Chechnya Remains the Epicenter of the North Caucasus Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 27

Faced with a surge of Russian news media reports about daily armed skirmishes in Chechnya, official Moscow is trying to defuse the tension by deploying its usual crude propaganda tactics. To name just one, the Russian cabinet’s presidium passed an extremely well-publicized resolution to invest approximately 120 billion rubles into Chechnya’s economy over the next four years (http://www.rian.ru/politics/20080623/111797654.html; North Caucasus Weekly, June 26)—a move long awaited by Chechen economists. And just as expected, it was followed by a cold-shower statement from Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak effectively warning official Grozny that the gravy train could be cut off as soon as next year if results are not forthcoming. Still, the Kremlin has, in a very public manner, made it known that no corners will be cut when it comes to Chechnya’s funding. According to Igor Bunin, president of the Center for Political Technologies, the money is a sort of reward for Ramzan Kadyrov’s efforts to keep news of armed clashes to a minimum (http://www.aif.ru/politic/article/19080).

Following this bit of good news for the Chechen leadership, Ramzan Kadyrov hosted a visit by several top Kremlin officials charged with developing and implementing Chechnya-related policies. The guest list included Sergei Naryshkin, President Dmitry Medvedev’s chief of staff, and Vladislav Surkov, a deputy Kremlin chief of staff who was the chief ideologist of the pro-Putin United political party during Putin’s term and whose father was an ethnic Chechen (http://www.echo.msk.ru/news/319751.html). In all likelihood, Naryshkin decided to bring Surkov along to serve two purposes: first, to demonstrate that no changes toward Ramzan Kadyrov are envisaged, and second, to have Surkov, who was a key driver of Chechnya-related policies during Putin’s term, deliver a direct and personal warning to Putin’s proxy man against any possible efforts to reach out to Putin directly over the head of the current president’s staff.

In any event, the presence of both Naryshkin and Surkov on the same trip was unusual, and the only explanation for their joint participation was the critical importance of their visit’s goals. Notably, after becoming convinced that he has crushed the Yamadaev clan once and for all, the announcement that the army would not even contemplate dissolving the Vostok special forces battalion showed Ramzan Kadyrov that the army had no intention of letting Kadyrov run roughshod over its people (Newsru.com, June 10). This was a strong blow to Kadyrov’s ego, because Vladimir Putin’s man in Chechnya was not used to hearing “no” from his Moscow allies.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s team in Chechnya spun the official visit as evidence of support by the new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev for Chechnya’s “pacification” policy. The core of their message—“a routine visit into a routine region of Russia”—was belied by the fact that the high-level guests were shuttled through Grozny under a heavy protective escort of special forces units brought along from Moscow as well as dispatches from the army, police and Federal Security Service (FSB).

The pro-Moscow Chechen government is also struggling with the daily challenges of suppressing the reports of rebel activities that are on the rise compared with the last two years. Since March there have been almost daily reports of rebel attacks across the republic and shootouts involving police units, who live as if under siege. Notably, these stories include only what has been filtered through the news selection process, because in the absence of confirmation by the Russian information agencies, such news is usually dismissed by Western audiences as rebel propaganda. Until recently, such reports could have been verified with the help of NGOs present in the region; however, this mechanism is apparently being eliminated. Following the example of the United Nations, other humanitarian organizations are also winding down their activities under pressure exerted by the Russian government’s policies targeting non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The last straw came on July 2, 2008, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin terminated all tax exemption benefits granted to NGOs, including the International Red Cross (http://www.izbrannoe.info/40906.html).

In the meantime, official Moscow, chagrined by the reliably favorable hearing given to complaints lodged by Chechens with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (the court, which has heard dozens of such complaints over the last three years, has yet to dismiss one or rule against the Chechen plaintiff), replaced its representative to the court Veronika Milenchuk after only a little over a year (http://www.newsru.com/russia/03jul2008/mili.html). Her predecessor, incidentally, had also been replaced for losing so many cases.

Yet another bitter pill for the Russian government was the “untimely” discoveries of secret mass graves (North Caucasus Weekly, July 3). It is believed that several dozen mass graves were left in Chechnya after the first war, and the number could have only grown by leaps and bounds after the second military campaign. The emerging reports of two burial sites with the remains of 800 and 300 dead, respectively, obviously do nothing to improve the reputation of the Russian government with the Chechen public. Instead, the news may only deepen the realization of who was behind the mass executions and killing of civilians. Thus a subject that the Russian government generally prefers to avoid at all costs has surfaced again, and has done so during Medvedev’s presidency, which makes one wonder whether it was orchestrated by his supporters to remind the public that it was his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who was at the helm at the time of the atrocities.

News reports in Russia never happen spontaneously, and especially not news about Chechnya: there is always someone pulling the strings in order to damage someone else. Should more mass graves be found, it will almost certainly turn out to be a political card played against former President Putin (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1224600.html). There are still dozens, if not hundreds of mass graves remaining in Chechnya.

Yet another step in the anti-Putin chain of events came with the release of several ethnic Chechens detained in connection with the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed during Putin’s term. This author has already made known his skepticism regarding the arrests of those who may have been simple pawns in Putin’s big game (Chechnya Weekly, November 1, 2007).

However, everything described above pales in comparison with the ground swell of rebel operations in Chechnya. Local TV and radio stations continue to exhort the youth not to leave for the mountains. The parents of those who did leave receive “counseling” to discredit the actions of their children. Chechnya’s chief mufti (Islamic scholar) ordered all mosque-based imams to denounce the rebels in their Friday sermons; he also called for holding religious leaders in every village (along with village and regional administrations) equally responsible for keeping their young men from joining the rebels in the mountain camps.

The rebels, meanwhile, have expanded the scope of their attacks against the Russian armed forces in Chechnya. Springtime skirmishes in Achkhoi-Martan and Urus Martan districts led by Amir Tarkhan have turned into summertime attacks in the eastern part of Chechnya from the Dagestan border to the Argun River (Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno district)—the parts most commonly associated with Amir Muslim and Osman.

The Chechnya situation thus remains a key factor in the context of the entire North Caucasus region. Chechnya receives the most attention, time and funding because the events in Chechnya will determine whether the resistance movement remains a unified organization. The withdrawal of any of the ethnic jamaats from joint operations would certainly damage the resistance movement as a whole but probably not lead to its disintegration. The disintegration of the resistance movement as a whole would become possible only with the withdrawal of the Chechen units, which -over the course of two wars propelled the entire North Caucasus resistance movement. The Chechen front, therefore, remains the heart of the entire North Caucasus resistance movement.