Vienna, April 16 – By declaring its counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya over, the Russian government may gain a propaganda victory, but by this action, Moscow is effectively ceding even more control over the situation in that still restive North Caucasus republic to Ramzan Kadyrov, its irrepressible and often violent president.
And while no one disputes that the level of violent resistance in Chechnya has declined in recent times, the way that has been achieved by Kadyrov, who has co-opted some of the rebels and engaged in a murderous campaign against others, points to more troubles for Moscow ahead, both in Chechnya itself and in the neighboring republics where violence is high and increasing.
Consequently, even as the Russian government and Moscow media portray this as a victory for the center over the rebels, it may quickly prove to be a Pyrrhic one, the kind of triumph that some in the Russian capital and elsewhere may look back on as the kind of “victory” they not only did not need but did not really achieve.
Today, at the direction of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and at the request of Chechen President Kadyrov, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov officially declared the end of the 10-year-long counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya. Russian officials said that there are no longer any terrorists there to fight against (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2009/04/16/society/405330/).
They added that this step, which has the support of the president of the neighboring Ingush Republic as well, will not only allow Grozny to operate as do other regional governments but also allow Moscow to withdraw “on the order of 20,000” Russian military and security personnel.
(These will include all federal forces that have been stationed in Chechnya on “a temporary basis as well as federal officials who have been inserted in some key Chechen republic ministries. They will not include one defense ministry division, some border troops, and a brigade of internal forces.)
Kadyrov for his part was jubilant. Moscow’s decision to take this step, he said, “officially confirms the fact that the nest of terrorism has been destroyed, that illegal armed formations have been neutralized and that the leaders of the militants on whose conscience are the grief and suffering of thousands have been destroyed, detained and brought to trial.”
In announcing the end of this special regime, Moscow officials were somewhat less definitive about that. The National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK) said only that from now on, the struggle with terrorism in Chechnya will “take place in correspondent with the general rules operating in other regions of the country” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/153006).
But that is precisely what many both in Chechnya and elsewhere do not expect to happen. On the one hand, Kadyrov has shown himself increasingly rather than decreasingly willing and able to use violence against his opponents not only inside the republic but elsewhere in the Russian Federation and even abroad, measures he shows no sign of giving up.
And on the other, Moscow’s ability to influence him or to intimidate Chechen militants who oppose both Kadyrov and Moscow once the Russian government has proclaimed victory and withdrawn most of its forces will decline, with Kadyrov likely behaving even more independently than he has and the latter challenging both him and Russia in the coming months.
That is all the more likely because Kadyrov has defined his link to the center almost exclusively in terms of a personal tie to former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. With the latter’s position less overwhelming than it was in Moscow, Kadyrov could decide to take actions that would defend his own interests but not necessarily those of Russia.
As Aleksandr Cherkasov of Memorial told Kavkaz.uzel, the end of this special regime, which was put in place in 1999, does resolve one question many have asked about Moscow’s counter-terrorist effort. The regime, which the 1998 law provided for, was intended to be temporary, but the powers that be in Moscow are prepared for it to remain in place a long time.
And that is disturbing, because as Cherkasov notes, the counter-terrorist regime creates a kind of “legal vacuum” in which many things can be done that are not otherwise permitted by the Russian Constitution or Russian laws. In normal circumstances, then, those concerned with the defense of the rights of Russia’s citizens could only be pleased by a decision to lift it.
But the situation in Chechnya is not “normal.” And consequently, as one Moscow analyst put it this morning, “in Chechnya, they’ve ended the war,” but Moscow officials have done so by conceding to the president of that republic just what he wanted, a reduction of outside supervision and greater freedom of maneuver (www.polit.ru/event/2009/04/16/endwar.html).
And the commentator added that some Moscow media are even suggesting “the end of operations in Chechnya is connected not so much with the stabilization of conditions there as with the financial crisis, as if the powers that be had to choose how better to spend their money – to give it to Kadyrov to rebuild the republic or to spend it on supporting its own forces.”
Moreover, he writes, Moscow outlets have been filled with stories that having gained this much, Kadyrov will now ask for control over the oil produced and processed in Chechnya, something he has called for in the past. But as the Polit.ru observer said, for Kadyrov as the Chechen leader has made clear, power is far more important than oil – as long as it is his.