The Putin administration’s continually tightening controls over the broadcast media have shielded ordinary Russians from sights and sounds that would undermine the Kremlin’s own spin about normalization and pacification in Chechnya. But the Kremlin line is still being challenged in the print media, and not only in the small-circulation organs of the liberal intelligentsia such as Novaya gazeta. The August 26 edition of Moskovski komsomolets, a mass-circulation daily with a keen instinct for popular tastes and prejudices in today’s Moscow, published a blistering article which argued that the war is not being won and has no chance of being won for years to come.
The Moskovski komsomolets article aggressively rejected the official line about the attacks in Grozny during the weekend of August 21-22: “Three hundred guerrillas calmly entered Grozny and then just as calmly left after dealing with the police and the FSB [Federal Security Service] in the same way as in Nazran [a reference to the raid on Ingushetia]….If even during the last week before the election, when unprecedented security measures have been put into effect within the republic, the authorities have been unable to prevent a ‘St. Bartholomew’s Massacre,’ then how can one even talk about bright prospects for the future?” The newspaper accused the state-controlled television networks of “turning upside down” the truth about the Grozny raid, “as if it were not the guerrillas who had attacked, but the federal forces which had launched an operation against them…so that most Russian TV viewers could not understand anything. But the Chechens cannot be led astray like this; they don’t need television, they can see everything that is happening with their own eyes.”
The Moskovski komsomolets journalists accused the Russian broadcast media of knowingly, deliberately lying about Chechnya: “The very television correspondents who work in Chechnya and who broadcast pleasant video images admit in their private conversations with colleagues that they are amazed at the unprincipled fraud in which they are forced to take part.”
Other independent media disagreed about the number of guerrillas who took part in the August 21-22 raid in Grozny, but added further details. According to an August 27 report in the Los Angeles Times, the activities of the “several dozen insurgents” who launched the raid included “setting up their own checkpoints, pulling police and soldiers out of their cars and executing them in the street.”
A report published last week by the Nazran (Ingushetia) office of the Moscow-based Memorial human-rights center, based in part on interviews with eyewitnesses in Grozny, concluded that the weekend raid involved several large groups (20 to 50 persons in each) of gunmen. The report suggested “the fighters had probably entered the city earlier, and at a certain time united in groups and launched the attack.” It found that they “followed the [June 22] Ingush scenario: they placed their own checkpoints at roads and simultaneously attacked selected objects, this time schools where the electoral polling stations were located.” According to eyewitnesses, “the insurgents were very well armed, mainly with grenade launchers and automatic weapon (some of them had two or three grenade launchers); they spoke both Chechen and Russian. Many of them had long beards sticking out from under their masks.”
Another element of the raid which reminds one of the June events in Ingushetia is that according to the Memorial report, the guerrillas seemed to go out of their way to target police and other security personnel while sparing civilians. As the report described one attack on a school that housed a polling station, “at the moment of the attack there was a woman with children in the building. Being aware of this, residents of nearby apartment houses asked the fighters not to shoot at the building. Then one of the women was sent inside. ‘If it turns out that there are no children or women there, you are in trouble,’ the fighters said. When the insurgents made sure that woman and children were indeed inside the school, they gave up their initial plan to storm the building.” Yet another similarity, if the Memorial report is correct: “The federal forces did not try to attack or follow the insurgents.”
Anna Politkovskaya wrote in Novaya gazeta on August 30 that the guerrilla raiders set up their checkpoints “directly under the nose” of federal checkpoints—for example, on Minutka Square within a few hundred yards of a district police and military headquarters. Over the course of two or three hours the raiders destroyed seven police vehicles in that neighborhood; the bodies of their occupants lay out in the open until the next day. One of the guerrillas’ checkpoints, reported Politkovskaya, was less than a kilometer from Khankala—the Russian military’s main base for all of Chechnya.
Memorial gave a higher figure for casualties among the pro-Moscow forces than previously published accounts: some 58 deaths among the pro-Moscow militia.
On Putin’s strategy of “Chechenization,” Moskovski komsomolets took a position similar to that of Nezavisimaya gazeta and other media which have emphasized the Kadyrov clan’s extraordinary corruption, and which have criticized Kremlin decision-makers for in effect giving Grozny’s pro-Moscow administration a blank check to continue and increase such corruption. “For example, starting in 2005 the Chechen government is now to receive all the rights of contractors for all the restoration projects in Chechnya which previously were arranged through Gosstroi [the federal construction agency]. This will be a luxurious gift for the Chechen bureaucrats; after all, not one contract is concluded without a kickback of at least 20 percent of its value.”
Moskovski komsomolets called “totally sensational” Putin’s August 23 announcement that in the future all revenues from Chechnya’s oil will remain within the republic rather than becoming part of the federal budget. “If Chechnya is going to be allowed to keep for itself the export fees and taxes which ‘Grozneft’ [the state-controlled Grozny oil firm] currently pays into the federal treasury, radical changes in the law will be necessary. Other provinces will then have the right to demand just the same privileges. Why should Chechnya be allowed to control its oil, but not Tatarstan? Why should Yakutia [in northeastern Siberia] not be allowed to control its diamonds? One can only hope that Putin’s words were only a campaign maneuver, a P.R. promise, which nobody will remember in the autumn.”
Expressing a view widely heard among Russia’s “siloviki” security agencies, the Moskovski komsomolets article assailed the tactic of “giving total power in Chechnya to just one clan, and all the more to one which is as bellicose as the Kadyrov clan.” The article conceded that Russia is also dominated by corrupt clans, but suggested that since Russia is so much larger the effects of the clans are more diluted and less visible.