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

Kadyrov Uses History as Weapon

President’s critics say his historical commission is little more than a political tool.
By Timur Aliev

Akhmad Kadyrov, elected president of Chechnya in a highly disputed poll last month, is reviving a controversy about events in 1991 as part of a move against his political rivals.


Kadyrov announced the formation of a new historical commission in Moscow on October 10, five days after he was declared Chechnya’s new leader. He told a press conference that the new body would study the events surrounding the dissolution of the last Communist-era institution in the republic, the Supreme Soviet, in September 1991.


“[Members of the commission] will study all the crimes in the Chechen republic from 1991 onwards,” Kadyrov declared. “That includes disappeared people, unsolved crimes and criminal cases which have been investigated for a long time and are still dragging on.”


No one in Chechnya missed the political subtext. September 1991 marked the beginning of Chechnya’s attempted split from the Russian Federation and a confrontation that led to war three years later. In that month, the soviet of what was then the joint republic of Chechen-Ingushetia was forcibly dissolved and its leader Doku Zavgayev driven from power, after he had allegedly supported the attempted coup d’etat in Moscow the month before.


New nationalist leader Jokhar Dudayev then took power in Chechnya and declared the republic independent. Ingushetia split away from Chechnya and chose to stay within the Russian Federation some months later.


The man who instigated Dudayev’s push for power was the then speaker of the Russian parliament, the Chechen economics professor Ruslan Khasbulatov.


One neutral observer, the director of Chechnya’s archive, Magomed Muzayev, recalled that Khasbulatov had indeed incited the events of September 1991, but that he had quickly been outwitted by the people he had come to support.


“Khasbulatov’s role was of course a negative one,” Muzayev said. “I remember him from the street demonstrations. At the beginning he was adored and his popularity was huge.


“Khasbulatov had immense talents and also an astonishing self-confidence. He thought that if he thought something that was the way it was.”


The issue would almost certainly not have resurfaced were it not that Khasbulatov remains a figure of authority in Chechnya and one of Kadyrov’s fiercest critics. The former speaker presented a peace plan last year that envisaged peace talks with pro-independence rebels that threatened to undermine Kadyrov.


“And now this man wants to represent the Chechen people somewhere,” Kadyrov said scornfully. “We will write his surname in metal or gold letters on a back part of him so he won’t talk so freely.”


Kadyrov entrusted Rudnik Dudayev, head of his Security Council, to form the commission last month. It will have nine members, including historians, lawyers and public figures, who will be told to name the names of those who are found to be “responsible for the tragedy of the Chechen people”.


The move has met with consternation in some quarters, given that Kadyrov himself was an active participant in many of the events of the last 12 years and fought on the pro-independence side in the 1994-6 war.


“What about Kadyrov himself?” demanded Sharip Kusayev, a history teacher at Grozny University. “He may be more to blame than anyone else. Didn’t he call for a jihad on our television screens? He said that every Muslim ought to kill 180 Christians. And what was the result of that?”


Valentin Nikitin, who chairs the Russian parliament’s commission on Chechnya, was equally sceptical. In an interview to the Moscow newspaper Izvestia, he said Kadyrov’s initiative was “just a PR exercise”.


“If an investigation is to be held then it should be done on the orders of the president of the country,” Nikitin said. “The commission ought to involve parliament and the law enforcement agencies. No one has yet given a legal and political judgement on the events of 1991. And Kadyrov’s commission is one more attempt to find the guilty which will just inflame the situation.”


For Lyoma Turpalov, editor of the independent newspaper Groznensky Rabochy, the setting up of the commission is reminiscent of the “lustration” carried out by the pro-independence Chechen government following their military victory in 1996.


“Back then the leaders of all government bodies, journalists, security personnel and even ordinary people trying to find work were subjected to checks,” Turpalov said. “They were checking whether the person in question took part in the resistance movement in one form or another, whether he fought with the fighters or helped in some other way.


“Those who did not go through lustration might not be given a job or might lose their job. The declared aim of these inspections was an ideological purge – to identify people who were disloyal to the regime. And today Akhmad Kadyrov is simply settling accounts with potential political opponents.”


“The winner takes all,” commented Chechen political analyst Edilbek Khasmagomedov. “Kadyrov has won his elections and Moscow has given him carte blanche.”


Khasmagomedov said that ever since the theatre siege in Moscow a year ago, Moscow had ruled out any negotiations with the rebels and put its faith in Kadyrov.


Three potential rivals to Kadyrov, Moscow businessmen Malik Saidullayev and Hussein Jabrailov and parliamentary deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov, were prevented from running against him for various reasons in last month’s elections.


Khasbulatov decided not to put his name forward for the elections and now remains perhaps the most authoritative Chechen voice in opposition to Kadyrov. He refused to comment on Kadyrov’s accusations, calling them “idiotic”.


But it is not only Chechens that the new leader has in his sights. The commission could also be used against the Russian military, believes human rights activist Murad Nashkhoyev. “Kadyrov’s phrase that the commission will study criminal cases on disappearances of Chechen civilians is directed at them,” he said.


In August, Kadyrov sent a letter to the leaders of Russia’s security forces in Chechnya, in which he accused “werewolves in camouflage and armoured personnel carriers” of abducting people.


Russian military commander Ilya Shabalkin chose to interpret the remarks as an accusation that Chechen fighters were donning Russian uniforms and committing crimes in them.


“At the same time federal forces together with Kadyrov’s security forces and Chechen OMON troops and also the so-called ‘Yamadayev’ company are freeing hostages,” Shabalkin told IWPR by telephone.


Analyst Nashkhoyev interpreted this as meaning that the Russian military now recognises Kadyrov’s supremacy in the republic.


The military is responsible for a diminishing number of duties in Chechnya. According to Ali Machuyev, who runs Chechnya’s telecommunication company Elektrosyvaz, responsibility for that too will soon pass from the hands of the military to the Kadyrov administration.


Timur Aliev is editor of Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper.