On April 5 a panel of specialists discussed the situation in Chechnya at the annual conference of the Association for Study of Nationalities at Columbia University in New York City. The panel was chaired by the Hoover Institution’s John Dunlop and included Fiona Hill from the Brookings Institution.
In general, the mood of the panelists was gloomy: Chechen society is shattered, the fighting continues, and reconstruction efforts are proceeding at a snail’s pace. Efforts last year by international mediators to restart a dialog between Moscow and the Maskhadov government were derailed by the Nord Ost hostage taking.
John Dunlop argued that independent evidence undermines the Russian government’s claim that 89.4 percent of registered voters participated in last month’s referendum, with 95.97 percent approving the draft constitution. Journalists on the scene did not report seeing such a massive turnout, and Anna Neistat, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, estimated that only 10 percent of the 50,000 registered Chechen refugees in Ingushetia actually voted. The Memorial organization polled 656 Chechens between February 22 and March 14, and only 12 percent of the respondents said they intended to vote in the referendum.
Journalist and author Thomas de Waal compared the situation today with that in 1996, at the end of the first Chechen war. He noted that the Russian state is much stronger now than it was seven years ago, while Chechen society is much weaker: “unrecognizable” compared to its former self, due to the effects of massively destructive warfare, plus emigration of a large segment of the population. De Waal drew attention to the fact that Moscow’s current strategy involves putting all its eggs in the basket of Akhmad Kadyrov. This is very risky, since if something should happen to Kadyrov (and assassination is a distinct possibility) Moscow has no back-up leader that they trust and that has any credibility.
Pavel Baev from Norway’s International Peace Research Institute assessed the recent referendum, which was widely condemned by outside observers as a fraud and a farce. Baev argued that, despite its artificial character, the fact that the referendum was conducted makes the “genocide option” a bit less likely, and it did serve to strengthen the position of Kadyrov. He said it is interesting and instructive to consider how the debate around the war has evolved. Now, it is not so much what the war is about, as what it is NOT about. The original factors that are seen as having caused the war back in 1994, and which dominated discussions during the course of the first war, have all fallen by the wayside: Caspian oil, the quest for independence, Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, even the need to forestall international criticism of Russian policy. It often happens that the goals of a nation at war change during the course of the war, and the conflict develops a logic of its own, which makes it even more difficult to bring to a close.
Zaindi Choltaev, a former deputy foreign minister of Chechnya who is currently Galina Starovoitova fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, reiterated that the main purpose of the second war was to launch Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor (“no war, no Putin,” is a phrase in widespread circulation.) But having achieved this initial goal, the second war has been a liability. It is a war that Moscow cannot win but cannot afford to lose. Choltaev suggested that there are practical political reasons for Putin to keep the war going. It serves as a diversion that keeps the military and the Federal Security Service occupied, and that prevents them from taking a more assertive role in domestic politics in Moscow.
Speaking from the audience, renowned Moscow ethnographer Valery Tishkov suggested that the March referendum had been a more or less accurate reflection of Chechen opinion, no less so than the 1997 vote by which Aslan Maskhadov was elected president. Thomas de Waal demurred, saying that he directly observed the 1997 voting and it was a much more realistic event, with people lining up to vote, than was the recent referendum.
Musa Jusupov, a sociologist from Chechnya, argued that the planned referendum was brought forward, and took place much earlier than the Russian government had initially planned. The Nord Ost hostage crisis in October 2002 had increased the pressure on the government to do something to show forward progress. The goal of the referendum was to legitimize the new leadership of the republic, which is part of Moscow’s aim of “Chechenization” of the region’s administration. The referendum was also intended to move towards Moscow’s preferred “final solution” to the conflict–which is Chechnya as an integral part of the Russian Federation. It can be noted, however, that Chechnya is being offered less autonomy than is currently enjoyed by neighboring Dagestan. So the feasibility of Moscow’s preferred solution remains open to doubt.