Russian President Vladimir Putin spent the last days of March in his summer residence in Sochi, and the first guest to be invited was Chechen President Alu Alkhanov. The official footage of the meeting showed Putin reviewing with positive interest the plan for reconstructing several city blocks in Grozny and asking about the achievements of the local football team, Terek.  The last time Terek made headlines was nearly a year ago, when it was made into a symbol of “normalization” in Chechnya – but that PR campaign was interrupted by a series of terrorist attacks culminating with the horrible school massacre in Beslan. What makes it possible for Putin to slip back into self-deceiving propaganda templates is the visible decline in the intensity of rebel attacks. Moscow with few doubts attributes this “pacification” to its several successful operations against terrorist cells in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria and even more to the elimination of separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, who in a desperate attempt to advance a peace process had declared truce a couple of weeks prior to his murder in early March.
The ten-year war, however, has often seen winter pauses as fighters (after a large-scale attack) take time to regroup and train new recruits. Independent Russian experts argue that Maskhadov’s assassination was a strategic mistake, leading to further radicalization of the Chechen resistance and a “heroic” competition among warlords for the vacant position of leader.  This radicalization is driven from the other side as well, as the pro-Moscow militia commanded by Ramzan Kadyrov terrorizes the population with a massive kidnapping campaign and looting. The son of former president Akhmad Kadyrov was until recently Putin’s favorite, and even received the order of Hero of Russia. The military also were happy to push their dirty work to his troops in order to minimize own casualties, but the activities of kadyrovtsy have reached such a level of arrogance and criminal brutality that the presence of federal forces is now increasing.  The Kremlin is now contemplating a scheme for making Alkhanov into a real president, capable of restraining the maverick Kadyrov, but has obviously no clue about how to disarm the bandits comprising his personal guard.
Putin prefers to ignore the signs of the gathering storm and instead hopes that Maskhadov’s disappearance from the scene will stop the pressure from the U.S. and the EU for a political solution, which failed to emerge even as a vague draft design at the recent roundtable organized by the Council of Europe.  His own “political solution” is centered on parliamentary elections in Chechnya, provisionally scheduled for October. Some Western experts see in these elections a real, and maybe the last chance for advancing dialogue and reconciliation in the hugely traumatized republic.  Moscow, however, is perfectly aware that elections have of recent become a risky business, as the astonishingly successful revolt in Kyrgyzstan has shown yet again. Moscow shows no inclination to experiment with democratic procedures or grass-root aspirations and intents to apply the tested manipulative techniques of managed democracy.
This fraudulent expression of popular will is expected to legitimize Moscow’s control and secure the absolute dependency of all the presidents in the seven republics of the North Caucasus. Murat Zyazikov, installed by Moscow as the president of Ingushetia through crudely manipulated elections in April 2002, personifies this tactic. Putin received him in Sochi after Alkhanov, and expressed his full satisfaction with the social development of the republic. In fact, Zyazikov has entirely lost control over the republic, which his predecessor Ruslan Aushev – a highly suspicious character from Moscow’s point of view – controlled with remarkable skill.  Now Ingushetia faces a sharp increase in radical networks (from what is known, most of the members of the unit that attacked Beslan were Ingush) and also a rise of public protests against a corrupt administration that is unable to provide basic social needs.
The situation in Dagestan appears even more explosive. News of liquidated terrorists, assassinated officials, bridges or pipelines damaged by explosions comes every few days, creating a picture of deep erosion in a social fabric that used to feature an ethnic balance and compromise.  In the summer of 1999, the incursion from Chechnya led by Shamil Basaev brought a strong defensive and uniting reaction in Dagestan, but now this impulse has been exhausted, while violent clan competition for power has become the norm. In this multiethnic republic, Islamic traditions have always played an important integrative role – but also formed a safety net against any social engineering. Nowadays, widespread resentment against corrupt and inefficient power structures sponsored by the federal center easily transforms into Islamic resistance shaped by a network of civil organizations, called jamaats.
When earlier this year Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev proudly reported the destruction of yet another jamaat, Putin reprimanded him for using such confusing terms, ordering him to call terrorists by their real name.  This simplistic interpretation of smoldering social discontent determines the methods of deterring its spread. Several recent operations against rebels in urban areas such as Makhachkala or Nalchik used heavy arms, including tanks, quite indiscriminately. Public response to these “victories” were mixed, so the Federation Council in late March approved changes in the Law on Defense that remove any restrictions on the use of Armed Forces in counter-terrorist operations.  Tanks, however, are hardly an efficient instrument against jamaats, which are in essence not terrorist cells but grass-root organizations performing crucial social functions. Their influence is not the product of subversive propaganda sponsored by foreign Islamic charities, but the sum of societal responses to the degradation of state machinery and authority.
Seeking to check this grass-roots trend by administrative measures, Putin has appointed Dmitry Kozak, one of the few capable managers in the administration, as the presidential envoy, expanding his mandate in the Southern District.  For the last six months, Kozak has been rushing from one hot spot to another, trying to keep the state structures functioning, primarily by securing additional transfers from the federal budget. He managed to defuse several dramatically explosive situations, for instance when an angry crowd stormed the government building in Cherkessk, Karachaevo-Cherkessia seeking to depose President Moustafa Batdyev, who had been implicated in a violent corruption scandal. Kozak’s every success, however, has only been pushing the problem deeper into political underground, thus denying the rather incoherent central efforts any chance for gaining public support. As the meager results of the massive search-and-destroy operation in Kabardino-Balkaria recently indicated, local authorities now prefer to find a way of coexisting with the jamaats rather then to confront them. 
The lack of strategy for Chechnya exacerbates the lack of the strategy for the North Caucasus. In contrast with the official picture of “normalization”, Chechnya has not returned to the status of one of the subjects of the Russian Federation; it is an occupied territory where the Constitution does not apply and the laws are not even expected to work. For a long time it had been an isolated black hole, but now it is rather the eye of the storm engulfing the whole region. Direct spillover continues to be limited, but it triggers violent clashes which will intensify as local tensions grow. Putin pays only occasional attention to this disaster area preferring the more comfortable virtual reality of “great-and-improving” reports from his minions and leaving Kozak without much needed support. The political recipe for disaster is enacted; there are few doubts that the terrorists would oblige.
Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo.
1. See Natalya Melikova, ‘Moskva bez prismotra’ (Moscow without control), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 31 March 2005.
2. See Boris Dolgin, ‘Unichtozhenie Maskhadova: Chob svoi boyalis’ (Maskhadov’s elimination: To frighten your own), Polit.ru, 9 March 2005; Alexei Malashenko, interview with Moscow Echo, 9 March 2005; for a detailed analysis of the trajectory of the Chechen War, see Mark Kramer, ‘The Perils of Counterinsurgency: Russia’s War in Chechnya ‘, International Security, Winter 2004/05, pp. 5-63.
3. See Vladimir Mukhin, ‘Voennaya gruppirovka v Chechne usilivaetsya’ (The military grouping in Chechnya is strengthened), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 16 March 2005.
4. See ‘Sovet Evropy zabyl slovo Ichkeria’ (The Council of Europe forgot the word Ichkeriya), VipLenta.ru, 22 March 2003.
5. See Fiona Hill, Anatol Lieven and Thomas de Waal, ‘A Spreading Danger: Tome for a New Policy Toward Chechnya’, Policy Brief 35, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2005.
6. See Yulia Latynina, ‘Kod dostupa’ (Access code) on Moscow echo, 26 March 2005.
7. See Kazbek Sultanov, ‘Kavkazskaya intifada: novaya voina nachnetsya v Dagestane?’ (Caucasian intifada: Will a new war begin in Dagestan?), Kavkaz-forum.ru, 28 February 2005.
8. See Tatyana Gritsenko, ‘Net takogo slova “Dzhamaat”‘ (There is no such a word “jamaat”), Vremya novostei, 22 February 2005.
9. See Yulia Latynina, ‘Mestami “Grad”‘ (“Grad” in some places), Novaya gazeta, 28 March 2005.
10. See Oleg Hrabry, ‘Kozak na Kavkaze’ (Kozak in the Caucasus), Expert, 15 October 2004.
11. See Maria Bondarenko ‘V Kabardino-Balkarii ishchut boevikov’ (The search for rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 14 March.