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

Russian Charm Offensive

Russian forces have found winning the hearts and minds of local Chechens much harder than winning the war.
By Guy Chazan

Lieutenant-Colonel Sergei Mikhailov has one of the trickiest tasks in Chechnya. He's trying to put together a pro-Russian police force - in a republic which has in the last five years waged two wars against Russian rule. And he admits he's not having much success.


"So far we have a Chechen chief of police, but that's it," says Lt-Col. Mikhailov, deputy commandant of Chechnya's Sholkovsky district. "It's not like we don't have a shortage of applicants: we've had 180 already. But the security checks take ages. And even if we started hiring, there's no money to pay anyone anyway."


Lt-Col. Mikhailov's woes point up the difficulties faced by Chechnya's new rulers, whose efforts to build an administration loyal to Moscow are sabotaged by budgetary constraints and the smouldering resentment of a local population which sees the Russians less as liberators than as a brutal occupying force.


But if Moscow can't win over the locals of the Sholkovsky district, then it can't do it anywhere. Situated on the republic's flat northern plain, far away from the rebellious mountains of the south, Sholkovsky has always been one of the most pro-Russian parts of Chechnya. With its small Cossack wooden houses, it could be anywhere in southern Russia: in fact, it was in southern Russia, right up until 1957 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided on a whim to cede it to Chechnya.


Yet efforts to turn Sholkovsky into a showcase for the rest of Chechnya - an oasis of calm and prosperity, and a glossy advertisement for the benefits of Russian rule - have so far gone nowhere. Winning the hearts and minds of the local Chechens has proved much harder than winning the war.


Still, there are plenty of people in Sholkovsky - most of them ethnic Russians - who are only too happy to see Moscow back in charge. At an improvised town meeting to mark the departure of a police detachment after four months' service, there's plenty of praise for the new regime.


"A deep maternal bow to you, boys," one pensioner, Maria Kudelina, tells the policemen. "Since you came, we've been able to sleep soundly. The bandits have gone, and life is better."


There was certainly little love lost between the citizens of Sholkovsky and the men who ran Chechnya when it was independent. Army officials say that when Russia first invaded in September last year, the Chechen warlord Turpal Atgereyev ordered locals in Sholkovsky to start digging trenches. Instead, they chased him out of town.


Many had reason to be hostile. Chechen self-rule, which began after Russian troops withdrew in 1996, was an economic disaster for most ordinary people. Wages and salaries went unpaid for years. Factories closed down. Many Chechens survived by resorting to cattle-rustling, kidnapping and illegal oil refining. There was a near total breakdown in law and order, as feuds between rival warlords ended in violent shootouts. But few locals remain convinced that the new dispensation will be much better.


"What we had after 1996 was total chaos," says Abdul Magomedov, an 18-year-old unemployed youth chewing sunflower seeds with his friends in the district's main town, Sholkovskaya. "People were starving. They were like animals - give us bread, and we'll do whatever you want. But things haven't got any better since the Russians came. Sure, there's work. But there's no pay."


And it's not just the Chechens who feel hard done by. Pavel, who refused to give his second name, works at a gas supply station in Sholkovskaya. He's ethnic Russian, and he says he never received a single ruble in pay while the gunmen were in charge. "But I haven't been paid in the last five months either," he says. "People are now so poor they're digging around in the rubbish dumps for food."


Lt-Col. Mikhailov dismisses criticism of his administration. "Teachers, pensioners, doctors are all getting paid," he says. "Admittedly a large part of the population is unemployed. And we are experiencing problems with the food supply. But the main thing is there's no shooting here. That's our biggest success."


Russia is now at a crucial stage in its Chechen campaign. Fighting is still raging in the mountainous south, but federal troops are in control of most of the country. The army is beginning to abandon its policing functions, ceding power to the Interior Ministry. Civilian administrations are being formed in all regional centres.


But so far, Russia is having trouble finding enough local politicians it can trust to man the new councils. Too many people are discredited in Russian eyes by their links to the rebel regime of former president Aslan Maskhadov. Yet attempts to install a new elite of Moscow loyalists have been clumsy at best.


One of the chief beneficiaries of the Kremlin policy has been Bislan Gantamirov, the former mayor of Grozny. Gantamirov, a convicted embezzler, was sprung from a Moscow jail last year by the Russian government as it flailed around for potential Chechen allies. He now heads a pro-Russian militia force, and is deputy to Nikolai Koshman, the Kremlin's emissary in Chechnya. Moscow loves him: Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo recently presented him with a pistol engraved with his name. Gantamirov is now being touted as a future president of the troubled republic.


But another self-appointed leader, Malik Saidullayev, has fared less well. A successful Moscow businessman, Saidullayev was elected head of the Chechen State Council shortly after the start of Russia's military campaign. But he's been marginalised by the Russian military leadership, and receives little support from the government either: his trips to Chechnya are made at his own expense.


Instead of shoring up the authority of moderate and well-respected men like Saidullayev, Russia has slipped into its old habits by backing Chechnya's discredited communist-era elite. The hated Soviet leader Doku Zavgayev remains in virtual exile as Russia's ambassador to Tanzania: but his brother Akhmed was recently appointed mayor of the northern Nadterechny district.


Press reports say other members of the Zavgayev plan are returning to positions of power across the republic.


But for the time being, there can be no talk of Chechen autonomy, even if it's governed by the Kremlin's proxies. The republic is currently under direct rule from Moscow: Nikolai Koshman, is a deputy prime minister in the Russian government. There are no plans to change that any time soon.


Meanwhile, critics say that the absence of a strong civilian administration has left a vacuum filled by a Russian police force which is accountable to no-one. One man in a position to judge is Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty journalist who was arrested by Russian forces on the outskirts of Grozny in January and spent two weeks in the notorious Chernokozovo filtration camp in northern Chechnya, where he heard inmates being beaten and tortured by prison guards.


"In Chechnya, a successful model of a police state is being created, which is based entirely on fear and ... repression," he told reporters after his return to Moscow earlier this month.


Clearly, Russia cannot enter talks on Chechnya's political status until the war is over. But equally clearly, there will be no popular support for Russian rule unless Chechens are granted a degree of autonomy. And quickly.


Back in Sholkovskaya's main square, Abdul Magomedov is still chewing sunflower seeds and mulling over life under what he sees as Russian occupation. "We don't want Vladimir Putin," he says. "We have our own president - Aslan Maskhadov. We want our own government, our own authorities. We want freedom."


Guy Chazan writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Telegraph