The Quagmire

Friday, January 30, 2004

Hopes for a quick end to Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya seem increasingly slim. The conflict is likely to last, at a minimum, until March 2008, when Russian president Vladimir Putin’s second term will come to an end.

One key reason is that the Putin leadership refuses to hold talks with moderate Chechen separatists. Instead it seeks to kill them, capture them, or extradite them from abroad. It is highly difficult to end a war when you refuse to negotiate with your enemy. Such a stance means that you are aiming for the enemy’s unconditional surrender; in a guerrilla war such a position is clearly unrealistic.

Instead of negotiating with moderate separatists, the Kremlin has chosen to empower its handpicked pro-Moscow Chechen leader, former mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, and his entourage. Kadyrov was declared president in a rigged election held in October. The three Chechen candidates who had higher approval ratings than Kadyrov were removed from the ballot. In one pre-election poll, 21 percent of Chechens termed the election a “farce” and said that they would not participate in it; 13 percent said that they would not participate because their preferred candidate had been removed from the ballot. Kadyrov, an unpopular, corrupt politician, has thus been vaulted into power over other candidates enjoying greater trust among the populace.

Chechnya is a destroyed republic with a devastated infrastructure and a very high rate of unemployment. In order to regain the trust of the citizenry, the Russian government needs to invest major funds to restore infrastructure, services, and housing for the populace. Unfortunately, Chechnya continues to be what Russian journalists call a “black hole,” in which a large part of the funds earmarked for reconstruction and services are in fact embezzled at both the federal and the local level. Next year the federal budget for all programs relating to Chechnya will amount to about $1 billion; a large percentage of that sum will undoubtedly be embezzled.

An article appearing in one leading Russian newspaper, Kommersant, on December 5 concluded: “It turns out that more and more money is being spent on restoration [in Chechnya] each year (in 2003 it was 8 billion rubles more than the previous year) while less and less is actually being constructed.” In 2002, 17,000 new jobs were created according to official figures; for 2003, the figure will be only 3,000. There is also a program in Chechnya for paying compensation to the most needy Chechen families who have lost their homes or apartments. To date, only 74 families out of the intended 40,000 have received such compensation (the statistics are those of the Russian Auditing Commission).

While the Chechen citizenry is being massively short-changed, the apparatus of the pro-Moscow government is expanding by leaps and bounds. Thus the budget for the apparatus of the 36-year-old acting prime minister, Eli Isaev, has grown by 76 percent.

Another reason that the situation in Chechnya will likely worsen is connected with the recent removal of Aleksandr Voloshin as head of the Russian presidential administration (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. president’s chief of staff). Over the past several years, Voloshin had de facto been in charge of both conceptualizing and implementing Russia’s Chechen policy, which had become known as “Chechenization.” An extremely powerful figure in his own right, with ties to the so-called Yeltsin “family” (Yeltsin, his powerful daughter Tatyana, and loyalists who still possess great power and influence in Russia) and to certain oligarchs, Voloshin served as a key counterweight to the so-called siloviki (power ministers). With Voloshin gone, the influence of the siloviki could rise in Chechnya, and for the most part they appear to be skeptical about “Chechenization” and hostile toward Kadyrov and his entourage.

On October 20, it was reported that the acting chief prosecutor of Chechnya, Vladimir Kravchenko, a Slav, had voiced strong objections to the very existence of Kadyrov’s 5,000-man heavily armed presidential security service, a body that included a number of former separatist fighters. A month later, on November 20, it was reported that Kadyrov had appealed to the Russian minister of defense, Sergei Ivanov, with a request that he strengthen controls over the Russian forces in Chechnya. The Russian military daily, Krasnaya Zvezda, for its part, sharply criticized Kadyrov’s police for constantly losing and surrendering to the rebels. Kadyrov’s police, the paper stressed, should not be put in charge of the counter-terrorist operation in the republic.

As for the Chechen separatist fighters themselves, their morale, according to press reports, remains high. The actions of the Russian federal forces serve to provide them with a steady influx of new recruits. Recently, kidnapping has become the preferred modus operandi of the Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces. “Over the past year,” Aleksandr Cherkasov of the leading Russian human rights organization “Memorial” has noted, “‘cleansing operations’ are de facto not being conducted [by the federals], but the ‘disappearances’ of people and extra-judicial executions are continuing. By night people are being taken into custody and then carted off by ‘armed individuals wearing camouflage uniforms’ who arrive in armored transport carriers. In all, during the course of the ‘second war,’ more than 3,000 persons have disappeared [in Chechnya]—and that is only according to official figures.”

On November 28, Boris Nemtsov, at that time (i.e., before his party’s poor showing in the December 7 Russian elections) a leading Duma activist, declared that during the present (second) Russo-Chechen war, Russia has lost 6,000 soldiers, as well as “tens of thousands of peaceful inhabitants.”

Although polling data show most Chechens to be quite moderate in their views, still willing to reach some kind of settlement with Russia, accumulating evidence suggests that the younger Chechen fighters (those in their late teens and early twenties) are being radicalized and are turning to militant Islam. In this sphere, too, Russia may be running out of time. The older fighters (those in their late thirties and forties) still have memories of a shared existence with Russians; the younger fighters have no such memories.

I believe that the present Kremlin policy of Chechenization will likely fail in the long term. The federal forces based in Chechnya will continue to prey aggressively on the Chechen populace. The mutual animosity of the Russian siloviki and the Kadyrovites is likely to grow and perhaps mushroom. One can even envisage scenarios under which some aggrieved Kadyrovites will elect to join (or rejoin) the ranks of the rebels. Kadyrov is a corrupt leader, surrounded by corrupt officials more interested in lining their own pockets than in fostering the well-being of a traumatized populace. Chechnya will continue to represent a “black hole,” with federal funds earmarked for Chechen restoration and the needs of the populace being massively embezzled at both the federal and the local level. The present vicious partisan war will continue and could turn even more vicious.