Fear of Large-Scale Rebel Attack Grips Grozny

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 34

On August 27, Ruslan Alkhanov, the pro-Russian Interior Minister of Chechnya, made a sensational statement. Alkhanov attempted to dispel the idea that the Chechen rebels are preparing to launch a large attack on Grozny on the eve of September 1, declaring that “the Chechen Interior Ministry denies the claims about preparations of an attack by the militants on Grozny on the eve of September 1.” He added: “These are crude inventions and moonstruck fancies by the authors of such rumors.” According to Alkhanov, “The objective of this provocation is to instill uncertainty in the residents of the republic and to damage the authority of the police and the Unified Military Group (the official name of the Russian military group in Chechnya). At the same time, the Chechen Interior Minster said that the Chechen police had been put on alert, but that “there is nothing unusual about it” (Ekho Moskvy, August 27).

Alkhanov’s comments can be described as sensational given that it is the first time in the last six years that the authorities have used such phrases as “attack (napadenie) on Grozny.” It is a clear military term that sounds unusual against the backdrop of official propaganda, according to which the authorities in Chechnya are fighting against terrorists, not against rebels or guerillas. The phrase “an attack on Grozny” implies a military operation, but not a terrorist act. Even if Alkhanov disproved the possibility of a large rebel attack on Grozny, the very fact that he talked about it may mean that something forced him to do so. Every summer and fall, the security officials in Chechnya expect a possible rebel raid on the Chechen capital to take place, but prefer not to talk about it publicly. Moreover, even if they expect it, they have never in recent years used the word “attack” (napadenie). They have preferred to use vague terms such as “large-scale terrorist act” or “provocation.”

So what forced Alkhanov to speak again about an attack? It is the current situation in the city. Just two days before his comments, independent Russian sources, including the Sobkorr.ru and Kavkazky Uzel websites, reported an exodus of civilians from Grozny. Sobkorr.ru reported that entire Chechen families had started to leave Grozny and move to villages or to neighboring Ingushetia. Kavkazky Uzel reported that food and clothing markets in the Chechen capital had been closed. This flight of residents resembles the events of March 2003, when many Chechens left Grozny expecting a rebel attack on the capital on the eve of the referendum on the pro-Russian republican constitution. Many Chechens leave Chechnya every summer fearing increased hostilities in the region. From my own experience, I recall that two years ago, a hairdresser of Chechen origin in Moscow complained to my wife that she could not visit Chechnya in the summer because her cousin, an official in the pro-Russian Chechen government, warned his relatives against going to the republic in the summer time because of security problems.

This year, the panic of Grozny’s residents seems to have become so evident that the authorities simply could not ignore it. Most likely, the panic was deliberately provoked by the rebels, who took special steps to cause it. What the insurgents did in the city this summer can be called psychological warfare. They set up mobile checkpoints, killed policemen on the streets using elite sniper rifles equipped with silencers, showed up well-armed in crowded places and distributed leaflets. On August 28, Sobkorr.ru reported that the rebels simultaneously attacked police departments in mountain districts, including Kurchaloi, Nozhai-Yurt, Vedeno, Shatoi and Sharoi. This summer, the rebels conducted several demonstrative raids on Chechen villages, where they burned down the private houses of senior pro-Russian Chechen policemen. The insurgents raided the villages of Vedeno, Shalazhi, Yandi-Kotar, and Gukhoi.

Another possible reason for the panic is the unprecedented flow of young Chechens to the mountains to join the rebels. Chechen officials have finally had to admit this fact. On September 3, Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov announced that according to official estimates, 35 Chechen men joined the insurgency in August alone (Sobkorr.ru, September 3).

When September 1 had passed, everybody began to talk about a possible raid on Grozny on September 6, the day of Chechen independence. However, it is likely that there will be no such raid in Chechnya, though one could occur in any other part of the North Caucasus. Only Doku Umarov, the top rebel leader, knows when and where it will happen.