The newly elected Chechen parliament held its first session on Monday, December 12, and the big surprise was the unscheduled appearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Vremya novostei; Kommersant, December 13). His seventh visit to Chechnya lasted only about an hour, including time to change into a formal suit, and it was far heavier on symbolism than substance. Yet the decision to go to Grozny shows that Putin understands that this challenge to his presidency has not disappeared. His speech was not polished prose from speechwriters, but a rather tortured 25-minute improvisation by a man who has few talents in this regard. The text (as published at the official website http://president.kremlin.ru) betrays an urge to talk “normalization” into existence and even mentions “compromises,” a rare word in Putin’s lexicon.
While noting the grand importance of the day and complimenting the MPs for their “personal courage,” Putin probably suspects that these crudely falsified elections represent a missed chance to advance real normalization (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 13). Hence his half-hearted praise to democracy as a “far more efficient organization of society, in any case, nowadays, than any other.” He had a chance to measure the efficiency of his own state machinery during a helicopter tour over Grozny, which looked as much like Stalingrad after the epic battle of 1943 as the republic capital had during his previous visit in May 2004 (Gazeta.ru, December 13). He placed a strong emphasis on rebuilding Grozny as a “crucial test” for both the local authorities and the federal center, but Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District (who for some reason was absent from the meeting), has so far failed to establish any control over the use of reconstruction funds, which tend to rapidly disappear without a trace.
An even stronger emphasis in Putin’s presentation was on Russia’s positive view of, and strong support for, Islam (Grani.ru, December 13). Describing the hard times that Chechnya had gone through, he singled out the “distorted interpretation of the Koran” by the irreconcilable opposition as “the most dreadful” feature of that violent chaos. Elaborating further on that questionable point, he argued that Russia had always been “the most reliable, trustworthy, and consistent protector of the interests of the Islamic world.” Perhaps feeling the stretch of such logic, Putin mentioned that he had initially missed the point himself, explaining that in seeking to destroy Russia “those on the other side” were in fact destroying “one of the pillars of Islamic world.”
Even for the carefully selected Chechen parliamentarians that claim could have been a proposition too far, but Putin reassured them that the leaders of Islamic states understood him perfectly well. As “proof” the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has decided to grant Russia observer status. A Russian delegation led by Kamil Ishakov, newly appointed envoy to the Far Eastern District, took part in the OIC meeting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in early December and, according to Putin, Russian Muslims will continue to engage with “their brothers” (Lenta.ru, December 13).
Some Moscow experts immediately suggested that the President aimed at wider Islamic audiences with these comments and implicitly emphasized Russia’s disagreements with the U.S. stance as presented by President George W. Bush only a few hours earlier in Philadelphia (Kommersant, December 13). Indeed, Putin popped up in Grozny en route to Malaysia, where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was meeting (Vremya novostei, December 14). It is also possible to read the statement as a reaffirmation of Russia’s support for Iran, including the sale of surface-to-air missiles, despite U.S. pressure (see EDM, December 9).
Putin’s words, however, were so muddled and oddly chosen that they probably reflect his worries about the Islamic challenge at home. Earlier this year, he refused to hear about the Islamic networks in the North Caucasus, the so-called jamaats, and ordered “terrorists” to be called by only their real name. Now he might feel that he is missing something, as violence spreads across the North Caucasus despite the widening series of military and police special operations. In late Chechen President Akhmat Kadyrov, Putin had an ally with solid Islamic credentials, but he has few doubts that the son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who had a place of honor to the left of President Alu Alkhanov, donning a pinstriped suit at the meeting in Grozny, is just a gangster, a warlord whose loyalty needs to be bought. Taking pains to explain that the Islamists are pursuing false ideals, Putin cannot fail to see that they have gained a significant moral advantage over his thoroughly corrupt police and brazenly brutal Special Forces.
The deepening crisis in the North Caucasus relates directly to a theme that Putin did not mention at all in Grozny; December 12 also marked the 12th anniversary of the approval of the Russian Constitution. It was the first time that this day was not celebrated as an official holiday, which reflects the widespread indifference to the basic law in Russia (Ezhednevny zhurnal, December 12). Within this law it was possible to start one war against rebellious Chechnya, then make peace with it, and then start another one. This law also did not prevent the cancellation of regional elections and concentration of all authority by the executive power that has so efficiently subdued the parliament and the courts. Only 19% of Russians are aware that the people of Russia are the only source of power and sovereignty in their state according to the Constitution, while 55% are certain that it is the president (Gazeta.ru, December 12). That probably suits Putin just fine, but he should know better. He was in Dresden in 1989 when crowds filled the streets and asserted their right to be called “the people,” throwing away the East German police state that was far more organized and efficient than his.
Putin may think that the only issue with the Constitution is the unfortunate need to step down at the end of his second presidential term. In fact, it is his escape clause to retire before the storm that started over Chechnya and is now gathering force across the North Caucasus arrives in Moscow.