Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 47

President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit December 12 to Chechnya, where he addressed the first session of the republican parliament that was elected on November 27. According to the text of the speech as posted on the Kremlin’s website, kremlin.ru, Putin told the Chechen parliament that the collapse of the Soviet Union had led “not to stronger state institutions, but to their destruction,” and that this “gave rise, in turn, to problems such as separatism,” in the North Caucasus and Chechnya as well as other parts of Russia.

Putin did, however, note the unique aspects of the situation in Chechnya. “The Chechen people had suffered much over the course of history, especially during the decades of Soviet power,” he said. “Chechen soldiers fought in the ranks of the Soviet Armed Forces, fought on the fronts of World War II, defended the nation’s interests and wrote their names in the memory of our country as defenders of our common homeland, but despite all of this, millions of Chechens were deported in cattle wagons to Siberia and the steppes of Kazakhstan. We understand what an immense tragedy this was. And of course it was easier here than anywhere else to take advantage of these problems of the past.”

Chechnya’s separatists, Putin said, have “shown their worst side, taken advantage of the problems in our past and appropriated the right to speak on behalf of the entire Chechen people. But life has shown that they put their personal ambitions, their personal political ambitions and their material interests higher than the interests of the Chechen people. How else can we explain the gang of terrorists that invaded the fraternal Republic of Dagestan in 1999? What connection can there be between the fight for independence and attacking Dagestan? What is there to even debate in this respect? The simple fact is that this was yet another attempt in history to manipulate and take advantage of the Chechen people.”

Putin said that as a result of the activities of the “destructive forces” during the early and mid-1990s—an apparent reference to the periods of Dzhokhar Dudaev’s and Aslan Maskhadov’s rule, respectively—Chechnya experienced “complete economic collapse, the closure of hospitals, schools and kindergartens, unpaid wages, pensions and benefits of various kinds and the occupation of the republic by armed gangs and foreign mercenaries who established their own control over each and every political structure.” Worst of all, he said, was that “the people who came here bearing arms brought with them a perverted interpretation of the Koran that goes absolutely against the traditions of the peoples of the Russian North Caucasus. Not only did they pervert the Koran in their interpretations, but they discredited it in their deeds. At least, they attempted to discredit it, for it is not possible to discredit Islam, a worldwide religion infused with humanist ideals.”

Putin also insisted that Russia “has always been the most loyal, reliable and consistent defender of the Muslim world’s interests” and “the best and most reliable partner and ally.” The rebels who are trying to “destroy Russia,” he said, “are undermining one of the Muslim world’s main sources of support in the fight for the legitimate rights of the Islamic world on the international stage.”

It is necessary, he said, “to convince those who have not yet laid aside their arms, and there are still such people, that they are fighting for a false cause that is harmful to their republic and to their people,” and to strengthen and improve the work of Chechnya’s law enforcement system. This latter task involves excluding “any possibility of violation of the laws, especially such serious violations as abducting people,” Putin said, adding that anyone “involved in illegal activity, be they from the local or federal agencies, must be found and punished in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation” and that “those who do not wish to lay down their arms and who continue fighting against their own people, must also be found and punished.” He also stressed the need to “take real steps to start rebuilding” Grozny, adding that “one of the criteria” in evaluating the work of Chechnya’s president and government and the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District would be “the work undertaken to achieve this objective.”

Utro.ru on December 13 portrayed Putin’s trip to Grozny as part of a “manic” attempt by the Russian authorities “to demonstrate that the situation in Chechnya is under total federal center control.” Putin’s speech, the website wrote, was “very much to the liking” of the Chechen parliamentarians, “who applauded it frequently and at length.” Chechen President Alu Alkhanov thanked Putin for “respecting the Chechen people” and attending the opening of parliament, adding that the Chechen leadership had started rebuilding central Grozny without waiting for funds, utro.ru reported.

Still, the website noted that Putin spent only “a little over 30 minutes” in the parliament building and talking with Alkhanov and First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, after which he left Chechnya altogether, heading off to Malaysia to attend the ASEAN summit. Indeed, while the Russian president’s “lightning visit” to Chechnya was aimed at giving the impression that the situation there is developing “in accordance with the federal center’s expectations,” utro.ru noted that the building in which the parliament held its opening session and Putin spoke was surrounded by “several cordons” of troops and hardware that had been brought in for protection, and that Putin had arrived in a military transport helicopter escorted by several helicopter gunships. The website also noted that Putin’s speech showed a readiness on the Kremlin’s part “to make any concessions—even to authorize the Chechen leadership to manage the republic’s oil reserves. This is the construction one can put on Putin’s words to the effect that the federal center’s role in regenerating and developing the Chechen economy consists in ‘not hindering, but supporting and helping.’ It will be interesting to see what the Kremlin promises Kadyrov and Alkhanov when they make new demands, threatening to separate from Russia if their appeal is rejected.”

Still the Gazeta newspaper’s website, gzt.ru, wrote on December 12 that by flying down to Grozny to speak before a parliament that almost all observers believe is directly controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin made a clear statement about who he hopes or expects to see as Chechnya’s future president.