Kremlin Seeks New Chechen Plan

President Putin is seeking new ways of pulling Russia out of the Chechen morass - but the military is unwilling to play along.

Kremlin Seeks New Chechen Plan

President Putin is seeking new ways of pulling Russia out of the Chechen morass - but the military is unwilling to play along.

At a meeting of the Kremlin security council in the middle of March Russian president Vladimir Putin asked those present for new ideas on Chechnya. Two and a half years after Moscow launched its latest military campaign in the republic, it was a graphic illustration that all previous political plans there have failed.

The next session of the security council later this month will consider new proposals on "the disarming of fighters and establishment of peace", according to one of the participants in the March meeting.

Chechen politician and businessman Malik Saidullayev, who runs the television show "Russian Loto," had an unusual suggestion, proposing a competition for the best idea of disarming fighters, with a prize fund, compiled from donations from the Chechen community, of 100,000 euros.

Another idea being discussed seriously in Russian corridors of power is the possible re-unification of Chechnya and Ingushetia. A prominent Chechen in Moscow, who asked not to be named, said that the Kremlin had commissioned him to write an analytical report, discussing how the idea of the joining of Chechnya and Ingushetia would be received by different groups in the Caucasus.

Chechens and Ingush are ethnically related and together form the Vainakh people. In Soviet times, they formed a single Russian autonomous republic, Chechen-Ingushetia, but the two split apart in 1992 after rebel Chechen president Jokhar Dudayev declared Chechnya independent.

The writer of the analytical report believes that the Moscow authorities find the re-unification plan very tempting. If it were to happen, they could claim that all state documents, signed between Moscow and different separatist governments in Chechnya, had lost their validity.

On April 1, the former governor of Tyumen, Leonid Roketsky, a member of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, told Interfax news agency that he considered "the unification of Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single region, with a president appointed from the centre... a useful idea".

Members of the Chechen community in Moscow say that if this option is approved, the appointed president of Chechen-Ingushetia could be Murad Zyazikov, who is currently Moscow's deputy plenipotentiary in the Southern Federal District. Zyazikov, an Ingush by nationality, is a former officer from the FSB, the successor to the KGB. His appointment, say Moscow Chechens, would reconcile the Ingush to the idea of union. Zyazikov is also a candidate in Ingushetia's presidential election, which takes place on April 7.

However, the unification proposal has serious flaws, says the writer of the report. It would not solve the problem of the rebel fighters. As long as "clean-up operations" continue in Chechnya, during which civilians disappear without trace, groups of fighters will win new recruits from amongst the relatives of those Chechens killed or humiliated by federal soldiers.

The search for new ideas shows that the new political arrangements for Chechnya, instituted a year ago, are not working. The Kremlin has not carried through its plan of withdrawing surplus troops from Chechnya, confining the remaining forces to barracks and transferring power to the civilian administration in Grozny. Under this policy, military operations were to be entrusted to special units who know the region better than interior ministry units coming from all over Russia. And yet this plan has not been put into effect.

As long ago as last spring, Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov announced that surplus troops would be withdrawn from Chechnya. At that time, there were up to 100,000 army and interior ministry soldiers in the republic, according to unofficial figures. The plan was to leave behind just one army division and two interior ministry battalions. Yet two attempts made last year, in spring and autumn, to withdraw the troops both failed.

According to the current deputy prime minister of Chechnya Beslan Gantemirov, there are around 80,000 troops in the republic. No official data confirming this is available. Recently, members of the southern federal district announced that the number of interior ministry soldiers would be reduced to 47,000, but did not reveal how many of them were there now.

The Russian military does, however, give numbers for Chechen fighters. For a long time, they said that there were between 1,500 and 2,000 of them, while they now say that there are around 400 - meaning that 80,000 soldiers remain in Chechnya to combat 400 fighters.

So what are federal troops doing in Chechnya and why are measures to withdraw them failing? In an investigation carried out last summer, I discovered that army officers and fighters were taking part in an illegal trade in oil-products. The sums involved were impressive: every day several hundred thousand dollars change hands in this shadowy business.

The head of Chechnya's Russian-backed administration Ahmad Kadyrov first told the Kremlin security council about the theft of oil in the republic last year. President Putin then met the heads of regional administrations, who confirmed the information. The Russian authorities subsequently launched "Operation Oil" and the president ordered the interior ministry to impose order.

The operation has been continuing for a whole year and has spread beyond Chechnya to the rest of the North Caucasus. And special units from the interior ministry and the intelligence service, the FSB and even agents of Russia's most secret security structure, the GRU, have now been brought in to deal with the problem.

But the problem continues and the reason for that is simple: large amounts of money are being made from it. Army officers earn only up to 300 dollars a month, which is why convoys of petrol trucks pass unobstructed through checkpoints every night. At these same checkpoints, ministers in the local administration, including Kadirov himself, have their documents inspected.

All this suggests that the military is sabotaging the Kremlin's plans for Chechnya. Senior officers are unhappy with President Putin, who gave them carte blanche at the beginning of the "anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya in 1999 and who is now demanding they give up power to civilians. But to leave Chechnya means to miss out on promotion and large financial profits.

Last week, General Vladimir Moltenskoi, the main commander in Chechnya, issued an order regulating the behaviour of soldiers in the republic. Under the order, when they detain local civilians, they are required to give their names and to draw up a protocol, a copy of which they must leave with a civilian head of administration.

This order is supposed to put an end to the arbitrary behaviour of the military. But civilians from Tsotsin-Yurt complained last week of a massive and brutal "clean-up operation" in their village. So far, at least, nothing appears to have changed.

Sanobar Shermatova is a Moscow News correspondent.

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