On January 9, the heads of two large districts of Chechnya lying north of the Terek River submitted a note to the republic’s acting chief of administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, in which they affirmed that they were being forced to resign their positions due to a failure of the federal authorities “to stabilize the situation in the republic” (Lenta.ru, January 9). Sergei Ponomarenko, chief of administration for Naursky District, and Anatoly Storozhenko, chief of administration for Shelkovsky District, called upon Moscow to change its policy toward Chechnya.
The resignations of the only two Slavs serving as heads of administration in Chechnya (the remaining heads are all ethnic Chechens) represented a heavy blow to Moscow’s plans for the war-torn republic, especially since the two had been assigned to relatively peaceful, stable territories located north of the Terek. As Vladimir Elagin, the Russian minister recently placed in charge of reconstruction in Chechnya, noted during an interview appearing on January 10, the Russian government has the intention of turning these two districts, plus Nadterechnyi District, bordering on the south bank of the Terek, plus a future “government quarter” to be constructed within the city limits of Djohar, into magnets attracting alienated Chechens back into union with Russia. “When the [Chechen] inhabitants see the real successes and the rebirth,” Elagin predicted, “then they will cease helping the leaders of the rebels” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 10).
In an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, titled “Sergei Ponomarenko States: ‘The War Will Never End’,” the Naursky district chief attempted to explain why he and Storozhenko had decided to resign as heads of the “two most attractive districts in Chechnya today” (Izvestia, January 10). Ponomarenko began by recalling that he had accepted the Naursky post in October of 1999: “At that time, the situation was different. The republic was headed by [retired Russian General] Nikolai Koshman in the rank of deputy premier of the Russian government. His influence extended both to civilian and military structures. People began to be paid their wages on time. A promise was made to restore what had been destroyed in the course of military actions.”
In May of 2000, however, Ponomarenko recalled disapprovingly, “Moscow changed the schema of administering the republic. It was henceforth headed by a Chechen, Kadyrov, who does not have the status of deputy premier and therefore lacks the necessary powers. There began a retreat: the head of the republic did his thing, and the federal troops did theirs. Budget items were not paid and, as for restoring what had been destroyed, that was forgotten. This situation was immediately exploited by the rebels who move freely about the republic and are seizing the initiative from us.”
Asked about the significance of Kadyrov’s serving as administrative head of Chechnya, Ponomarenko replied that this was indeed “very important.” “In the spring [of 2000] during our meeting with Putin,” he recalled, “knowing of the removal of Koshman, we, twenty heads of administration of the republic, requested that a non-Chechen be named as the new head of Chechnya. And in that delegation of twenty only Storozhenko and I were Russians.”
Asked why a “non-Chechen” was needed for the post, Ponomarenko explained: “The republic is sick. A psychological fracture has appeared in the awareness of people. Therefore for a two or three year transitional period a leader should be sent in from the side, one not bound by kinship or clan ties.” But President Putin’s circle, he stressed, rejected this well-intended advice.
Predictably, in Ponomarenko’s opinion, the situation has significantly worsened since Kadyrov’s appointment: “Today in the administration of the republic and in key posts in the ministries are relations of Kadyrov. It is not difficult to understand why: fearing the penetration of henchmen of the separatists to power, he decided to rely on people that he knows well.” Given this development, Ponomarenko added, “Many leaders feel themselves to be time-servers and care about only one thing: how to line their pockets while there is still time. All of this only serves to strengthen the disillusionment of the populace.”
Queried about the inroads being made into his and Storozhenko’s districts by the separatists, Ponomarenko replied: “There have been instances of the mining of roads [by separatists] where previously there had been none. In Shelkovsky District, heads of village administrations have been wounded and a Cossack Ataman has been killed, and there are victims among the officers of the commandant’s office and among the civilian populace. Even more noticeable is the propaganda activity of the people of Aslan Maskhadov. They penetrate into the villages and distribute newspapers published in Khasavyurt [Dagestan] with ‘the decrees and resolutions of the president of Ichkeria,’ and they maintain that soon the previous [separatist] regime will be reestablished.” A recent nighttime sweep of the village of Kalinovskaya turned up “thirty [Chechen] lads who, during a time of curfew, were freely moving around the village demonstrating who is the real boss.”
In Ponomarenko’s opinion, a major error had been committed in the summer of 2000, when commandant’s offices had been withdrawn from the villages of his district. “Legalized rebels now appear in public [in the district] without their weapons, and they possess [internal] passports. The psychological pressure on the populace is rather effective. They threaten any Chechen with reprisals if he appeals to the Russian authorities.” During late 1999 and early 2000, Ponomarenko remembered, he used to receive visitors in his office from morning to evening. “Now my reception room is empty.” Many Russians are now planning to leave: “The remnants of the Russian populace are quietly abandoning the republic (out of 90,000 inhabitants of Naursky and Shelkovsky districts there are not more than 9,000 Slavs).”
Ponomarenko expressed pride in what he had managed to accomplish during his tenure as Naursky district’s chief of administration: “Heating has been restored in eighteen out of twenty-four schools. Gas and electricity have been restored in the population points. But if you only knew at what price! We did not receive a single kopeck [from the Russian government].” In October of 2000, he recalled, he and Storozhenko had paid a visit to the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov. Ivanov had agreed with them that the structure of the administration in Chechnya required change. “But one of his deputies admitted to us: since up till now there has been no program for the restoration of the republic, it is senseless to put money into Chechnya.” And that belief, Ponomarenko concluded bitterly, “means that the war will never end.”
The resignations of Ponomarenko and Storozhenko strike one as important developments. From the information provided by Ponomarenko to Izvestia, it seems rather doubtful that Russia will succeed in holding on even to the two districts of Chechnya which are located to the north of the Terek River, not to speak of the lands lying to the south. The fact, confirmed by Ponomarenko, that ethnic Russians are continuing to leave Naursky and Shelkovsky districts in significant numbers renders a successful reincorporation of northern Chechnya back into Russia quite unlikely. In addition, the failure of the Putin leadership to provide basic reconstruction funds even for northern Chechnya betokens an apparent lack of Russian governmental competence and will.