During a visit to Germany in the first week of May, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered an upbeat assessment of the situation in Chechnya and of the future prospects for peace and stability in that region. “I don’t see any problems [in Chechnya],” Putin stated flatly. He noted that Chechens had recently voted decisively to confirm a draft constitution for the republic, “thereby confirming their intention to remain within the Russian Federation – 85 percent of them voted.” Russia had also recently helped “the people of Chechnya to elect their own president [Alu Alkhanov],” Putin noted. Furthermore, he continued, work is currently proceeding at a rapid pace on a Treaty on the Delimitation of Powers between the federal center and the Chechen Republic. In following such a course, Putin emphasized, Russia is pursuing a strategy combining “patience, time, serious economic and financial resources, and good will in creating institutions, the normal institutions of state administration in the Chechen Republic itself.”
To what extent does Putin’s optimistic assessment of the situation in Chechnya conform to the political, economic and military realities on the ground in the republic? The answer, as we shall see, is that there is in fact a complete disconnect between his statement and those realities. Two articles appearing in the May 20 issue of Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, a politically moderate weekly devoted to military affairs, reported that Russia continues to maintain an enormous military and police presence in Chechnya: the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have 80,000 troops stationed there, while the FSB has a force numbering up to 20,000. Clearly their continued mass presence in the republic, a subject glossed over by Putin in his remarks, remains a political factor of the first magnitude.
Moreover, according to the aforementioned military affairs weekly, members of this huge force are being killed at an alarming rate. The newspaper Trud reported on April 18 that Russian contract soldiers (kontraktniki) over the two previous months had lost “eighty-five professionals.” If this trend continues, the contract soldiers could end up losing an entire battalion by December 2005.
In addition to suffering major losses, Russian soldiers based in Chechnya suffer from low morale. They are being provided with wretched food and inferior military equipment. They are forced to purchase their military uniforms out of pocket, and, notably, they are also required to buy spare parts for their weapons systems from local Chechens. Given such conditions, it is not surprising that 170 contract soldiers recently failed to return to Chechnya from vacation.
Another issue discussed by Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie is that the Ministry of Defense troops in Chechnya are being replaced by forces of the MVD Internal Troops. The four commandants’ offices in the Chechen highlands which have remained under the command of the Defense Ministry – in Itum-Kala, Sharoe, Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt – are to be transferred to the MVD by the end of the year. But who will then serve in the Internal Troops? The MVD has been making a concerted effort to convince Ministry of Defense personnel in Chechnya to volunteer for service in the Internal Troops. It appears, however, that the Ministry of Defense forces are, on the whole, not eager to do so. Many reportedly find the work with the local populace that is required of MVD personnel to be unattractive.
Another reality on the ground not mentioned by President Putin is that, with the exception of the huge military and police representation in the republic, there are in fact virtually no ethnic Russians left in Chechnya. Before the two Chechen wars, some 150,000 ethnic Russian resided in the republic; now the great majority of them are gone. Chechnya, as Musa Basunakaev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics pointed out on the kavkaz-forum.ru website on May 25, has de facto become a mono-ethnic republic: when the remaining Chechen refugees return home, the republic will consist 85-90 percent of ethnic Chechens. Basunakaev believes that there is no chance at all that ethnic Russians will choose to return to Chechnya. A related factor: Chechnya has the highest fertility rate in the entire Russian Federation: 24.9 per thousand. The ethnic Russian fertility rate, as is well known, is below replenishment and is declining. The percentage of Chechens in their own republic will predictably continue to go up, while Russia will have increasing difficulty in finding young men prepared to serve there in the Russian military and police.
The Russian president’s upbeat assessment of the political prospects for the pro-Moscow leadership in the republic is also open to question. Amin Osmaev, a Chechen who directs the Center for Assisting Stability in the republic, stressed in an interview with Novye izvestia published on April 29 that Russia is coping badly with the number one problem in Chechnya: mass unemployment. He noted that according to official statistics, Chechnya’s unemployment rate is the highest among Russia’s regions, with 334,500 officially registered unemployed. This figure represents 62 percent of the total number of unemployed in the Southern Federal District.
The Russian government, Osmaev went on, is being niggardly in its allocation of funds for the restoration of the economy and social services in Chechnya. From 2002-2004, he noted, these allocations amounted to 12.9 billion rubles. By contrast, the Russian government spent 40 billion rubles on the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.
In mid-April, the pro-Moscow president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, underlined that the principal economic need of the republic was for it to be permitted to construct a large oil refinery on its territory. Alkhanov suggested that the Russian state oil company Rosneft was in effect blocking this project. Ibragim Kerimov, another pro-Moscow Chechen, who is the rector of the Grozny State Oil Institute, elaborated on Alkhanov’s complaint in an item posted on kavkaz-forum.ru on May 13. In Kerimov’s view, the construction of a large oil-refining plant in Chechnya could bring about the resurrection of the republic’s shattered economy. The very existence of such a plant, he stressed, “would automatically remove many economic and social problems.” Not only would it provide a large number of jobs, but it would also benefit such related sectors as transportation and energy and even machine-building. There is no solution to the republic’s economic woes without such a plant.
On the subject of schools, Kerimov took note of the fact that the Russian Ministry of Education and the Russian Ministry of Economics had recently agreed to spend about 100 million rubles on the restoration of Chechen schools. But then, he remarked, this decision was for some reason scuttled within the Russian bureaucracy.
Another pro-Moscow activist with critical views of the situation in Chechnya is Shamil Beno, president of the Foundation for the Support of Democracy and Social Progress. In an item posted by kavkaz-forum.ru on May 2, Beno chose to concentrate upon the political problems besetting the republic rather than focus on Chechnya’s economic and educational shortcomings. Taking issue with Putin’s upbeat assurances, Beno stipulated that the reason most Chechens had voted for a pro-Moscow constitution in the recent referendum was simply to send the following message: “Leave us in peace.” Very few Chechens have any idea what they voted for. “Ninety-nine out of 100 cannot cite a single passage in the constitution…”
The upcoming Chechen parliamentary elections – to be held six months hence – also offer, in Beno’s opinion, little grounds for optimism. He and his colleagues interviewed a number of Chechens who have indicated that they want to run for election to the Chechen parliament. “I didn’t meet a single one who envisioned what his work in the future parliament would be, what ideas, what values he would defend,” Beno said. What interested the prospective deputies exclusively, he reported, was that once elected, they would be in an excellent position to line their own pockets. Polling specialist Sergei Khaikin said in a May 27 kakvaz-forum.ru item that he believes most Chechens do not expect the upcoming parliamentary elections to be honest.
As for those Chechens who support the separatists, Shamil Beno observed, they without exception plan to boycott the parliamentary elections. The elections, therefore, “cannot serve as an instrument for regulating the conflict.”
To conclude, Putin’s upbeat assessment of the situation in Chechnya is contradicted by the realities on the ground in the war-torn republic.