A major scandal erupted late last year (2002) when General-Colonel Gennady Troshev, army commander in Russia’s North Caucasus Military District (MD), publicly refused his Defense Ministry transfer to the Siberian MD.
The incident embodied a wide range of problems: the long-running struggle for influence between the Defense Ministry and the chief of General Staff, a parlous state of military reform, the involvement of generals in public politics, a powerful Chechen clan within the military leadership, and a stalemate in federal policy toward Chechnya.
This conflict is open to multiple and complex interpretations. One theory connects it to a broader reshuffling of personnel as major elections approach in Chechnya (and perhaps in response to the Moscow hostagetaking). A second explanation ties it to the stalled process of military-administrative reform.
Troshev, himself born in Grozny, is one of the greatest heroes of the second Chechen war, and was in fact officially decorated–by Boris Yeltsin–as a Hero of Russia. Troshev opposed harsh “cleansing” operations during his military operations, and negotiated with local elders to reduce casualties on both sides. These actions were detailed in the autobiography, My War, he published in 2002. Troshev was appointed commander of the North Caucasus MD in May 2000, after Viktor Kazantsev left to serve as presidential plenipotentiary for the Southern Federal District. Troshev replaced General Anatoly Kvashnin, who had been promoted to chief of the General Staff, facilitating the advancement of the Chechen clan in place of the once powerful Afghan clan within the army leadership.
Soon after Troshev’s appointment came a period of “shaky stabilization” in the republic, which amounted to neither war nor peace. With the approach of fresh elections in Russia proper, the situation has been an increasing irritant to the Kremlin, which took a series of steps in 2002 to break the deadlock. A general from the Federal Security Service (FSB), Murat Zyazikov, was brought in to replace the tiresomely independent president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, in a closely controlled election. Refugees were forced to return from Ingushetia, and various steps were taken to isolate the rebel militias, internationally and at home. The Kremlin needed some concrete results to back up its routine statements about victory in Chechnya.
The rebels responded by stepping up attacks against federal forces, including strikes outside the republic. At a Victory Day parade on May 9, a powerful bomb claimed forty-five lives in Kaspiisk, Dagestan. In August, an a Mi-26 helicopter was shot down over Grozny, with 119 fatalities, and a consequent reprimand for Troshev. In October, one of Grozny’s regional police headquarters was bombed, with two dozen fatalities. The terrorists then moved to Moscow for the Nord-Ost theater attack. In December, after Troshev’s departure, Grozny’s Government House was blown up, with eighty dead. Each month brought a new terrorist act, with dead and wounded in the hundreds.
After the October hostagetaking, the Kremlin announced that negotiation was impossible and accelerated plans for a unilateral resolution of the problem. On December 11, a Congress of the Chechen Peoples was held in Gudermes and a new constitution agreed on. The next day President Vladimir Putin approved a plan to hold a referendum on both a new constitution and election laws for the republic’s new institutions.
On December 17, Troshev briefed journalists on the Defense Ministry’s plans to rotate various MD commanders and announced his own refusal to move to a new district. “This is my third year as commander of the North Caucasus MD. There have been no complaints about the district or about me as commander. I cannot understand why I am being moved. Now, with the republic preparing for a referendum, is not the time for such an appointment. The Chechen people have trusted me to complete the counterterrorist operation. I cannot betray the Chechen people.” Some observers speculate that Troshev took this extraordinary step because he intends to run for president of Chechnya in the elections planned for this fall.
The next day, Putin relieved Troshev of his duties in the North Caucasus MD and replaced him with Vladimir Boldyrev, the commander of the Siberian MD. Boldyrev, who has never before led any military operations, is a protégé of the current Ground Forces C-in-C, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Kormiltsev. Troshev was assigned to the Defense Ministry’s reserve, and the vacant post of commander in Siberia was later filled by General-Colonel Nikolai Makarov, chief of staff in the Moscow MD.
Such rotation of regional military commanders was highly unusual. Typically, when a commander is promoted or retired, he is replaced by his first deputy, the chief of staff. Nearly all movement of generals up the career ladder occurred within the confines of their own MDs.
The new actions should be seen against the backdrop of consistent efforts by Putin and his civilian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, to gain control over the security forces. Putin announced the reinstatement of a rotation system in the Interior Ministry, designed to prise regional police commanders from their long-established local networks, at a session of the Security Council in May 2002. Now it is the army generals’ turn. Other steps include, for example, the reinstatement of the post of commander in chief of the Ground Forces, which had been abolished in 1998, as the authority to whom the Military District commanders report. The C-in-C will now answer directly to the Defense Minister, not to the General Staff. In emergency situations it is the MD commander who takes primacy over all the security forces involved.
The shuffling of Troshev thus stands as some proof that a dramatic reorganization of staff is underway, with the aim of giving Putin’s team total control of the army, as has already happened with the police. There is no slack in the political timetable. More will follow soon.
TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER
It is important to understand that federal policy in Chechnya is handled by dozens of competing leaders and institutions, both military and civilian. As far as the security agencies are concerned, apart from the North Caucasus MD command, there is the Combined Federal Forces Group in the North Caucasus (which Troshev also commanded); the Regional Operations Staff for Control of Counterterrorist Operations in the North Caucasus Region; the commander of the Defense Ministry forces in the Chechen Republic; and finally the Military Commandant of Chechnya.
In October 2002, President Putin signed a decree under which orders of the military commandant are binding on both civilian bodies and the security agencies. The military commandant is now a presidential appointment, and directly subordinate to the chief of the Regional Operational Staff for Control of Counterterrorist Operations in the North Caucasus.
On the civilian side, apart from the special federal minister for Chechnya, in Chechnya itself there is the head of the administration and prime minister, appointed by the Russian president, and in Moscow the chairman of the Government Commission on Chechnya (the head of a special interdepartmental working group within the Security Council). Recall that in 1996-1998, the Security Council, under Aleksandr Lebed and Ivan Rybkin, was itself a sort of ministry for Chechen affairs. There is also the president’s special representative on human rights in Chechnya.
Let us examine the latest sequence of personnel appointments. In November, Stanislav Ilyasov, head of the Chechen government and an implacable opponent of Akhmad Kadyrov, became federal minister for the reconstruction of Chechnya, replacing Vladimir Yelagin. To date, this has not been a key post. For Yelagin, it was actually more of a sinecure after he was voted out of his position as Orenburg governor. But now, if Ilyasov can actually keep control of federal funding, things may be very different. Not long before this move, General-Colonel Nikolai Koshman, another former Chechen premier who was vice premier of the Russian federal government in Chechnya, was appointed chairman of the State Construction Committee, Gosstroi. The last sideways move for these “curators of Chechnya” was the appointment of Mikhail Babich, a young businessman who was vice governor of Ivanovo Oblast, as head of the Chechen government.
In the wake of the new appointments and major staff changes, it is clear that the Kremlin wants a marked change of tactics in Chechnya. This is partly because of the approaching Duma elections and probably also a reaction to the Nord-Ost incident. The Kremlin is scrapping the status quo, repositioning its players and radically updating its array of forces so as to strengthen Moscow’s real control.
This is the background against which we need to consider the replacement of Troshev with Boldyrev. With Troshev’s departure, Chechnya has lost its last well-known, public and popular general in much the same way that the strong, independent-minded Ilyasov was replaced by the neophyte Babich.
Moscow’s ability to exert remote control has increased dramatically with the arrival of the new and nonindependent outsiders. And there’s a dramatically reduced risk of any actions unsanctioned by Moscow or of any uprising or attempted blackmail by the generals, such as was seen in early 2000. In 2000, Putin came to power by giving the generals carte blanche to wage war in Chechnya. Now, if he is to hold on to power, he needs to turn the situation around and send them back to their barracks. The outburst by Troshev, who genuinely considers himself to be an independent player, demonstrates that it is high time for such action. Or is it too late?
The infusion of fresh leaders into Chechnya is not a reflection of Kremlin efforts to strengthen its team–on the contrary, it is now weaker. It will take the newcomers to the MD and the Chechen government at least six months to get their bearings. The most plausible explanation for these changes is that the Kremlin is planning a radical shift of tactics on Chechnya.
Nikolai Petrov is head of the Center for Political Geographic Research and leading research associate with the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.