Has Moscow Lost Control Of The North Caucasus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 40

As the Kremlin prepares to install its latest handpicked president in Chechnya, it faces the prospect of losing control over the North Caucasus entirely. Last week’s brazen assault on law-enforcement agencies in Ingushetia caught local police and secret services off guard and revealed the incompetence of the Russian security organs. Having failed to stabilize the rebellious province, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government may be unlikely to cope with the spillover from the ongoing war in neighboring Chechnya.

Last week Chechnya’s interior minister, Alu Alkhanov, registered to run in the republic’s early presidential election, scheduled for August 29. Ten more candidates have registered for the race, including a Moscow businesswoman, an adviser to assassinated Chechen president Akhmat Kadyrov, and a pensioner from the Moscow region. However, these ten have no real chance of winning the election, as Alkhanov is Moscow’s choice. The only serious contender Alkhanov may face is Moscow-based businessman Malik Saidullayev. Indications suggest that Chechnya’s top cop will not encounter any significant difficulties in capturing the republic’s presidency. Several days before his registration as a candidate, President Putin received Alkhanov in the Kremlin and their meeting was broadcast on national television. This carefully staged meeting, most Russian experts say, sent a clear signal to all potential candidates as to whom the Kremlin supports in the race.

Alkhanov has scant experience in running an economy, lacks charisma, and his public administration skills have been limited to law enforcement. He also is not terribly popular in Chechnya. But to Kremlin strategists, these drawbacks are fully compensated by Alkhanov’s fierce loyalty to Russia and his commitment to continue Kadyrov’s obedience to Moscow. “People want a continuation of the course,” Alkhanov pronounced during the Kremlin photo-op.

In fact, some regional analysts point out that Moscow was reluctant to change anything in its Chechnya policy after the May 9 assassination of Kadyrov. The Kremlin is keen to quickly elect a “second Kadyrov” and proceed as if nothing happened. “In reality, Russia needs a weak president in Chechnya,” argues one commentary. A strong leader who would be able to consolidate power in Chechnya might “resume claiming broad sovereignty rights,” and ask more than the federal center is prepared to concede.

But while Alkhanov is guaranteed to win, he will find it difficult to radically improve the situation in the republic. “If the population doesn’t recognize the winner, all hopes for early settlement [of the conflict] will remain dim,” notes one commentator.

The recent carnage in Ingushetia proves this view. The current president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, was installed in his office thanks to Kremlin efforts. Zyzikov is a former FSB general and utterly unpopular in the republic. His campaign “was built upon a single photo that pictured him shaking hands with Putin,” recalls independent Chechen analyst Murad Nashkhoyev. Now, he says, “elections in Chechnya will follow the pattern of the presidential poll in Ingushetia in 2002.”

According to Akhmed Zakayev, Chechen president-in-exile Aslan Maskhadov’s special representative abroad, the coordinated attacks on police facilities in Ingushetia are a direct consequence of the Kremlin’s policy in that republic, specifically, the forced resignation of President Ruslan Aushev and his replacement by Zyazikov. Zakayev believes the ongoing wave of abductions and murders of ethnic Ingush triggered a “popular uprising.” Furthermore, Zakayev asserts, the Russian-Chechen conflict has run into a blind alley and is currently going out of control. “If the war in Chechnya is not stopped, it will spread over the entire Caucasus,” he warns.

Many Russian analysts tend to agree. “The North Caucasus appears to be on the verge of war, which may be more bloody than the two previous ones,” suggests one commentary. (Moscow Times, June 18, 24, Vedomosti, June 21, Vremya novostei, June 21, 23, Gazeta, June 23, Novye izvestiya, June 23, Chechenpress.com, Gazeta.ru).