Just hours after the announcement of the end of counterterrorist operation, Russian forces were involved in a gun battle with rebels in southern Chechnya. “I suspect there are still several hundred, perhaps up to 1,000 [rebel] fighters. There are sympathizers in practically every village,” says Doukaev, who nevertheless concedes that fighting has dwindled.

Moscow’s announcement will lead to the withdrawal of about 20,000 federal troops. But declaring “victory” in Chechnya also adds to the sense that Kadyrov has become the tail that wags the Russian dog. He has been lobbying for a pullout for months and experts say it will allow him to strengthen his already firm grip. “He has built a state within a state,” says Doukaev. “The Kadyrov government is a problem for Moscow. They have no control over him. This decision gives him a free rein to operate.”

Kadyrov already controls his own private army and imposes some of his own laws and taxes. Now Kadyrov is also expected to get his longstanding wish of international status for Grozny’s airport, and therefore a full-scale customs operation. This will not only attract investment, but also, experts say, allow Kadyrov to export and import capital and travel as he pleases, giving him more independence from Moscow. “Ramzan [Kadyrov] knows he can make a lot of money with Chechnya as part of Russia,” says Malashenko. “But he wants it to be special, like a foreign country within Russia’s borders.”

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