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Comment: Kremlin Weighs up its Options

The success or failure of Putin's "Chechenisation" policy is hanging in the balance.
By Sanobar Shermatova

The death of Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9 has brought Moscow to a crossroads in its Chechen policy.

There are two main options. In the first the new president, who is expected to be elected on August 29, will be able to pursue the policies begun by Kadyrov.

The slain leader was beginning to fight successfully against the pro-independence rebels, by a brutal combination of military action and heavy-handed persuasion of some leading figures to surrender, such as Magomed Khambiev, former defence minister of rebel president Aslan Maskhadov.

He was also beginning to reduce the influence of the Russian military in Chechnya, creating autonomous Chechen political structures and delegating the fight against the rebels to his own armed groups, led by his own son Ramzan.

Ordinary Chechens had seen checkpoints removed and a decreased presence of federal troops. Plans were afoot in the Kremlin to withdraw military units from the republic.

All this was part of the strategy known as "Chechenisation" - a policy bitterly opposed by the army, which was seeing political and economic power in Chechnya taken by Kadyrov, a man who had previously fought the Russians in 1994-6 before switching sides.

If the leader Moscow chooses proves up to these challenges, then Chechenisation is likely to continue.

But what if he fails? It is highly likely that Moscow's preferred man (probably interior minister Alu Alkhanov, see preceding article) will not be strong enough to continue on the path set by Kadyrov.

In this case Moscow politicians are foreseeing the contingency whereby Chechnya is turned from a presidential into a parliamentary republic under a new constitution.

The local parliament would then become a place where passions can be played out. There would be nothing unusual in this: many young parliaments have started out with fights and quarrels and a parliamentary system is in line with Chechnya's de-centralised traditions.

The representatives of different teips and communities will argue out their differences, occasionally breaking off to solve political or economic problems.

Under this scenario the security situation would be looked after by forces loyal to a man trusted by President Putin, with whom he would deal directly, as he did with Kadyrov.

The Kremlin has already let it be known that Ramzan - the feared commander of thousands of armed men - will be allowed to retain a key role. Within a few hours of his father's death, Ramzan was made Chechnya's first deputy prime minister.

Putin then ordered the interior ministry in Moscow to increase the number of staff police officers in Chechnya by more than a thousand. The result was that a proper Chechen interior ministry was suddenly created after two years of delays.

Many armed men previously serving Ramzan in his "presidential security service" were transferred to the new interior ministry - thus combining continued loyalty to the younger Kadyrov with a new loyalty to Putin.

However, both scenarios - a new strong president or a parliamentary republic - will be vulnerable to events.

The other possible outcome is that the Russian military will use the death of Kadyrov to re-establish itself in Chechnya. They will use any pretext to demand that extra forces be sent to the war-torn republic to continue the "anti-terrorist" campaign.

New "clean-up" operations and bombing raids on villages will provoke ordinary Chechens and the guerrilla war will flare up with new force. Two years ago the repeated clean-up operations terrorised Chechen villages and ended in the death or disappearance of hundreds of ordinary people.

The death of Akhmad Kadyrov was a heavy blow to Putin's plans for Chechnya. A return to the army using its old brutal tactics would mean it had failed completely.

Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent with Moscow News.