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Chechen Police Plan Raises Concerns

The people of Chechnya are divided on the merits of a plan to hand over law enforcement powers to a new Chechen police force.
By Timur Aliev

The transformation of the regional department of the Russian interior ministry into an autonomous Chechen police force is being hotly debated here.


The new force is expected to be put in charge of law and order in Chechnya on January 1 next year, by which time police units from other parts of Russia will have been withdrawn.


"We are very happy about this event," said Sultan Satuyev, police chief in the Zavodskoi region of the Chechen capital. "Only Chechens can and should be responsible for order in Chechnya."


The local police service, which falls under the auspices of the new Chechen interior ministry, formally created on November 11, will have 12,000 men - equivalent to the number of officers being withdrawn from the republic.


The creation of the new force is designed to strengthen the administration of pro-Moscow leader Akhmad Kadyrov and relieve the federal interior ministry of its burden of responsibility in Chechnya.


But some Chechens are reluctant to see the Russians go because they fear a force made up of locals may be still more brutal and corrupt and vulnerable to infiltration by rebels. Moscow officials are also nervous and have decided to both retain some of their law enforcement units and maintain current levels of army deployment in the republic.


The Chechen police force will be dwarfed by Russian army troops, estimated to number around 80,000 men. Plans to reduce the latter to around 22,000 - as a sign that the three-year-old "anti-terrorist operation" in the republic was reaping results - were suspended after last month's hostage-taking crisis in Moscow.


The new Chechen interior minister Said-Selim Peshkhoyev, who has just been promoted to the rank of major general, said the new police service needs to "restore the trust of the population in interior ministry organs - we have to do everything so that our citizens see us as their defenders and actively help us."


But former Russian interior minister Anatoly Kulikov - who commanded his countries' forces in Chechnya during the 1994-6 war - said the military should be responsible for law and order in the troubled republic, and policemen should be restricted to investigating crimes like cattle-theft.


Many Chechens also do not want to see Russian policemen leaving their republic. "In the first place, it's easier to do a deal with Russian 'cops," said Salman Daduyev from the village of Avtury. "It costs 10 roubles (about 30 US cents) to get through one of their checkpoints. But you won't get away with less than 50 with our cops.


"Secondly, the local policemen sometimes behave more brutally in zachistki (a reference to the notorious 'clean-up' operations that security forces carry out in Chechnya's towns and villages)."


Russian interior ministry troops used to go out on these sweep operations, but they've been replaced by Chechen policemen who, unlike their Russian counterparts, usually cover their faces with black balaclava masks. "They just want to earn money, that's why they went into the police," said Roza Rasayeva, a resident of Grozny.


Senior Russian officials, meanwhile, have alleged that Chechen police are harbouring rebel fighters within their ranks. After a bomb explosion in a Grozny police station last month, in which 26 Chechen officers were killed, the director of Russia's counterintelligence service, the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, said, "It's obvious that only someone whom the terrorists had specially infiltrated into the police could have carried out this act of terror."


Peshkhoyev concedes that there may be some men who aid the fighters amongst the local force. "But overall, it's absolutely wrong to call Chechen officers their accomplices, as some media do," he protested.


Peshkhoyev said special selection committees had been set up, which were screening new recruits. The entire leadership of the new interior ministry and its city and regional departments, he went on, had already been vetted. "Several men have either been fired or moved to other posts," Peshkhoyev said. "In the near future we are planning to screen the ordinary men."


This does not satisfy many Chechens, who are frightened that radical Islamists, known locally as Wahhabis, are infiltrating the police force.


"All the Wahhabis joined the police long ago," said Mansur Khizriev, who has left Chechnya for neighbouring Ingushetia. " Tomorrow the Russian policemen will leave and the Wahhabis will take power. They just want to sell us out."


A Russian soldier manning a checkpoint agreed. "Yes, the Chechens are all bandits," he said. "And we are giving them weapons. By making them generals we are preparing new Dudayevs and Maskhadovs."


The withdrawal of Russian police units comes at a time of rising tensions between the pro-Moscow administration of Kadyrov and the army, fuelled by the continuing disappearance of young Chechen men in security sweeps.


"Nine people have been taken away from my native village of Tsentoroi this week and it's impossible to find out where they are now," Kadyrov told Interfax news agency on November 15. "I can't look my fellow villagers in the eye," he added.


These tensions possibly explain why Russian security chiefs are not putting the new Chechen force solely in charge of law and order. According to the Russian interior ministry press office, the 46th Brigade of interior ministry troops and the 42nd Division of the regular army are staying behind on a permanent basis to "support the commanders and local authorities".


Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist based in Nazran.


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