On August 2 of last year, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree instructing the Russian military command to submit, by December 15, 2006, a plan for a stage-by-stage withdrawal of troops from Chechnya in 2007-2008 (Chechnya Weekly, August 10, 2006).
However, continuing hostilities in the region have forced the Russian authorities to drop this idea. Last fall, Russian generals issued one statement after another pointing to the serious security problems in the Chechen Republic (Chechnya Weekly, November 9, 2006). When the deadline arrived on December 15, nothing was heard about the need for a withdrawal plan that was supposed to have been submitted to Vladimir Putin.
The idea of the August 2 decree was to come up with a withdrawal plan by the end of the year as proof that the war in Chechnya had ended. This way, on the eve of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia in 2007-2008, the Kremlin would be able to eliminate the unpleasant Chechen issue once and for all.
The Russian authorities were clearly aware that the outside world had been expecting them to declare the withdrawal of their troops at the end of the year, as was stated in the decree. Since the military situation in Chechnya did not allow for a troop withdrawal of any kind, new methods had to be found to persuade everyone that the situation in the republic was improving.
A major propaganda campaign was initiated by the Russian and pro-Russian authorities in Chechnya during the last two weeks of 2006. It began on December 15, when the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee, headed by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, issued a statement reminding the rebels in the North Caucasus that the amnesty period was set to expire on January 15, 2007. “You will be at the side of your people, your loved ones, if you end your membership in bandit formations and disarm,” the statement read (Kavkazky Uzel, December 15, 2006). On December 19, as a follow-up to this statement, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov vowed to make Chechnya a tourist center of the North Caucasus in the near future (Interfax, December 19, 2006). On December 20, the pro-Russian authorities in Chechnya declared that in 2007, they would build a resort and new roads in the mountainous Shatoi district, a stronghold of the Chechen insurgency. On December 21, Khamzat Gambulatov, director of the Chechen branch of the Caucasian Railroad, reported to Kadyrov that “the 2006 plan to restore railroads and stations in Chechnya had been implemented 110 percent” (Regions.ru, December 21, 2006).
The closer the New Year holiday approached, the more optimistic the official statements became. On December 27, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office reminded the public about the Russian government’s greatest success in its war on the Caucasian insurgency. It was announced that the Russian Forensic Examination Center had finished its molecular genetic test of the remains of Shamil Basaev, the famous rebel commander who died in an explosion last summer. The test confirmed that they were indeed Basaev’s remains (Interfax, December 27, 2006). That same day, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov said that “380 militants were pardoned in 2006 as a result of the amnesty campaign,” while Ramzan Kadyrov triumphantly declared that “in 2006, the Kadyrov team proved that it is the winner, the winner over war, destruction and lawlessness.”
The next day, on December 28, Alkhanov met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. During the meeting, Alkhanov told the Russian president that “there were serious positive changes in many areas of Chechnya in 2006, in the social and economic sphere, in establishing government institutions and in the development of civic society.”
Then, apparently delirious with delight, Alkhanov began telling Putin how Chechens loved the pro-Russian authorities. “What is more important, the mood of the people is changing,” he said. “People see that we are restoring streets, highways and schools. This inspires people and makes them believe that everything that we are doing is right” (ITAR-TASS, December 28, 2006).
The same day, Ramzan Kadyrov called 2006 a year of noticeable improvements in the social and economic situation in the republic (Regnum.ru, December 28, 2006). Interfax reported that on December 29, Kadyrov had been nominated as Chechnya’s Man of the Year. That same day, Kadyrov met with Chechen athletes and declared that “thanks to the achievements of our athletes, the stereotype of Chechens as bandits and terrorists is being destroyed” (Regions.ru, December 29, 2006). At another meeting that day, Kadyrov promised to build 33 new health facilities in Chechnya and to adopt 15 Chechen orphans. The following day, on December 30, Ramzan Kadyrov, dressed as Santa Claus, entertained Chechen children for two hours at a New Year children’s party in the town of Gudermes. All of this was widely covered by the Russian media.
This torrent of good news from Chechnya during the last week of 2006 had only one goal: to make everyone forget about Chechnya as a troubled region. It remains to be seen whether such propaganda tactics will be effective and whether Chechnya will cause headaches for the Kremlin during the impending election season.