Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechen President's Men a Law Unto Themselves

Presidential security service viewed as a dangerous irregular force whose loyalties remain unclear.
By Umalt Dudayev

Early one morning in November, a group of soldiers from Russian military intelligence were doing routine checks on vehicles heading for the centre of Grozny, the Chechen capital.


As cars pulled up at the checkpoint, drivers and passengers handed over their identity documents without a murmur.


But the soldiers were alerted by the arrival of a late-model Zhiguli (Lada) with black-tinted windows and no license plates.


The men inside were wearing camouflage uniforms, and their ID showed them to be members of the Chechnya’s Presidential Security Service, PSS.


They refused to let the soldiers search the boot of their car, and a fistfight broke out, escalating into a shootout involving assault rifles and pistols.


Eyewitnesses said five people were wounded and taken to hospital.


Magomed, a member of the Russian squad, recounted, "We’d been ordered to search all suspicious vehicles. We stopped a Zhiguli and found five people in uniforms who said they were from the security service and wouldn’t allow anyone to search their car, that they’re the most important people round here, and stuff like that.”


Magomed’s experience of the Chechen PSS is that “they are somehow intouchable and always asking for trouble. We’re from army intelligence but we never behave like that".


This was a particularly public incident since it took place in the capital, but it was only the latest case of tensions between regular Russian forces and their local Chechen allies.


The PSS are often known as “Kadyrovtsy” after their founder, former president Akhmed Kadyrov, assassinated in May, as well as his son Ramzan Kadyrov, their commander-in-chief.


Most of the Kadyrovtsy are Chechen rebels who surrendered and then changed side to fight for the pro-Russian administration. But their relationship with their new allies and masters has been marked by friction.


Russian officers accuse the Kadyrovtsy of carrying out extortion, abductions and illegal dealing in oil. Some even go so far as to say this private army is involved in attacks against Russian forces and in other subversive activities.


"The so-called Chechen PSS consists mostly of former gunmen who have given themselves up, handed in their weapons - and in fact received them back immediately, once they joined this odd organisation which was set up for reasons that are unclear,” an official in the Russian military commandant's office, Sergey Smirnov, told IWPR.


“These people fought against the federal authorities, and I’ll never believe that they’ve changed their views and beliefs just like that. I know a lot of cases where our soldiers have found ID cards of PSS members on gunmen who’ve been killed in the mountains. However, I can’t recall a single case where this was investigated properly."


PSS chief Ramzan Kadyrov says the unit consists of 1,000 men who form part of the Chechen interior ministry and are charged with providing security for senior officials and government buildings.


Others estimate the unit’s true strength at 6,000 or more.


Public attitudes towards the PSS vary, with some accusing them of betraying the rebel cause, and others alleging they are responsible for human rights abuses.


One unit of Kadyrovtsy, led by Movladi Baysarov, maintains a prison and torture chamber in the village of Pobedinskoye a few kilometres north of Grozny, residents say.


"A few months ago, Movladi Baysarov's brother was blown up in his car,” said a local, who did not give their name. “It’s believed that a local young man who is not quite sane planted a mine in his car. He did it because [someone] promised him money.


“Baysarov's men learned about it, and they captured him and tortured him brutally. Then they seized his mother and sister, who disappeared without leaving a trace. I can understand that they punished the murderer but what has it got to do with his mother and sister?"


Other units of Kadyrovtsy are accused of maintaining a similar grip on their local stronghold, complete with private prisons.


But some Chechens say the Kadyrovtsy often do good by securing the freedom of civilians held for no reason by the Russian military. This is pretty much the way the PSS likes to portray itself: as a force that protects local people from arbitrary violence meted out by both the rebels and the Russians.


PSS member Ramzan Sadayev, 27, told IWPR that the Kadyrovtsy try to protect civilians from their Russian allies. He himself is a former rebel who turned himself in and joined the pro-government force.


“We are often engaged in mopping-up operations together with the Russian military,” said Sadayev, recounting an incident when Russian forces conducted a sweep of the village of Novye Atagi in October. “We always try to prevent our people from being harassed. Sometimes, it even gets as far as fighting and shooting. For example, when the federal troops were carrying out a mopping-up operation in Novye Atagi, they prevented us from entering the village.


“Some of our guys even suggested we force our way into the settlement to stop the harassment. It was only the intervention of our [Chechen] president that forced the Russian military to lift the blockade and leave. If that hadn’t happened, I can’t say how things would have unfolded."


Alu Alkhanov, who replaced the assassinated Akhmed Kadyrov as Chechen president, is believed to take a dim view of the Kadyrovtsy. But for the moment he lacks the power to rein them in.


In July 2004 - before Alkhanov was elected - it was announced that the PSS was to be abolished. But all that happened was that some PSS members were reassigned to the interior ministry, joining the Akhmed Kadyrov Special Purpose Regiment.


The PSS continues to exist as a loosely-controlled, autonomous force.


Alkhanov was formerly interior ministry chief in Chechnya, and took part in the first Chechen war of 1994-96.


"I’ve known Alu Alkhanov for ages…. He was a good policeman for whom upholding the law was paramount,” recalled Apti Inarkayev who served with him when both were policemen in the Soviet era. “I do not think that he’s going to tolerate the lack of restraint displayed by Kadyrov's men for long. Sooner or later, he will start resolving this problem."


Major Vladimir Martynov, of the Chechnya department of the Russian Federal Security Service, said the summer reorganisation was a sign of Moscow’s irritation with the PSS, and that further action to curb it is likely.


He said the last straw for Moscow was probably when Ramzan Kadyrov told a local television channel that his men “are fighting against [Islamic fundamentalist] Wahhabism and terrorism today, but if people tell us to fight against the Russians again, we will obey”.


Martynov said, “It was after this that a section of the security service was shifted to the interior ministry and dispersed among other structures. However, the service still occupies its old position.


"Many of the Kadyrovtsy’s actions discredit the [Russian] federal and [Chechen] republican authorities, and sooner or later it will be necessary to do something about it. An acquaintance who served in Afghanistan told me that in those days the Soviets resorted to the help of [irregular] Afghan units.… There was even a special term for it, 'members of a friendly gang.


“To be honest, my personal impression is that the Kadyrovtsy are exactly the same: they’re just 'members of a friendly gang'."


Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Chechnya.