A power struggle between Chechnya’s two top pro-Moscow officials burst into the open last week, with signs that neither of the two has the federal government’s total support. With both Chechen administration head Akhmad Kadyrov and Prime Minister Mikhail Babich launching increasingly strident verbal assaults on each other, it seems likely that one or the other will eventually have to accept a humiliating public defeat.
Behind-the-scenes tensions between Kadyrov and Moscow are nothing new: As a former supporter of the Chechen separatist cause, Kadyrov is automatically suspect to the Russian security organs and military, both natural supporters of retired military captain Babich. But relations between the two abruptly entered a new phase in early January, when Babich publicly accused Kadyrov of breaking the law by naming his own candidate to head Chechnya’s Ministry of Finance. The republic’s Moscow-appointed chief prosecutor, Vladimir Kravchenko, openly supported Babich, and the Moscow daily Izvestia entered the fray with a tantalizing–though highly conjectural–article citing allegations from unnamed sources that top federal officials have been lobbying President Vladimir Putin to fire Kadyrov.
The faction fight has an ethnic subtext: Kadyrov and Eli Isayev, his candidate for the Finance Ministry, are Chechens; Babich and Kravchenko are Slavs. The fight thus embodies the federal government’s ongoing dilemma: The Putin administration believes that its best hope for ending the war and pacifying the republic is to “Chechenize” the resistance to separatism, but in practice has difficulty in both finding “reliable” Chechens and actually relinquishing power to them.
The Finance Ministry is especially important among Chechnya’s government agencies, some of which are barely functioning. It controls the local distribution of reconstruction subsidies from the federal government–which often, it is widely charged, are siphoned off to corrupt officials and their friends.
The website Gzt.ru reported on January 16 that Babich had sent a letter to Russian Federation Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, requesting that more than half of the RU3.5 billion (some US$115 million) allocated for the Federal Special Program for rebuilding Chechnya be placed directly under the control of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. Gazeta said that Babich might not succeed in this request, because according to its sources a federal investigation had found that over RU700 million (some US$23 million) allocated for reconstruction in Chechnya had been embezzled.
The RU3.5 billion that Babich mentioned may be only a small fraction of the sums available to be fought over by Russian and Chechen officials. In a January 18 press conference in Moscow, Russian Minister for Chechnya Stanislav Ilyasov said that about RU20 billion would be available for this purpose in 2003.
A January 14 article by Vadim Rechkalov in Izvestia, though carefully hedged, tried to give credibility to an allegation the paper said was circulating in Moscow’s Chechen community: that the real goal of the December 27 suicide bombing in Grozny was to destroy the financial records of the Moscow-appointed administration. Anna Politkovskaya reported in the January 16 issue of Novaya Gazeta that the bombing had destroyed almost the entirety of the Finance Ministry, which not long before had received all documents concerning new transfers of funds–including all those for humanitarian programs.
Although the theft of the RU700 million would have taken place before Babich took office as prime minister in November, he is not untainted by charges of corruption. According to Pavel Felgenhauer, who writes on defense issues for the Moscow Times, Babich himself was under investigation in November on two counts of embezzling federal funds. “This is in fact typical,” Felgenhauer wrote. “Many Russian military, security and police officers (and civil administrators) are ‘induced’ to go and risk their lives serving in Chechnya in order to make good for previous wrongdoings and, in some cases, to avoid prosecution or imprisonment.” Babich is supposed to leave his post as prime minister after the December 2003 election, but Gazeta said that unnamed sources are calling him the “Kremlin’s candidate” for president.
The Izvestia article said that, according to its unnamed sources, Kadyrov had been urgently seeking a face-to-face meeting with Putin in Moscow–but without success–during the period leading up to Babich’s public outburst. Distancing himself from his own story with words such as “supposedly” and “rumors,” the Izvestia reporter said that the reason Kadyrov wanted such a meeting was apparently that he had learned about a late-December letter to Putin from the heads of the federal government’s three siloviki, the heads of the “armed bureaucracies” of defense, interior and the FSB (former KGB). According to the this version, the three ministers had presented facts about Kadyrov’s “doubtful activities” and recommended that he be relieved of his post before the March 23 referendum on Chechnya’s new constitution.
One possibility, Izvestia said, is that Kadyrov’s enemies “provoked” him into a rash step by encouraging the false belief that he would have support in Moscow if he moved to take over Chechnya’s Finance Ministry. But instead of support, Kadyrov met firm resistance not only from Babich but also from chief prosecutor Kravchenko.
Kaydrov is not without allies himself–one of whom, according to a January 17 article by Artyom Vernidoub posted on the Gazeta.ru website, is Viktor Kazantsev, presidential plenipotentiary for the southern federal okrug. On January 16, Putin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said that Kazantsev had been assigned to settle the conflict between Kadyrov and Babich. Though Yastrzhembsky tried to downplay the conflict, by the end of the week both of the rivals in Grozny were hardening their positions, with Kadyrov signing a formal reprimand of Babich for “violating work discipline,” and a decree confirming Isayev in his new position. For his part, Babich gave an interview to the Moscow daily Kommersant in which he said that Kadyrov had not consulted him in any way before appointing Isayev, and that even if consulted he would have objected since Isayev is professionally unqualified to be finance minister.
Also apparently supporting Kadyrov is Chechnya’s former Finance Minister Sergei Abramov, who in his public statements on the quarrel has explicitly rejected Babich’s attack on the legality of Kadyrov’s actions and has emphasized that he himself wanted to be transferred to another position. Abramov has now been appointed to head a newly created task force which is to review the spending of federal subsidies in Chechnya. As the Moscow weekly Argumenty i Fakty observed on January 15, this means that the investigation into dubious financial transactions during Abramov’s (and Kadyrov’s) tenure will now be conducted by Abramov himself.
The Moscow authorities have thus given themselves ample room to maneuver: They can support Babich and humiliate Kadyrov, or vice versa–or they can pursue an ongoing stratagem of “divide and rule,” playing the two against each other.