We left Sunzhensky district early in the morning, heading for Grozny from the west of Chechnya. After the turn to Assinovskaya, still not far from the Ingush border, we came upon engineering reconnaissance troops: Several tanks and military trucks, soldiers walking along the sides of the road. Civilian cars started to pile up behind us. Suddenly the soldiers stopped, squatted down, and aimed their machine guns and rifles at a spot in the field. So did the large caliber gun on the armed troop carrier. We heard an explosion. When the dust settled, our driver commented: “Those are just games. They put the explosives there themselves, and then they set them off.” I frequently heard similar talk. Many people in Chechnya have observed how the soldiers, in order to receive money and decorations, plant explosives and set up fake “battle situations.”
We passed the road block at the intersection of the roads to Achkhoi-Martan and Samashki without harassment and without paying bribes. After Shaami-Yurt we again encountered military engineers. Another traffic jam, but police cars and unmarked trucks filled with armed people passed by us without problems. “They’re ‘Kadyrovtsy,'” said the driver of an old Volga, a woman with a baby in the back seat. He and many others expect only the worst from a future with Akhmad Kadyrov and his murderous and predatory sons. “The people will lose when Kadyrov wins.” Whoever did not want to wait paid up. Fifty rubles (about US$1.65), and we continued on our way.
After just a few miles, not far from Urus-Martan, another stop, this time a crowd had gathered. Made up mostly of women, they blocked the road, demanding the return of disappeared villagers. We made a detour. Just before the Chernorechensky reservoir–yet another road block, this time Russian soldiers in bullet proof vests and helmets and Chechen militia men in green DPS (Traffic Patrol) uniforms. A convoy of four trucks came up behind us, nearly pushing us off the road. They swerved to the left, horns blaring, a machine gun sticking out of the window of the first truck, and raced on, curving through the cement traffic blocks at alarming speed. Nobody stopped them. Amazing. Armed people pass through any roadblock. Who knows what they carry–drugs, explosives, hostages?
When we reached Grozny itself, we found signs of the upcoming elections everywhere. Armed men in Kadyrov T-shirts. Kadyrov’s portrait on walls, carried by his supporters and displayed in forced demonstrations. Election slogans: “Kadyrov: our president.” “Kadyrov–our man.” No sign of any other candidate; nobody even knew their names. Only Kadyrov was shown on TV. None of the other candidates showed up for televised or radio debates, none used the free air time that each ostensibly had, none paid for commercials. An election without debates, while the “Kadyrovtsy” unleashed a systematic campaign of terror.
How did the voters feel in this situation? The machine guns were clearly a more convincing argument than the T-shirts. I tried to ask people explicitly about the elections, but found nearly everyone preoccupied with some tragedy in their lives. Many local people recounted threats from Kadyrov’s guards, incidents of pressure when applying for housing compensation, beatings. I found great disquiet and alarm, and beyond that, even weeks ago, complete certainty that Kadyrov would “win.”
The students and youth of Grozny were distraught over the disappearance of 19-year-old student Elina Gakaeva, kidnapped by soldiers in masks right in front of Grozny University. We saw their demonstration, a few dozen youth and women on the Staropromyslovsky road, near the buildings of the Chechen administration.
Women asked me: “What elections? The authorities are holding elections and taking away our sons at the same time.” An acquaintance in Grozny told me about the ordeal her family had endured in order to ransom her younger brother. He was kept on a Russian military base, but the deal was made through armed “Kadyrovtsy.” The family collected US$15,000 to free the boy, his health destroyed after 45 days in an underground hole and regular beatings. “We can’t leave him here. It’s just horrible. We live in constant fear for our family. It’s a nightmare, it just goes on.” The woman cried, sounding doomed. She said nothing about the elections.
In the courtyard of school No. 16 I met with Tamara Makhtieva and her youngest son. In April three boys were killed on the military base in Khankala (see Chechnya Weekly, June 26, 2002). Two of them were her sons: Arsen, 14, and Timur, 15. A young teaching assistant who stood nearby started to say something about their “tragic death,” when Tamara interrupted her, shouting: “That is not a tragic death! They killed them! They tortured and raped them!” The journalist who accompanied me, Tatiana Gantimurova, burst into tears, and I fought hard to swallow the lump in my throat. We didn’t talk about the elections.
A few days later, an old acquaintance recognized me on the street. Nowadays he’s a businessman and minor government employee, accompanied by guards. I took him up on his invitation to go visit Shali, in the mountains, because the road leading there from Khankala is practically off limits for civilians; only people with armed guards may pass. We drove on an eerily empty road. I couldn’t understand at first–why does everything look so strange? Then I got it: The trees! Along the roadway used to stand huge trees–poplars, oaks, beeches, walnut trees, acacia bushes. Now they’re gone. The army razed them in the interests of security–and for firewood. The war has left its mark–deep gashes–everywhere in the mountains, forests, and rivers of Chechnya. These are ecological war crimes, and their consequences will be with us for decades.
That evening in Shali, my friends and acquaintances talked about outrages committed by soldiers and “Kadyrovtsy,” about their difficult everyday existence, about the unpredictability of the future. No one talked about the elections. We only spoke about Kadyrov. The men in Shali all felt that the choice had already been made, in Moscow. I heard this refrain over and over, among the intelligentsia in Grozny, too. “Since Moscow has decided to support Kadyrov, it’s better not to interfere. Let the abscess fester to the end, and then they can take responsibility for it together. Both Kadyrov and those who supported him.”
All organs of state power and of finance are in the hands of Moscow. It was Moscow that wrote our constitution and decided who should rule us. Of course, there are those in the Kremlin who understand that Chechnya is being looted, that power and resources have been divided between a few clans, that the rampages of armed people present a terrible danger to the civilian population. But there are a few key reasons why they support Kadyrov.
The election in Chechnya is determined by the power struggle within the Kremlin. That is why several prominent Chechens initially believed that the Kremlin might want to get rid of Kadyrov. However, the “St. Petersburg Group” (the “siloviki” Viktor Ivanov and Igor Sechin, with their close ties to the security agencies), unhappy with Kadyrov, was overruled by Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin and his assistant, Vladislav Surkov. If Kadyrov were replaced, many organizational and staffing decisions would have to be reviewed, and this would reveal the huge problems created by the Kremlin’s Chechen policy. On the eve of the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections, the Kremlin does not want any surprises. Moscow’s Chechens got the hint and dropped out of the pointless race.
If Kadyrov were replaced, what would happen with his thousands of armed supporters? Former rebel fighters who intimately know Russian military methods and tactics, they could open up a new, very dangerous, front of resistance. At the very outset of the campaign Ramzan Kadyrov threatened on state TV that they would not put down their weapons: “Soon we’ll have elections, lots of candidates…I’ll do everything necessary. If needed, I’ll go fight.” Putin has become Kadyrov’s hostage.
It was already evening by the time we returned to Grozny. The city had turned into a ghost town, a fantastic spectacle of skeleton houses, ruins, and empty road blocks, a city filled with the sound of explosions and gunshots and illuminated by tracer bullets. On a half destroyed fence one could barely make out a Kadyrov poster. The next fence was decorated with uneven letters, as if written by a child: “Don’t shoot! People live here!” The next specimen of graffiti was barely legible, but seemed to say “Don’t vote–no justice here.”
The republic was preparing for election day at gunpoint. On Friday the schools closed, and nobody went to work. On Saturday, streams of people left their villages and towns; many left the republic altogether. After that, in the tense hours before voting, the streets were empty. Rumors of impending violence and doom were spreading freely.
Zaindi Choltaev, former deputy foreign minister of Chechnya’s separatist government, was Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., during 2002-2003. He returned to Chechnya in the summer and fall to observe the election campaign, and contributed this article to Chechnya Weekly. It was translated by Michaela Pohl of Vassar College.