Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 20


Is Akhmad Kadyrov overplaying his hand? The head of the Moscow-appointed administration in Chechnya, generally regarded as the frontrunner in the republic’s forthcoming presidential election, is already calling himself “acting president” and is clearly trying to create an aura of inevitability. He has won almost every fight over personnel so far this year, forcing out a prime minister and an interior minister who were insufficiently tractable and placing his own candidates in the posts of finance minister and head of the OMON special police (see Chechnya Weekly, January 30, February 13, May 8, and May 29). The March constitutional referendum, a classic Soviet-style exercise of raw power disguised as popular consent, was a personal triumph for him as well as for Vladimir Putin. In Kremlin court politics Kadyrov’s only significant recent defeat was his failure to get added to the new constitution a provision that would effectively have barred his strongest potential opponents from running for president (see Chechnya Weekly, January 22). But if he continues to enjoy the Kremlin’s support, none of these opponents has any chance of winning in any case.

Kadyrov’s string of tactical victories has not reconciled his opponents in Russia’s security agencies. Some of the most anti-Kadyrov articles in the media are now appearing not in the periodicals that defend human rights and oppose Moscow’s policies in Chechnya, but in those most sympathetic to the interests and values of the “siloviki”–that is, the military, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the other security agencies. What these agencies, and their allies in the Moscow media, fear now is that Kadyrov will turn Chechnya into a largely autonomous fiefdom under his own personal control. Indeed, they fear that, to a large degree, he has already done so. Paradoxically, Kadyrov may achieve what the “siloviki” have spent so much blood and treasure trying to prevent: de facto independence for Chechnya. (Based on what we have seen of Kadyrov’s style of ruling, such partial independence would have little room for democracy, personal freedom or the rule of law.)

One of the most striking of these recent anti-Kadyrov articles from the “siloviki” camp appeared in the May 23 issue of Utro, one of Moscow’s most pro-Kremlin periodicals. The article’s author, Islam Aliev, focused especially on the way Kadyrov has managed to build up his own personal armed force, which is loyal first and foremost to Kadyrov himself rather than to the Russian government. Aliev warned that the Kadyrov administration clearly plans to use the amnesty decree now nearing enactment by the federal Duma as a tool to entice and pressure guerrilla fighters to desert Aslan Maskhadov and join Kadyrov’s personal gendarmerie. In fact, Aliev wrote, this process has already been taking place even without the new decree.

What Aliev called “Kadyrov-style legalization” is, in his view, “gaining momentum” and “being accepted by the Kremlin with surprising calm.” In today’s Chechnya it is impossible to avoid “a sense of deja vu,” in which military officers talk about what is happening as “the preparation of a second Khasavyurt.” (The 1996 peace agreement in Khasavyurt, withdrawing Russian troops from Chechnya, is bitterly remembered by the “siloviki” as a betrayal.) According to Aliev, “in the view of those residents of the republic who have run out of patience with the rebels and who would like to see Chechnya under Russian law, the current situation is becoming ever more similar to a repetition of 1991.” (That was the year when militant separatist Dzhokhar Dudaev seized power in Grozny.) He suggested that “it is quite possible that we are now observing the establishment of a new regime, but this time with the support of Russian arms. The only difference is that Dudaev enjoyed widespread popular support, while the current powers-that-be lack even one-tenth of such popularity.”

Aliev’s sources among the “siloviki” directly contradicted the optimistic prognoses of the Kremlin press machine about the winding down of the war. “The most implacable rebels such as Basaev, Maskhadov and another ten bloodstained field commanders,” he wrote, “still have not been neutralized. Nobody knows how long they will continue to escape. Skeptics, including those in the ‘silovye’ structures, consider that this counter-terrorist operation might drag on for decades to come.”

Aliev praised the “tens of thousands of Chechens” who, he said, “are now defending the interests of Russia.” He singled out for special attention the commandos led by Sulim Yamadaev. But he immediately went on to make it clear that such praise had to be qualified: “To say that all the police of the republic can reliably carry out their missions and take action against the guerrillas would be to sin against the truth.”

Aliev cited one particularly glaring episode that took place in the highlands around Vedeno just before the March referendum:

“Troops who are receiving the highest pay among all the police in Russia stated that they have no intention of engaging in combat with Basaev’s forces in the highlands…because their health does not allow it. On the eve of the voting there took place a frightening and shameful incident, which was hushed up in Moscow and even more in Grozny. The very night before the referendum, the bandits surrounded a polling place in the highland village of Yalkhoi-Mokkh near Kurchalo, guarded by five Chechen policemen and one police officer, a Russian from Krasnodar named Sergei Shiyan, serving by contract. The Chechen policemen, armed with automatic rifles and with ample ammunition to fight for several hours (more than 3,000 bullets), simply laid down their arms and did not fire a single shot. The bandits did not disturb them. But the contract officer was taken prisoner and executed–the bandits cut off his head and threw his body into the polling place. At the Chechen Ministry of the Interior, on the level of deputy minister, this incident was judged to be an act of mutinous treason; officials pledged to open a criminal case and to handle it according to the full rigor of the law. But what is most interesting is what happened later: The policemen who had behaved like cowards received only a verbal reprimand, and they calmly continued to serve.”

Aliev described the Chechen police as a “third force,” between the federal troops and the separatist guerrillas, which for the most part cannot be counted on to resist the separatists. (The exceptions until recently included the OMON special police.) He also listed a “fourth category,” Kadyrov’s own “privatized” security service, which has been growing rapidly: “According to some accounts, by the end of April it numbered more than 4,000 men. This is a huge force, which in effect lies beyond the control of the federal center. Local branches of this security service are being created in almost every large Chechen village or town. Its members are the very same guerrillas who have already been amnestied.” According to rumor “very little is necessary for such a ‘voluntary surrender’–merely to pay an agreed-on sum and show up before the special services and the television cameras.”

The Utro correspondent quoted a Chechen woman, a merchant at a small open air market in Gudermes, who described how Kadyrov’s bodyguards had begun to require her and other retailers to pay them an informal “tax.” In the past, she said, it would have been considered unthinkable for a Chechen to extort such a payment from a fellow Chechen, but now it happens often.

Aliev also quoted a Russian officer, now in his third year of service in the northern Caucasus: “The paradox is that the republic’s current authorities are bringing open bandits under their guardianship–the same people who are on most-wanted lists as criminals….to many of the rebels who have ended up in Kadyrov’s legalized units, Russian soldiers are considered enemies.”

Thus, in Aliev’s view, the number of armed men in Chechnya who superficially are on Moscow’s side is large and growing. But there are serious tensions and conflicts among these men, and Aliev expressed doubt that the federal center would manage to reconcile these conflicts–“especially since Kadyrov has put his stake on people who routinely trample on Russia’s laws and who pride themselves on doing so.” He called the forthcoming amnesty a “fig leaf,” one that conceals the fact that “an enormous gulf lies between the pronouncements of Putin and the reality of Chechnya. The problem is that in practice there does not exist any program for rehabilitating people who have long been waging armed combat against Russia and for returning them to peaceful life.” They are at risk of being killed by their former comrades as “traitors,” there are no employment opportunities for them in Chechnya’s wrecked civilian economy, and federal subsidies that might be used to hire them have been embezzled by corrupt bureaucrats–most likely before the money even leaves Moscow. Thus the most attractive option is to go back to being fighters–but this time “within the law,” under Kadyrov.

Aliev hinted that the recent death of Chechnya’s former interior minister, Ruslan Tsakaev, ostensibly from a heart attack, was no accident. Tsakaev had strongly opposed Kadyrov’s practice of recruiting former rebel guerrillas into the Chechen police, and had “promised to reveal a great deal to the press.”

Another tantalizing hint was Aliev’s use of quotations from FSB General Said-Selim Peshkhoev, who has been mentioned previously as a possible candidate for the presidency of Chechnya if the Kremlin should decide to drop Kadyrov (see Chechnya Weekly, May 8). Peshkhoev, former head of the Chechen militia, expressed his certitude that former rebel guerrillas would not be willing to fight Basaev: “To recruit former guerrillas into the police is not correct. They should be placed behind the steering wheels of tractors, let them plow fields…The idea that their military experience and skill with weapons might be useful in the struggle against their former comrades is nonsense…How can one provide weapons to those who only yesterday were using weapons to commit crimes?”

In Aliev’s view, Peshkhoev “personifies the views of the federal center, but Kadyrov at this point has stopped taking the federal center into account.” An especially striking example of this: Former guerrillas from Shamil Basaev’s band, who took part in his 1995 terrorist attack on Budennovsk in southern Russia, are now becoming part of Kadyrov’s gendarmerie. “A clear example of this is the 26-year-old guerrillas Aslan Daudov, who has an award from Ichkeria [the separatist republican government] for his service in Budennovsk.” Another is Shamil Khataev, formerly a member of Aslan Maskhadov’s government.

A former police officer in Grozny, disheartened by Kadyrov’s takeover of the OMON and other “silovye” structures, told Aliev that the acting president’s bodyguard is “a real bandit group…Where are they getting their pay? Not from the federal budget…See how well-armed they are, better than Russian soldiers; they even wear expensive NATO camouflage.” He described how some of them had recently appeared in a Grozny marketplace, had seized bottles from sellers of vodka and then ostentatiously poured them into the street–clearly implying that they were Islamic militants and former rebel guerrillas.

According to Aliev, Kadyrov has even appointed judges who had served in the Islamic Sharia courts under Dudaev and Maskhadov. The Utro correspondent also wrote that the courts in today’s Chechnya are readily susceptible to bribery: A party to a civil suit can reportedly get the decision he seeks for a payment of from US$100 to US$400. (Aliev acknowledged that corruption infects courts not only in Chechnya but across Russia.)

Kadyrov seems at present to be enjoying the Kremlin’s favor, but it is clear that the views expressed by Aliev are widely shared in Russia’s security agencies. Even if the current boss of Grozny manages to stay on top through the forthcoming presidential election, he will still have many enemies in some of the federal government’s most powerful structures–and those enemies show no signs that they are ready to be reconciled.