In what can only be interpreted as a strong new confirmation of his confidence in the Putin administration’s backing for his continued rule in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov has identified and denounced a specific atrocity committed by the federal armed forces. This is a novelty, and an important one. In the past, Kadyrov and his subordinates have spoken in general terms about excesses in security sweeps. They have tried to create the impression that such excesses should be blamed entirely on the federal forces, and not at all on Kadyrov’s own gunmen. They have used the issue as part of their on-going campaign to get control over “anti-terrorist operations” transferred from the federal security agencies to their own hands. But for Kadyrov to focus aggressively on a specific episode – and to promote what is essentially the same explanation of it as that of human rights groups such as Memorial – is for him to challenge the Kremlin’s “siloviki” more directly than ever before.
The episode in question, which took place on April 8, involved a Russian air raid in southern Chechnya’s Vedeno district during which a Chechen woman and five of her six children were killed (see Chechnya Weekly, April 21). According to an April 21 article by Natalya Serova on the Politcom.ru website, the head of the Kadyrov administration’s security council, Rudnik Dudaev, stated on April 20 that in the administration’s view, the Russian armed forces are to blame for the incident. Thus Dudaev placed his colleagues and his superior directly at loggerheads with Russia’s regional military headquarters for the northern Caucasus. Spokesmen for the headquarters have repeatedly insisted that its warplanes had conducted no air raids in the Vedeno district on the day in question.
Dudaev announced that Kadyrov’s security council had created its own commission to investigate the incident, and that this commission had come into possession of evidence establishing the guilt of the Russian fliers. According to Serova’s article, on the same day Kadyrov personally added his own voice to Dudaev’s accusation, stating that the federal forces were responsible for the deaths of these completely innocent civilians. It would thus seem that Kadyrov has gone out of his way to leave himself no “wiggle room;” at this point it would be difficult for him to say that the charges against the Russian forces were simply the words of an overly zealous aide.
Dudaev likewise seemed to go out of his way to state his accusations as categorically as possible, leaving no room for retreat. An April 20 article in Izvestia quoted him as saying that “we have photographs showing that the military are to blame…We told the command of the federal forces about our suspicions. We have eyewitnesses, there are also the victims themselves – but the military tell us that they did not conduct any bombing. We don’t believe them….Their regional headquarters has promised to sort this out, but so far we have been unable to learn from them even who was in command of air operations in that district on April 8.”
Serova noted that Dudaev’s version of what happened on April 8 “repeats” that of Memorial representative Aleksandr Cherkasov, who said that a Russian bomb fell directly on the woman’s house. It was not clear whether Dudaev also agrees with Cherkasov’s view that “in all likelihood, what happened was due to a pilot’s error.” In any case, as quoted by Izvestia, Cherkasov insisted that wounds on the bodies exhumed with the widower’s consent are clearly inconsistent with a mine explosion – the version preferred by the Russian military.
In an April 22 article for Novaya gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya wrote that as of that date the Russian military headquarters had still failed to give precise answers to her questions about the incident. The Russian Federation’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, and the head of Russia’s Security Council, Igor Ivanov, “are maintaining complete silence” on the subject, she wrote.
On the other hand, the Putin administration’s top human rights official added his voice on April 24 to those calling for the events in the Vedeno district to be investigated and for justice to be done. Vladimir Lukin told the Interfax news agency that the legal authorities should “work more energetically and more objectively.” He also called on the minister of defense and the head of the federal procuracy to place the Vedeno investigation under their personal control. Lukin’s statement would have been more impressive as a show of courage and independence if it had come before rather than after Kadyrov’s and Dudaev’s accusations. Nevertheless, it will add to the pressures against the military’s continued cover-up.