President Putin touched on the North Caucasus generally and Chechnya specifically in his annual State of the Nation address, which he delivered to the Russian parliament on April 25. “I hope for energetic work to strengthen security in the southern part of Russia and firmly establish the values of freedom and justice there,” Putin said in the speech, a transcript of which was posted on the Kremlin’s website, kremlin.ru. “Developing the economy, creating new jobs and building social and production infrastructure are prerequisites for this work. I support the idea of holding parliamentary elections in the Republic of Chechnya this year. These elections should lay the foundation for stability and for developing democracy in this region. I want to note that the North Caucasus region already has good conditions for achieving rapid economic growth. The region has one of Russia’s best-developed transport infrastructures, a qualified labor force, and surveys show that the number of people in this region wanting to start up their own business is higher than the national average. At the same time, however, the shadow economy accounts for a bigger share in this region and there is criminalization of economic relations in general. In this respect, the authorities should not only work on strengthening the law enforcement and court systems in the region, but should also help develop business activity among the population.”
And while Putin stressed the need to eradicate “the sources of terrorist aggression,” he seemed to put the blame for the upsurge in terrorist attacks in Russia on past “terrorist intervention” – an apparent reference to the first Chechen war of 1994-1996 – and “the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed” – a reference to the August 1996 peace accord.
Responding to Putin’s speech, Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent State Duma deputy and an outspoken critic of Kremlin policies, critiqued, among other things, the president’s comments on Chechnya, the North Caucasus and terrorism. “2004 was the worst year in recent Russian history in terms of terrorist activity,” Ryzhkov wrote in the April 27 edition of the Moscow Times. “The number of terrorist attacks doubled, as did the number of victims. The real watershed was Beslan, where the federal authorities once again demonstrated their inability to prevent major acts of terrorism. Earlier this year, Aslan Maskhadov was killed, but soldiers and police officers are still dying on a regular basis in Chechnya and neighboring republics. In Dagestan alone, 40 soldiers and policemen have died since the beginning of the year. In response, Putin talked generally about the development of the ‘South’ and the need for parliamentary elections in Chechnya this year. Apparently, there is still no strategy for bringing peace to Chechnya. Or perhaps the president did not find it necessary to discuss the details.”
Putin also talked about Chechnya in an interview he gave to the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram on the eve of his trip to Cairo, which was also posted on kremlin.ru on April 25. Asked what can be done to change the fact that Chechnya “remains a stumbling block between Russia and public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world,” Putin responded that the situation could change “if our friends in the Arab and Muslim world become more closely acquainted with what is really happening today in Chechnya and in Russia in general.” Putin said that “dozens of mosques” have opened in Chechnya in recent years, adding that this “would not have been possible without real and direct support from the Russian leadership.” “[W]e let everyone who seeks good, happiness and prosperity for the Chechen people, regardless of their political views, take part in rebuilding the republic,” he said. Putin also stated that the Russian authorities have “granted numerous amnesties and are involving representatives of all political forces in the republic’s life, except, of course, those who seek to achieve their aims through the use of arms or through such atrocities as…the terrible terrorist act in Beslan.”
Putin also cited Chechnya’s constitutional referendum and presidential election during the last two years (observers from the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference, he noted, had declared both of them “democratic”) and said that his administration is “ready to sign an agreement with Chechnya on the division of powers between the federal and local authorities, and on providing the republic with a large degree of autonomy.” He added: “I think that we could very well see parliamentary elections held this year in Chechnya with all the different political forces taking part.”