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Chechen Civilian Head Challenges Army

With President Putin's blessing, Moscow's Chechen appointee in the war-torn republic is making a bid to restrain the military.
By Sanobar Shermatova

President Vladimir Putin is strengthening the powers of his civilian appointee in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, in a new bid to get a grip on the intractable conflict by reining in the army.


The Russian president signed a decree on May 18, which gives Kadyrov new authority in his efforts to form an effective civilian administration and curtail the excesses of federal forces in Chechnya.


Kadyrov, the former mufti of Chechnya and its Moscow-backed leader since 1999, is regarded by many Chechens in the republic's southern mountainous regions as a Russian collaborator, but those in the northern plains tend to support him.


He now faces a struggle with both rebel Chechens and hawks in the Russian security establishment.


In recent days, Kadyrov has strongly criticised the military, complaining that the order, issued by the head of federal forces in his republic, Vladimir Moltenskoi, on March 27 telling soldiers to desist from arbitrary attacks on villagers, was not being carried out.


"As before, people are disappearing without trace and, in contravention of the order, men who carry out military operations do not identify themselves, they do not say where the people they arrest are being taken and what they are accused of," Kadyrov said on May 20


The Chechen administration head said that he had received numerous delegations of women from different villages who were begging, "that at least the corpses of their loved ones were returned to them for burial."


The new decree sets up a new structure, which will end the uncertain power-sharing between Kadyrov and the prime minister of Chechnya, Stanislav Ilyasov. From now on Ilyasov, while still head of the government, will serve as first deputy head of the administration under Kadyrov.


Kadyrov now also has the right to form executive bodies in the republic and to appoint their heads. Up until now, personnel policy has been the preserve of the (predominantly military) leadership of the Southern Federal District, of which Chechnya is a part.


As soon as the presidential decree was signed, Kadyrov appointed a new deputy, who would be responsible for relations with the federal armed forces and security structures. He is Movsar Khamidov, a 45-year-old ethnic Chechen, who was working in the central apparatus of the counter-intelligence agency, the FSB.


The post Khamidov has filled was empty for seven months, meaning that there was no one to deal with the frequent conflicts arising between the civilian population and the military. For obvious reasons, the leadership of the Southern Federal District did not want to see the job occupied.


For its part, the Russian military is continuing its operations and declaring that the rebels are preparing for new attacks. "I would like all those, who love to place a full stop and say that tomorrow everything will be over, to calm down a bit," said Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, commander of Russia's interior ministry troops in Chechnya. According to Tikhomirov, the situation in the republic is getting worse, not better.


Up until now the military commanders have used the continued activity of well-known rebel leaders such as the notorious Arab fighter Khattab or Shamil Basayev, as justification for the presence of a massive military force, comprising, according to unofficial estimates, about 80,000 men, in a republic with a population of around 400-450,000 people.


This argument has lost force following the death of Khattab. Since then, Arab fighters left Chechnya and crossed into Georgia and fighters of Basayev and other commanders are exhausted and will not engage in open battle, Chechen sources say.


On May 6, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, making a lightning visit to Chechnya, declared that surplus troops would be withdrawn from the republic. But there are many signs that the military is deliberately sabotaging this policy.


The main political fight is now over the role of the local Chechen police force. For some time the Kremlin has been hoping to transfer much of the responsibility for the fight against the rebels to the pro-Moscow force - a policy fiercely opposed by many army generals.


On May 14, a special parliamentary commission from Moscow declared that the decision to create a fully-fledged interior ministry in the republic was being held up. Duma deputies complained that the interior ministry in Moscow was stopping many experienced Chechen policemen in the Russian capital from returning to serve in Chechnya, despite the fact that the local police force is 14 per cent under-staffed.


The chairman of the parliamentary commission, Valentin Nikitin, challenged interior ministry officials, "Just tell us straight that you don't trust any Chechens." The deputy head of the commission, Chechen MP Aslambek Aslakhanov added, "They are doing everything to stop ordinary people from getting work in the police and everything to humiliate Chechen members of the police force."


This issue was so important that it was discussed by President Putin at his meeting with North Caucasian leaders in Sochi on May 18. After the talks, Kadyrov said he hoped to have a fully working Chechen interior ministry by September.


In recent months, the war between the separatist rebels and the pro-Russian Chechen police has intensified. Two or three policemen are dying every day in the conflict. The population is also complaining of increasing instances of robbery by the insurgents. On just one day, May 14, 80 Chechen civilians told the local law enforcement agencies that they had been robbed of money or valuables by the fighters.


The Kremlin's new idea of "Chechenization" is to strengthen local civilian organs of power and security structures on the eve of a withdrawal of surplus federal forces. The second step will be the formation of legitimate organs of power and the adoption of a constitution.


The Bush-Putin summit on May 23-26 will provide another stimulus for a political solution in Chechnya. Some observers are expecting that President Bush will propose a big new programme for dealing with Caucasian "hot-spots", worth no less than one billion US dollars. One target for this money will be Chechnya and the Americans will want to see a process of democratisation take place there in return for its funds.


Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent for Moscow News.