On January 4, the operational headquarters in Chechnya announced that the zone of the counter-terrorist operation in the Achkhoi-Martan and Urus-Martan districts, in the republic’s southwestern foothills, had been expanded. Law enforcement officials were quoted saying that they had additional information about possible terrorist suspects being in the area. No settlements in the two districts were officially added to the newly-widened counter-terrorist operation zone, but the districts’ inhabitants were warned to cooperate with the authorities. This region borders the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, which has seen a significant surge of attacks in the past several years (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, January 4).
A counter-terrorist operation had been declared in this area earlier –on December 11– but it yielded few results, with just five people having been detained for alleged collaboration with the insurgents. An anonymous Chechen police source told Kavkazsky Uzel that “looking for the fighters in the mountains today is the same as trying to find a needle in a haystack.” The source referred to the many natural hideouts in the area, such as caves and grottos.
Even though the counter-terrorist operation regime was officially lifted in Chechnya in April 2009, regional counter-terrorism operations have continually been enacted across the republic. Shatoi district, for instance, has practically not seen a break in the special operation regime since April 2009.
On December 17, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov claimed to have killed four insurgents –including a rebel leader, Aslan Izrailov– in a special operation in Vedeno district. Kadyrov hailed the killing of Izrailov as a great success for his forces, saying that undercover moles had been used to unveil the insurgents’ network in the region. “There is no point in talking to them [insurgents], they should be eliminated,” Kadyrov stated (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, December 18). On December 22, Chechen officials reported that government forces had killed three more insurgents in Vedeno district. Kadyrov had habitually claimed that the number of insurgents in Chechnya was “50-70 people,” but official data show that more than 170 alleged insurgents were killed in Chechnya in 2009 alone, and rights activists say there is evidence that innocent people were among the killed and identified as rebels. Another claim Kadyrov has frequently made is that foreigners comprise the majority of the insurgents in Chechnya. However, official data suggests that only a few foreigners were among those killed by security forces (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, December 24).
Nevertheless, Kadyrov nearly caused an international scandal in an interview with Reuters, in which he accused the West of plotting to destroy Russia. He said the West is destabilizing the North Caucasus in order to weaken Russia and suggested that Russia needs to counterattack in Georgia and Ukraine –countries where, according to Kadyrov, Russia needs to confront the West. Kadyrov said it would be better if the US pursued “more friendly policies” toward Russia and warned that if the US did not become friendlier, Russia has “a very strong politician of global stature, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin” (Reuters, December 21). Kadyrov’s words caused a stir in political circles in both Georgia and Ukraine. Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko dismissed the importance of Kadyrov’s statements, saying the Chechen leader is politically insignificant (Rosbalt, December 26).
The well-known Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said that Kadyrov’s statements show his independence from the Kremlin and do not reflect the latter’s plans. “Chechnya today is an independent country, with its own autonomous laws and its own power system,” Belkovsky said. “Moscow, whatever they might say, cannot influence Chechnya anymore, while Chechnya can influence Moscow” (Ukrainska Pravda, December 28).
Meanwhile, the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Grozny passed under heightened security measures, with all people, including women and teenagers, being searched in the locations where outdoor public celebrations were held. Kadyrov, who reportedly made an appearance dressed as Ded Moroz [Santa Claus] was hailed by the mayor of Grozny at the central Grozny plaza as “the principal Ded Moroz of not only our republic, but also of the Universe” (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, January 1).
Moreover, the Kadyrov government’s ongoing fight with the rights activists took another turn. On December 16, the renowned Memorial human rights center announced a resumption of its activities in Chechnya, but on December 22, a group of Chechen NGO’s led by the republic’s rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, harshly criticized Memorial. The head of the organization, Oleg Orlov, said the attack was proof of “the impossibility for the human rights activists to work in Chechnya” (www.kakvaz-uzel.ru, December 30). Rights activists have repeatedly accused the Chechen government authorities of human rights violations, including indiscriminate and extrajudicial killings, torture, attacks on civilians and terrorist suspects as well as on rights’ activists themselves. Following the brazen killing of the prominent Chechen rights activist Natalya Estemirova in July 2009, the Memorial human rights center suspended its operations in the republic.
On December 31, in a lengthy interview with the ITAR-TASS news agency, Ramzan Kadyrov stated that it was the responsibility of the federal law enforcement agencies to solve the murders of rights activists in Chechnya. Kadyrov reiterated his view that there are “several dozens of insurgents, scampering around in the mountains,” and vowed to carry out their elimination to the end. According to Kadyrov, Chechnya’s links with foreign countries have developed well, especially with the Middle East.
On December 24, Grozny airport hosted its first direct international flight – to Turkey – after having been granted international status. Regular flights to international destinations like Kazakhstan, China and Saudi Arabia are expected to follow in the near future (www.yuga.ru, December 24).
While Chechnya has undoubtedly become relatively quieter, especially compared to the other North Caucasian republics, security threats are still evident. Moscow, with a substantial degree of success, has used Ramzan Kadyrov to suppress the Chechen independence movement. But Kadyrov himself is gradually becoming a problem for Moscow. Still, relative stability in Chechnya seems to depend on Kadyrov’s personality to such an extent that Moscow will almost certainly patiently endure his whims.