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

Moscow's Muddled Thinking in Chechnya

Whilst the Kremlin is clearly disenchanted with the civilian administration in Chechnya, it feels compelled to support its chosen leader, the ex-mufti Akhmad Kadyrov
By Mikhail Ivanov

The Council of Europe delegates seemed pleased with the hearings on Chechnya held in Russia's State Duma on September 21. General secretary Walter Swimmer was even generous enough to describe the proceedings as "a step forward" in the resolution of the Chechen conflict. But, in fact, the hearings raised more questions than they answered.

The Kremlin was careful to give a platform to all conflicting points of view. Aslam Aslakhanov, the newly elected Duma deputy for Chechnya, lashed out at the Russian military, accusing "werewolves in masks" of staging brutal attacks on Chechen villages which often degenerated into an orgy of looting.

Colonel-General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the general staff, obligingly admitted that "the Chechens' criticisms were fair" and promised that the army would "get tough on looters and criminals". He added, however, that any withdrawal of federal troops would be "premature".

Alexander Tkachev, head of the Duma committee on nationalities, cautiously warned that "the period of trust between the Chechen population and the federal forces has given way to frustration." And the representatives of the armed forces lowered their heads in recognition of this fact.

Clearly satisfied with the frank exchange of opinion, Swimmer and Lord Judd wasted no time in telling the press that they would push for Russia's voting rights in the parliamentary assembly, PACE, to be restored. And, within a few hours, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev was confidently announcing that Russia's rights would definitely be returned at the January session of PACE -- if not by September 25.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what prompted the intransigent Lord Judd to change his stance on Chechnya. Perhaps it was a consequence of his trip to the mutinous republic where he met with Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Russian civilian administration, who informed him that "when PACE stripped Russia of its voting rights, it was as if the PACE law-makers were acting on direct orders from Shamil Basaev and the Arab mercenary, Khattab". Or perhaps it was the recent missile attack on MI6 headquarters in his native London that served to remind Lord Judd of the virtues of fighting international terrorism.

But, point-scoring aside, last week's Duma hearings did little to bring the warring sides any closer to resolving the Chechen conflict - not least because the crucial issues have to be tackled on the ground - in Grozny, Gudermes, Shali and Vedeno - rather than in Strasbourg.

The first question that must be asked is, "Who is now in charge in Chechnya?" At first glance, it seems that the Kremlin is still staking its hand on Akhmad Kadyrov and has even condoned some of the ex-mufti's more dubious political decisions.

Last week - to coincide with Aslan Maskhadov's 49th birthday -- Kadyrov urged the Supreme Shariat Court to "assess Maskhadov's role in last year's incursion into Dagestan which triggered the second Chechen war". Needless to say, the kadii, the shariat judges who had met with Kadyrov on the previous day, wasted no time in finding Maskhadov guilty of provoking the current hostilities and set about launching their own version of an impeachment hearing.

Surprisingly, Vladimir Kalamanov, Russian's representative on human rights in Chechnya, described the move as "positive", apparently forgetting that Vladimir Putin's government is committed to restoring federal law in Chechnya - a concept that is hardly consistent with the rule of the shariat.

The pragmatic motives behind such an approach are understandable but they indicate what some might call a lack of consistency in the Kremlin's Chechen policies -- to say nothing of the outright cynicism which TV observer Mikhail Leontiev compared to "resurrecting the Gestapo with the noble goal of stamping out the vestiges of Nazism".

In fact, the comment by ORT's anchorman (one of the few journalists who has been granted an informal face-to-face interview with President Putin) bears witness to the fact that the Kremlin is not entirely satisfied with its choice of leader in Chechnya but feels compelled to support him in the absence of a viable alternative.

In much the same vein, a highly outspoken interview with Vladimir Shamanov -- one of the most successful Russian generals in Chechnya who is now running for governor of the Ulyanovsk oblast - was published on the morning of the Chechnya hearings. Shamanov described Kadyrov's appointment as a "faux pas" because "no Chechen leader -- be it Kadyrov or Gantamirov -- enjoys total influence on the territory of this republic". So, Shamanov argues, in order to solve its problems in Chechnya, the Kremlin needs to find "a non-Chechen hailing from Moscow and invested with sweeping powers".

Coincidentally (or maybe not), Malik Saidulaev, head of the Chechen State Council in Moscow and an ally of Kadyrov's arch-rival Beslan Gantamirov, told journalists earlier this month that Kadyrov was a "poor organiser" who he fully expects to be dismissed this autumn. Furthermore, Saidulaev said that now was the time to choose the republic's true leader -- either by means of presidential elections or a national referendum.

Clearly, talk of his impending dismissal served to unnerve Kadyrov who launched a stinging criticism of the Russian army shortly before Thursday's hearing and warned that, if federal troops continue to conduct "cleaning-up" operations in Chechen villages, they could expect a "storm of local outrage". Kadyrov concluded that, in the event of such an outburst, he would have no option other than to "stay with his people".

Neither Malik Saidulaev nor Beslan Gantamirov were given the floor at the Duma hearings. Instead Kadyrov seized the opportunity to inform Vladimir Putin that in him the Chechens had found the only man capable of restoring order in the republic. He also urged the authorities to define responsibilities for the civilian administration in Chechnya as clearly as possible since he himself "sometimes didn't know exactly what [his] mandate [was]." It was a poorly concealed attempt to force the Kremlin to deny or confirm the rumours of his dismissal.

But the Kremlin was no less in the dark. For the time being, it is compelled to tread a political tightrope between Gantamirov -- who is too unpredictable to be allowed to speak at the Duma - and the inscrutable Kadyrov, who has made little headway in restoring peace to Chechnya but is viewed by the Council of Europe as a legitimate player.

Such inconsistency is having a negative impact on the Kremlin's attempts to articulate its current Chechen policy. Just a few hours after the close of the Chechnya hearing, the Zdes I Seychas (Here and Now) TV programme screened concurrent live interviews with Kadyrov and Gantamirov. The result was predictable.

On hearing that Kadyrov was demanding a full mandate in Chechnya, Gantamirov commented that he could never work side by side "with a man [Kadyrov] who had called on every Chechen to take 150 Russian lives" during the 1994-1996 war. To prevent the live interviews from degenerating into a heated exchange of invective, TV host Alexander Lyubimov urged the two warring leaders "not to dishearten the TV audience" and prove that they could find common ground.

But the consequences of the programme were disastrous. When Mikhail Leontiev appeared on the air later that evening, he was able to say with a self-satisfied smile that he had warned three months ago Kadyrov's appointment was a mistake. By this time, millions of Russian viewers were starting to realise that the search for a solution to the Chechen conflict had hardly begun.

Ostensibly, the somewhat ambiguous coverage of the situation in Chechnya by the official state channel ORT could be partially explained by its current state of disarray (ie. Boris Berezovsky's attempts to transfer ORT shares to a group of "independent" journalists). But, in real terms, it is a consequence of the muddled thinking which currently plagues Moscow's strategic circles.

Although clearly disenchanted with Kadyrov, Moscow cannot afford to lose face with the PACE bigwigs or the members of Kadyrov's ethnic clan. It is likely that recent rumours of Kadyrov's dismissal are part of an attempt to test the political waters. In so doing the Kremlin is covering several bases - sending out a clear warning to the ex-mufti and testing public opinion in the event of his resignation as well as treading water while a suitable alternative remains elusive.

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