Counter-Terrorist Operation in Chechnya Officially Ended

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 15

In yet another apparent victory for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin announced on April 16 that the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya was over, marking an official end to the second Chechen war that began in September 1999 (North Caucasus Weekly, April 3).

As the Moscow Times reported on April 17, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev instructed the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK), headed by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, to end the security regime from midnight on April 16. “This decision aims to create conditions to further normalize the situation in the region and to restore and develop its economic and social infrastructure,” the NAK said in a statement, Itar-Tass reported.

Kadyrov said he received the news that the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya was over “with great satisfaction,” adding that the “most important thing is that the lifting of the operation has been dictated by the fulfillment of the tasks to fight terrorism that were set 10 years ago,” Interfax reported on April 16. “Now the Chechen Republic—as thousands of guests acknowledge, including politicians, businessmen, journalists and cultural figures that visit  the region—is a peaceful, developing territory, and cancelling the counter-terrorism operation will only promote economic growth in the republic.”

Kadyrov also told Interfax that the decision would be greeted by businesspeople in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia who wanted to invest in Chechnya’s economy but had been hesitant to do so because of restrictions related to the counter-terrorist operation. He added that “without waiting for the decision to be taken” by the federal authorities to end the operation, “a customs post has been built [in Chechnya] at a rapid pace and a number of measures have been undertaken to give the [Grozny] airport international status.”

Kadyrov said that ending the counter-terrorist operation also has “enormous moral and psychological significance,” because in doing so, Russia’s leadership “has officially confirmed the fact that the nest of terrorism has been crushed, that illegal armed groups have been neutralized, and militant leaders on whose conscience lay the grief and suffering of thousands of people have been destroyed, detained and brought to court.” He added that he hoped that the decision would facilitate “the return home of those who left Russia” during the ten years that the counter-terrorist operation was in effect.

Kadyrov said that Russian troops would have to stay in Chechnya “not because we still have the threat of banditry and terrorism, but in case of an outside threat,” Itar-Tass reported on April 16. “We have to protect the Caucasus in particular and thus Russia in general. Remember South Ossetia. As for internal problems, the republic’s law-enforcement bodies are coping excellently.”

RIA Novosti on April 17 quoted Kadyrov as saying that the day the counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya ended, April 16, would be designated as an official holiday in the republic. “This day is for us historic,” Kadyrov said, speaking in his native village of Tsentoroi. “We will be marking it every year as a holiday. I am also sure that it is significant for every Russian.” Kadyrov said that the decision to end the counter-terrorism operation confirmed that Chechnya is the most secure of Russia’s regions. He said that Chechens had protected Russia’s sovereignty and will continue to protect the interests of the state. In 2003, despite pressure from the West, “Chechens made their choice and declared that they would develop together with the fraternal peoples of Russia,” he said. “I believe that choice is worth a lot.” Kadyrov added that during the ten years of the counter-terrorist operation, his clan lost 420 people.  “I lost the people dearest to me, including my father,” he said.

Meanwhile, reported on April 17 that the Chechen authorities plan to give the Grozny Airport international status and begin flights to Kazakhstan, Turkey and the Middle East. Sultan Satuev, the general director of the state company Vainakhavia, which runs Grozny Airport, was quoted as saying that negotiations are already underway to give the airport international status, given that the main requirement to do so—ending the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya—has now been fulfilled. He said, however, that reconstruction of the airport’s infrastructure needed for it to meet international standards would take a month. Satuev said that Chechen government officials are currently in Moscow with the required documentation and meeting with officials from Rosaviatsia and the Russian Transport Ministry. A source in the Federal Customs Service was quoted as saying that there are not yet the proper conditions for setting up customs control areas at the Grozny Airport, adding that first the airport must receive international status.

Satuev said most of the international flights from the airport would be traveling to Kazakhstan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which have the largest expatriate Chechen populations. Ziad Sabsabi, Chechnya’s representative in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, said he expected the airport would also have flights to Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The reaction in Moscow to news of the end of the counter-terrorist operation Chechnya was mixed. The Moscow Times on April 17 quoted Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist State Duma deputy and former member of the parliament’s security committee, as saying that the Kremlin’s decision was necessary but that he was worried about its political implications. “On the one hand it is unavoidable because [the security regime] greatly hampers the republic’s development,” he said. “On the other hand I do not have full trust in Kadyrov. Who can guarantee that no rebels will descend from the mountains after the troops have gone?” Another Communist Party legislator, State Duma Deputy Speaker Ivan Melnikov, said that in lifting the anti-terrorist regime in Chechnya the federal authorities were “acting at their own risk and peril.” He warned that upswings in rebel activity were possible given deteriorating social and economic conditions, RIA Novosti reported on April 16.

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the decision was a mistake given the threat that “terrorist acts” in Chechnya will resume, Interfax reported on April 16. “If we leave now, rebels will return and there will be a fight for power again,” he said. “It is not just that many in Chechnya possess weapons and therefore clans will be settling scores there. Foreign special services—those from Turkey, Arab and Western nations—are always there.”

Other members of Russia’s parliament backed the decision to end the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya, including Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who called it “justified and well-founded.” He warned against “getting too relaxed,” however, given that Russia’s financial and economic crisis is increasing tensions, “and not only in the North Caucasus,” Interfax reported.

Gennady Gudkov, deputy of the State Duma’s Security Committee and a member of the parliament’s pro-Kremlin A Just Russia faction, called the decision “logical” given that the situation in Chechnya is, in his words, “not worse” and in some respects “even better than in other ethnic republics,” Interfax reported. He said that lifting the counter-terrorist regime means there will be fewer restrictions on the daily lives of Chechnya’s inhabitants. The military’s job, he added, is being taken over by the special services, which should “continue carrying out precision-targeted actions to deal with what remains of bandit detachments” using relatively small special-purpose units. Gudkov, a former KGB officer, said that the FSB should have a “special coordinating center” to oversee the activities of such special-purpose units aimed at preventing rebels from “spreading across the region.”

Interfax on April 16 quoted Lev Ponomarev, the veteran human rights activist who heads the For Human Rights movement, as saying that ending the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya was, on the one hand, good given that citizens’ rights are violated during such an operation and the activities of the security agencies are not monitored. On the other hand, the withdrawal of federal forces from the republic will mean that “no one will keep Chechnya’s security agencies in check,” Ponomarev said, adding: “There were federal troops and local security agencies in Chechnya. These were levers which somehow kept each other in check. We know that in Chechnya, as before, human rights are being grossly violated. I do not think that the situation will now improve.”

Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Right Watch, said that lifting customs restriction on Chechnya and conferring international status on the Grozny Airport were especially important to Kadyrov given that the State Duma has cut federal subsidies to the republic by almost 30 percent. More generally, she said that the lifting of the counter-terrorist regime in Chechnya has highlighted the main tendency in relations between Chechnya and the Kremlin. “The Kremlin always sooner or later caves into Kadyrov’s demands,” she said, adding that while a series of scandals surrounding Kadyrov—an apparent reference to the murder of a number of his opponents—had made authorities in Moscow wary of giving him free rein, they had done so in the end. On the other hand, Lokshina said that all restrictions on foreign media working in the republic should now be lifted and that the authorities as well as security agencies operating in the republic will now have to justify their actions on the basis of the law, not on the basis of a special counter-terrorist regime.

Chechnya’s press minister, Shasail Saraliev, told Ekho Moskvy radio on April 16 that with the lifting of the counter-terrorist regime in Chechnya, restrictions on journalists working there would also be lifted “automatically.” Saraliev said that journalists will now be able to work in Chechnya the way they work in other Russian regions. “There will be no difference from other regions,” he said. “We have an open region.” Saraliev clarified, however, that he was talking only about Russian journalists, not foreign journalists. In addition, Itar-Tass on April 16 quoted Southern Federal District law-enforcement sources as saying that the counter-terrorist operation would remain in effect in some of Chechnya’s mountainous districts where there is “a high probability of attacks” by militants. The sources said this could be the case in 10 mountainous districts.

The commander of the federal Interior Ministry’s internal troops, Nikolai Rogozhkin, said earlier that 20,000 internal troops would be pulled out of the republic once the counter-terrorist regime was ended, and Kavkazky Uzel on April 16 quoted a federal Interior Ministry statement as saying that the ministry would start withdrawing these troops “without delay.”

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center for Strategic Studies, told on April 16 that despite Kadyrov’s demonstration of personal loyalty to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the lifting of the counter-terrorist regime in Chechnya was a “big victory for Kadyrov” demonstrating that the republic has become de facto independent. “Over the course of two weeks, Kadyrov managed to mobilize political resources that proved to be more effective than the resources of our power ministries,” he told the website. “This once again underscores that Chechnya has become de facto independent under Kadyrov’s formal articulation of loyalty not so much to Moscow as to Putin personally, as he [Kadyrov] always emphasizes.”

This raises a distressing question, Piontkovsky added: what was the point of the two counter-terrorist operations aimed at “establishing constitutional order” conducted under both Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, during which 10,000 Russian soldiers and around 100,000 Chechen civilians were killed? “It would have been possible to agree easily on the status of Chechnya that we now have with Kadyrov with much more decent people like the Soviet [military] officers [Djokhar] Dudaev and [Aslan] Maskhadov,” Piontkovsky said.

The ending of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya means that federal Interior Ministry forces will be withdrawn from the republic and federal forces will no longer be able to “run riot” there, Piontkovsky said. The federal siloviki, he added, wanted the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya to continue because of the revenues it brought them through federal funding for the operation, as well as the “plundering” they engaged in there and the oil revenues that Kadyrov was forced to share with them. Piontkovsky said that many people in neighboring republics such as Ingushetia and Dagestan will now be asking: “And why can’t our president protect us from the federals’ outrages, when Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov has done it so effectively?” on April 16 quoted the president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, as saying that the end of the counter-terrorist regime in Chechnya would not impact the work of Ingushetia’s law-enforcement bodies along the administrative border between the two republics. “The posts which stand along the border will remain, but there will be no additional reinforcement,” he said. “If there is operational information indicating that reinforcement is needed, then we will react.”

Meanwhile, RIA Novosti reported on April 17 that a group of federal Interior Ministry internal troops fought with a group of militants in Chechnya’s Shatoi district. The news agency reported that there were no casualties among the federal forces, who fired artillery at the rebels.