Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 45

Izvestia on December 6 ran the first of several reports by special correspondent Vadim Rechkalov attempting to explain why, ten years after the December 9, 1994 decree signed by then President Boris Yeltsin authorizing the use of all means necessary to halt the activities of “illegal armed formations” in Chechnya, Russian security forces have been unable to catch Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basaev. The report, based on interviews that Rechkalov conducted in Chechnya, gave a sobering assessment of the degree to which Basaev retains popular support and the Chechen law-enforcement structures remain unreliable.

Sources in the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) – who, like, almost all of Rechkalov’s sources, refused to be identified – said that Basaev’s “accomplices” number not some 1,500, as the heads of Russia’s military operation in Chechnya have asserted, but more than 13,000. “These people are not fighting against the Russian authorities with weapons in their hands,” Rechkalov wrote. “But thanks to them Basaev has so far not been caught.” The correspondent added that while official statistics put the number of armed rebel fighters at 1,200-1,300, the actual fighters represent only the “very scantiest part of the underground,” who would long ago have been destroyed had they not been “supported by the local population and staff of the law-enforcement organs.”

As a Russian counter-intelligence officer in Chechnya who requested anonymity told Rechkalov: “For many Chechens, especially boys, Shamil Basaev is the ideal warrior. Basaev is for them a model and has a reputation as an intelligent person. It is romanticism. Chechens and Russians have been fighting, with breaks, for 300 years. And Basaev is fighting the Russians. And fighting successfully. And for many Chechen women he is also an idol. Who do women love? Powerful men. And he is a commander… This sympathy for Basaev is felt even by those women we use in our work. They work for us, for counter-intelligence, but sympathize with Basaev.”

The counter-intelligence officer added that the rebels get a significant portion of their weapons from regiments of the Chechen Interior Ministry’s patrol-sentry service, which are manned by former members of the late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov’s presidential guard. Rechkalov noted that the presidential guard, which was headed by Akhmad Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, who is now Chechnya’s first deputy prime minister, was comprised mainly of former rebel fighters. The anonymous counter-intelligence officer told Rechkalov that the new Interior Ministry units include people who still maintain ties to the rebel fighters. “In general, according to our information, up to 30 percent of the staff of the Chechen Interior Ministry are accomplices of the [rebel] fighters,” the counter-intelligence officer said. These rebel “accomplices” in the Interior Ministry, he said, sell weapons and ammunition to the rebels, not necessarily out of sympathy for the separatist cause, but simply for the money.

One of Rechkalov’s few interviewees who agreed to be quoted by name, Aleksandr Potapov, deputy head of the Chechen FSB, said that his department’s data base contains the names of some 15,000 persons suspected of involvement with the “illegal armed formations,” around ten percent of whom are probably no longer active. “That leaves 13,500 accomplices,” Potapov said. “But that is a heterogeneous mass. There are ideological accomplices – convinced separatists, Wahhabis, relatives of bandits who fully share their views. Some simply have war in their blood. This kind loves to walk around with an automatic weapon, hide in the woods and shoot. Draw him into a different gang tomorrow and he will do the same with the same pleasure. Can you call such a person an ideological fighter? Probably so. His idea is war as such. People who understand what they are fighting for – when, besides a financial interest, there is the idea of creating a caliphate in the Caucasus or the idea of Chechen independence – there are around six thousand of these. That is very many – although, I repeat, far from all of them fight with weapon in hand, but simply help in every way possible those who are carrying arms. And there are simply poor people. They give one of these 3,000 rubles (around US$107) [and] ask him to bring food costing 2800 [rubles]. 200 rubles is an honorarium. And if he’s caught doing this, he simply says, I didn’t know it was for the bandits; some shepherds asked for it.”

Potapov added that the issuing of internal passports and other documents with fictitious names to the rebel fighters and their accomplices remains a “big problem.” This, he said, is possible only with help of staff in the offices where the documents are issued along and various middlemen – all of who, of course, provide their services on a commercial basis. Not only ethnic Chechens are involved in selling fake documents to the rebels, Potapov said.