Things were relatively quiet on Russia’s domestic political front over the past fortnight. The operative word here is “relatively,” given that the two-and-half-year-old conflict in Chechnya continued to grind on, with few visible signs of last year’s shoots of optimism concerning a possible political solution. Russian soldiers, Chechen rebels, officials from Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration and ordinary civilians alike continued to die in the breakaway republic, with the rebels carrying out their now-routine ambushes on Russian troop columns and pro-Moscow officials and the Russian military responding with controversial “zachistki” (antiguerrilla sweeps) and both artillery and air strikes. Iles Magomedov, director of the “Grozny” television company and a long-time supporter of Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, disappeared under mysterious circumstances while traveling to a meeting with a Kadyrov aide, while unknown gunmen fired on the car of Vsevolod Chernov, Chechnya’s chief prosecutor, who escaped injury. On the other side, rebel sources reported that Aslanbek Maskhadov, the brother of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and a member of his Presidential Guard, was killed in a battle with Russian troops in eastern Chechnya’s Nozhai-Yurt district.
For his part, President Vladimir Putin showed few signs of being complacent about the “antiterrorist operation” in the breakaway North Caucasian republic, despite the news that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would postpone its planned Chechen-language broadcasts. That decision was apparently taken at the behest of the Bush administration, which is wary of alienating a key ally in the global antiterrorism campaign. Speaking at a February 27 meeting of his advisory Security Council, Putin sharply criticized the Federal Security Service (FSB) for failing to disrupt “the channels of arms and money supplied to the illegal bandit formations,” neutralize “their most dangerous leaders” or close “the channels for trafficking of foreign mercenaries.” He also took the Finance Ministry and Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration to task, complaining that federal funds going into the republic were encountering a bureaucratic labyrinth that made misappropriation inevitable. The Russian president’s annoyance here was understandable: Even Kadyrov’s own law enforcement agencies had recently discovered that official Chechen bodies had pilfered US$3 million last year in funds earmarked for Chechen reconstruction. None of this, however, could really have been much of a surprise in the Kremlin. After all, Bislan Gantamirov, the former Grozny mayor jailed following the 1994-1996 war for allegedly embezzling federal reconstruction funds on a large scale, was recently appointed Chechnya Press and Information minister–with the Kremlin’s apparent acquiescence.