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

Moscow Plays the Devil's Advocate

The personality clash between Beslan Gantamirov and Akhmad Kadyrov is threatening to make a mockery of the pro-Moscow civilian administration in Chechnya
By Mikhail Ivanov

In the best traditions of a good Dostoevsky novel, the two men appointed by Moscow to restore order to Chechnya are locked in a bitter battle of wills.


From the outset, it was clear that this was an explosive combination - on the one hand, Akhmad Kadyrov, former Chechen mufti and head of the civilian administration, and on the other, his new deputy, Beslan Gantamirov, the leader of the pro-Russian militia. Ironically, Gantamirov is popularly known as "Bes", a contraction of his first name and the Russian for "devil" -- a nickname which puts one in mind of Dostoevsky's eponymous novel.


Things came to a head last week, when Kadyrov announced that four local leaders had been summarily dismissed from their posts. Together with Grozny mayor Supyan Mokhchaev, a furious Gantamirov promptly rallied 200 of his most loyal militiamen, then marched on Gudermes, Chechnya's second city, where Kadyrov's administration is based. The maverick commander reportedly gave his men orders to "cleanse Gudermes of all terrorists, extremists and nationalists". There was nothing ambiguous about his intentions.


A bloody clash between the rival factions was only averted by the intercession of Lieutenant-General Vladimir Bokovikov, the newly-appointed deputy head of the Southern Federal District. On the following day, Gantamirov cooled down and promised his troops would lay down their arms to prevent the conflict from escalating.


But at the heart of dispute lie the fundamental differences in background and personality between the two men. Firstly, both belong to different teips or clans. "Bes" hails from the Chankhoy clan whilst Kadyrov is a member of the majority Benoy. Kadyrov derives his support from the Gudermes region whereas Gantamirov's fiefdom is Grozny (he was city mayor until he was charged with embezzling $5 million of government funds and jailed for six years).


Unlike Kadyrov, Gantamirov boasts a private army of between 5,000 and 9,000 well-armed, experienced fighters who proved their worth during the storming of Grozny last winter. Most importantly, Kadyrov was once closely associated with Aslan Maskhadov - a biographical detail that continues to irritate Gantamirov and his followers.


In a TV interview last week, "Bes" commented, "Kadyrov is reinstating all the people we fought against in the past... [Shamil] Basaev and [Emir] Khattab are just about the only ones who aren't back in the fold!"


Gantamirov's displeasure was echoed by Ibrahim Yasuev, one of the four dismissed district heads, who complained to the Russian press, "I can't stand it anymore... All Kadyrov's people are supporters of Dudaev or Maskhadov. We have fought against them all our lives. They killed our brothers and our comrades and now we are supposed to shake their hands!"


The personality clash is very obvious: the bearded ex-mufti Kadyrov, in his traditional Chechen fur-hat, has the look of a reserved, imperturbable ayatollah. He makes his TV appearances sitting under a portrait of Putin, taciturn and inscrutable.


The temperamental Gantamirov, on the other hand, is always closely-shaven. He sports designer sunglasses and a Hollywood smile. He is effusive and verbose, with a word for every occasion. Gantamirov's agenda features two main concerns - ensuring that Grozny remains the Chechen capital and keeping his private army together. Any attempt to threaten these interests provokes a violent reaction - as we saw last Tuesday in the march on Gudermes.


In fact, Gantamirov, who was freed from jail by Boris Yeltsin in November1999, has much in common with the former Russian president. Like the younger Yeltsin, he is something of a maverick and revels in an oppositionist stance. Indeed, it was Gantamirov who mounted the first real opposition to Dudaev 's regime and staged a meeting in Grozny in 1993 calling for Dudaev's resignation.


Conversely, Kadyrov likes to maintain a low profile and favours behind-the-scenes intrigue. In recent weeks, he has succeeded in persuading an increasing number of Chechen warlords to lay down their arms.


Last Thursday, Nasrudi Bazhiev, former deputy security minister in Aslan Maskhadov's government, surrendered to the Chechen authorities, claiming that 300 of his supporters were ready to follow suit. Capitalising on the news, Kadyrov announced he had reason to believe other members of Maskhadov's cabinet -- namely Magomed Khambiev, Aidamar Abalev and Turpal-Ali Atgeriev - were planning to turn themselves in.


Despite the obvious temptation to sideline the somewhat unpredictable Gantamirov, Moscow is obliged to tread a fine line between the former mufti and the flamboyant ex-mayor who enjoys a widespread following in Chechnya. Although the two leaders are clearly following their own agendas, both are very necessary to the Kremlin at the present time.


In this context, the liberal Izvestia newspaper was na‹ve in stating that "all attempts to find genuine allies [in Chechnya] are doomed to failure because these people cooperate with the federal forces for their own, at times very personal, reasons". It goes without saying that all the pro-Moscow leaders are acting in their own interests. Sincere political allies are a rare phenomenon - particularly in this part of the world. "The East is a subtle affair," says the hero in the Russian film classic, "White Sun of the Desert".


It wasn't so long ago that Heidar Aliev, then the first secretary of the Azerbaijani Community Party and member of the Politburo, was exchanging the warmest of kisses with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But now President Aliev makes no secret of his sympathies for the Chechen cause and allows wounded rebel fighters to be treated in Baku hospitals. Interests have changed and loyalties have changed with them.


And so the Kremlin has to perform a delicate juggling act - trying to keep its allies sweet and bring order back to Chechnya at the same time. Not surprisingly, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, has made every attempt to play down the Gudermes incident and put a brave face on the ongoing personality clash. "The conflict," he assured his audience, "will be solved."


In a further bid to pour oil on stormy waters, President Vladimir Putin has charged General Victor Kazantsev, head of the Southern Federal District, with the task of meeting both the hot-tempered Gantamirov and the no-nonsense Kadyrov. For the time being, this is the only realistic system " of checks and balances" governing the breakaway republic.


Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.