Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has announced a total victory over separatist forces in Chechnya. Considering President Vladimir Putin proclamations several years ago that the rebels had been totally defeated as far back as 2001, Kadyrov’s statement comes across as less than completely truthful. Indeed, following a December 2004 meeting with then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Schleswig, Germany, President Putin addressed a group of anti-Chechen war protesters in German: “The war in Chechnya ended three years ago; the war is over. You can go home now. Merry Christmas” (Novaya Gazeta, February 10, 2005). Now, three years after that statement, Ramzan Kadyrov is again telling the world that the armed opposition forces in the republic have been “fully defeated.” “The war can already be described in the past tense,” said the Chechen president during an online conference. According to Kadyrov, no more than 60 to 70 “shaitans” are still “running around the mountains with their guns” (Echo Moskvy, January 31). Yet he made it sound like a relatively recent occurrence. Therefore, what exactly did President Putin mean by the “complete defeat” that he declared in Germany?
On January 30, several hours after Ramzan Kadyrov’s highly emotional online conference, “Chechen Republic News” broadcast a story produced in Vedeno, one of Chechnya’s mountainous districts. In the segment, a Vedeno district government official admitted that there are 85 known rebel fighters from their district alone, who, he said, have been brainwashed by foreigners and need to be returned to their homes. It is worth noting that this number includes only active resistance fighters. Assuming that this is an average number per district, the Chechen Republic is likely to have over a thousand active rebel fighters, given that the republic has a total of 19 districts (15 rural districts and four administrative districts in the capital Grozny). Of course there are some areas of Chechnya where rebel fighters are more active than others. For example, there are hardly any fighters operating in the lowland areas of northern Chechnya while other parts of the country have far larger numbers, such as Grozny where an estimated 200 fighters are believe to be active. Moreover, aside from the total number of fighters, one also needs to take into consideration the number of rebel sympathizers who support the insurgency. For every rebel fighter there are an estimated 2-3 persons who provide the rebels with cover and support for those hiding in the woods and the mountains.
Over the years of the Chechen war, there have been several examples of fuzzy math when it comes to the numbers of civilian casualties, rebel fighters, troops stationed in Chechnya and rebuilding the republic’s infrastructure. For instance, in November 2003 Akhmad Kadyrov shocked everyone when he said, “there are no more than four to five intractable rebel fighters, and I can tell you their names. However, I don’t know how many people support them, and no one else does, either. The numbers you heard during the last three to four years—three thousand, two thousand, etc.—have no foundation” (Interfax, November 19, 2003).
In contrast with his father, Ramzan Kadyrov mostly sticks with “tens” of fighters, and has declared the “last summer and winter for the rebels” every year starting as early as mid-January 2006 (Kommersant, January 18, 2006). In another instance, Kadyrov said in November 2006 that there were no more than a hundred local rebel fighters in Chechnya (Lenta.ru, November 26, 2006). He issued an almost identical pronouncement six months ago, assuming that the fighters would be gone before the end of the year 2007: “I am giving you my word that the problem of illegal armed forces will be fully resolved before the end of the year. There will not be a single fighter, or shaitan, as we call them, left in Chechnya” (Interfax, August 3, 2007). “This is their last winter, I assure you,” Kadyrov told the Chechen people again on BBC Radio on January 30, 2008. So far, however, the results have not been nearly as impressive in the military arena as in rebuilding the Chechen Republic and its capital.
Memorial Society official Aleksandr Cherkasov, who travels to Chechnya regularly, noted the pressure put on the populace by the government and commented: “it’s pointless to ask people who live in fear and inertia what they think about their life. Imagine the Soviet Union in 1940 in time of the Great Terror. In terms of the percentage of the total population, more people went missing in Chechnya in the recent years than the total number of executions during Yezhov’s rein. Not everyone will agree to talk to a reporter. Not everyone will file a complaint if they have a problem” (BBC Radio, January 30).
In the meantime, while Kadyrov was fielding questions online, Chechen rebels in Urus-Martan district kidnapped a Russian serviceman (Svobodanews.ru, January 30). This showed that Russia’s “most peaceful region,” as Kadyrov is fond of saying, is still plagued by military operations, which include the use of artillery and tanks and with helicopter air support, such as a very recent operation in the village of Bamut in Chechnya’s Achkhoi-Martan district (Kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 28).
The latest data from Russian NGOs show that very few things have changed in the republic with regard to peace and war. According to the Union of Non-Governmental Organizations (SNO) and PRIMA-News, at least 16 rebel fighters and policemen were killed in Chechnya during a period covering the final days of December 2007 and the beginning of January 2008. Over that same period, at least 49 people were detained by the authorities in Grozny, and while some of them were later released, many have to report to the police if summoned. Two people disappeared in Chechnya during the same period. Additionally, there were no less than six armed confrontations between rebel fighters and law-enforcement agencies, as well as attacks on the latter (PRIMA-News, February 1). At the same time, according to Voinenet.ru, 51 people were killed and 59 were wounded across the North Caucasus in January 2008, which means that Chechnya still accounts for one-third of all casualties in the region.
There is a crude attempt to manipulate public opinion by using the most optimistic data available for propaganda, while the numbers reflecting the real state of affairs in the republic are accessible only to the very few, leaving little opportunity for the NGOs to disseminate the real figures to a wider audience. The NGOs do not have access to television or government-controlled newspapers and magazines, leaving them with only one option: to publish and disseminate the information independently and leave themselves open to being accused by the authorities of anti-government activities—potentially resulting in multiple fines and taxes. That was the case with the Center for Peacemaking and Public Development, an NGO that was charged hundreds of thousand rubles in taxes during the time it operated in Chechnya (Kavkaz-memo.ru, January 15).
The situation in Chechnya and the entire North Caucasus is easy to understand if one harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union, when people’s real lives bore no relation to what was shown and said in public. Such a situation cannot fail to cause disappointment and bewilderment among people forced to lead a double life, in which the government’s propaganda is miles away from what the public actually believes.