Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 16

On April 14–Holy Saturday for the Russian Orthodox Church–President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced brief visit to Chechnya, accompanied by the newly appointed power ministers Sergei Ivanov (Defense) and Boris Gryzlov (MVD), as well as by Media Minister Mikhail Lesin. It was Putin’s third trip to the republic but his first in over a year (the previous two occurred in January and March of 2000). After flying by plane to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the party proceeded by helicopter to the Argun gorge in Chechnya, where, a year previously, eighty-four Russian paratroopers from the Pskov Division had died in an ambush. Putin laid flowers at the site of the battle. “Dressed all in black,” the president then flew to the settlement of Khatuni in the Chechen highlands (which recently received publicity as a result of the investigative journalism of Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta), where he met with paratroop units stationed there and with General Valery Baranov, commander of the federal forces in Chechnya. While in Khatuni, Putin placed flowers at a memorial dedicated to Russian soldiers who had died during the conflict.

After this, Putin and his party flew by helicopter to Khankala, the chief military base in the republic, located on the outskirts of Djohar. There he met with Akhmad Kadyrov and the heads of administration of the [pro-Moscow] districts in Chechnya. Putin vowed to push for the apprehension of those who had assassinated leading pro-Moscow official Adam (Shamaluv) Deniev two days previously. During the meeting, Putin noted that he wanted to ensure “productive mutual relations” between the Russian power ministries and the local heads of administration. In what was described as a frank discussion, Putin and the Chechen officials went over “all questions–the actions of the federal forces, the problems in the socioeconomic sphere, the sociopolitical situation in the republic.” The restoration of housing, issues of financing the republic, and the return of Chechen refugees to Chechnya were among the issues discussed, as were problems of agriculture and of the mass media in the republic. When the Chechen district heads of administration spoke, Putin on occasion took notes (Strana.ru, Gazeta.ru, April 14).

The primary stated reasons for Putin’s visit were two: “to show both the soldiers based [in Chechnya] and the residents of the republic that they have not been forgotten, and that all questions concerning them personally are controlled by the [Russian] head of state” (Strana.ru, April 14). In addition to bolstering the morale of the Russian forces and of pro-Moscow Chechens, the trip, some journalists speculated, was intended to serve as a media spectacle to draw public attention away from the regime’s final de facto takeover some hours previously of the previously independent network NTV (Reuters, April 14).

The issue of on-time payment of military wages, and, especially, of the special bonuses called “battle wages,” was clearly high on Putin’s agenda during the visit. Journalist Aleksandr Orlov cited “a highly placed source in the Ministry of Defense” (quite likely Defense Minister Ivanov himself) who provided some useful background for Putin’s visit to the republic. On April 12, the source said, Putin had held a meeting with Ivanov and with the chief of the Russian General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, during which it had been remarked that Russian peacekeeping forces serving in Kosovo receive considerably better wages than do the Russian troops serving in Chechnya. But Chechnya is, obviously, a far more dangerous region in which to serve. “In order to look into the situation, the President then went to Chechnya” (Strana.ru, April 14).

The “highly placed source” in the Defense Ministry also underlined that the current military arrangement in Chechnya is not working. “The commander of a company, quartered in a settlement, is not ensuring the full security either of the local populace or of his unit. Shooting [by separatists] at checkpoints and the setting off of explosive devices are a normal affair. Therefore the soldiers at any checkpoint or in any garrison see themselves as being on the front lines.” However, the “high official” continued, “For their constant risk they are not receiving appropriate compensation–‘battle wages.'” Not surprisingly therefore, over the past half year the morale of Russian officers and contract soldiers serving in Chechnya has “sharply weakened.”

While visiting the Khankala Military Base, Putin also commented that he had “wanted personally to be convinced that the housing the basic unit which will remain in Chechnya on a permanent basis–the 42nd Division–is being resolved” (Strana.ru, April 14).

Back in Moscow, Putin and his wife attended the midnight Easter service in the patriarchal cathedral. In his Easter message, Patriarch Aleksy II praised the Russian president for “protecting Chechens from the risk of being killed by criminals” (Agence France Presse, April 15).

On Easter day, Putin held a meeting of his Cabinet of Ministers during which he insisted that the problems connected with the sorting out of the financing of Chechnya had to be resolved. “The finance minister,” Putin remarked, “claims that on the part of his agency there are no problems. Everything that has been planned is being allocated on time.” Putin then speculated that the problem might be “in the FSB or in the Ministry of Defense.” He asked Prime Minister Mikhail Kas’yanov to direct Russian Minister Vladimir Elagin and Stanislav Il’yasov, the prime minister of Chechnya, to check carefully to see whether the funds earmarked for Chechnya are in fact reaching their destination and in the full amount (Strana.ru, April 16).

Will this flying visit by Putin serve to improve Russia’s increasingly shaky position in Chechnya? For its part, the daily Gazeta.ru remained skeptical. “The military,” it noted, “are not pinning much hope on Putin’s promises. They have been told many times before that the state budget is incapable of covering the huge expenditures of the Chechen campaign” (Gazeta.ru, April 16).