Who in Moscow Protects the Yamadaev Brothers?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 16

On April 19, the federal authorities made the first concrete decision on the conflict between the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and the Yamadaev brothers—Sulim Yamadaev, who heads the Russian army’s Vostok (East) battalion; Ruslan Yamadaev, a former deputy in Russia’s State Duma; and Badrudin Yamadaev, who is also a Vostok battalion member (Chechnya Weekly, April 17).

The Gazeta newspaper reported that a meeting had taken place on April 19 at the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow to discuss the fate of the Russian army’s Vostok (East) battalion, headed by Sulim Yamadaev. General Aleksandr Baranov, Commander of the North Caucasus Military District, and General-Colonel Sergei Makarov, the Chief of the Staff of the District, attended the meeting, among others.

The Russian military commanders decided at the meeting to put off a final decision about the Vostok battalion until after May 7, the day that President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will be inaugurated.

“It was decided not to do anything rash and to wait until military investigators investigate all the tragic incidents that entailed people’s deaths,” a source in the North-Caucasian District told Gazeta (Gazeta, April 21).

It is no exaggeration to call this decision of the Defense Ministry a victory of the Yamadaev brothers over Ramzan Kadyrov, at least a temporary one.

After the gun battle in the Chechen city of Gudermes on April 14 between Kadyrov’s forces and fighters of the Vostok battalion, Kadyrov initiated a massive propaganda campaign against his rivals. On April 16, Kadyrov and Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov called the Yamadaev brothers (Sulim and his younger brother Badrudin) “criminals.” Then the republican human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, accused the Vostok commanders of numerous crimes and human rights violations. Some Chechen non-governmental organizations and human rights activists demanded that the Vostok be disbanded immediately (RIA Novosti, April 16).

On April 17, the Chechen parliament adopted a resolution calling on Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov either to dissolve Vostok or to replace its leaders, Sulim Yamadaev (Chechnya Weekly, April 17).

That same day, four Chechen deputies in the Russian parliament, Adam Demilkhanov, Magomed Vakhaev, Akhmed Zavgaev and Said Yakhikhazhiev, also demanded the dismissal of the battalion and suggested that Sergei Fridinsky, the Russian Military Prosecutor, be asked to appear before parliament to report on the investigation into Vostok’s activities (Interfax, April 17).

On April 18, Demilkhanov, who is Kadyrov’s closest political ally, accused the Yamadaev brothers of plotting with Boris Berezovsky, the Russian tycoon and political immigrant who now lives in London, to destroy Russia (Interfax, April 18). The Chechen Interior Minister told Interfax that same day that that an infantry company had withdrawn from the Vostok battalion. This was followed by a statement from Kadyrov in which he declared that 300 servicemen had already left the battalion (Interfax, April 18). Kadyrov-controlled Chechen television broadcast a report in which some former Vostok servicemen said they had been paid only 6,000 rubles (around $255) a month despite the dangerous conditions of their service. Moreover, they said they had not been officially enlisted and thus had not enjoyed proper medical services and social protection. “We thought we were servicemen but we were not enlisted and did not have military service cards although we carried weapons and performed special missions,” one of the young men said (Interfax, April 18).

This strong pressure from Kadyrov apparently failed to impress the Russian military. The Defense Ministry’s press service told Kommersant that the ministry had not received any official request from the Chechen parliament or Chechen members of the Russian parliament to disband the Vostok battalion (Kommersant, April 21).

Moreover, on April 19, just after the meeting at the Defense Ministry on the Vostok issue, additional troops—elite Russian military intelligence (GRU) Special Forces—were sent to Gudermes to defend the main base of the Vostok battalion against any hostile actions by forces loyal to Kadyrov (Rosbalt, April 21).

On April 21, a Russian Defense Ministry source told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that “there was no flood of applications requesting to leave the battalion from members of the unit” (Nezavisimiya Gazeta, April 21).

The decision of the Russian generals not to disband the battalion inspired Sulim Yamadaev to start criticizing Ramzan Kadyrov in pubic. On April 19, Ekho Moskvy radio station broadcast an interview with Yamadaev, in which he called Kadyrov “a coward” who “runs around with a huge motorcade escort but sends other people to fight.” Yamadaev said in the interview that Kadyrov lied about peace in Chechnya and that many of Ramzan’s men were in fact secret rebel sympathizers. Yamadaev promised to set up a TV station inside his base, which will be independent from Kadyrov and will tell Chechens “the truth.”

Sulim Yamadaev is now acting like a politician, not simply a military commander. Apparently, he is trying not only to preserve his battalion but also to damage Kadyrov’s political monopoly in Chechnya.

If this is the case, the support of the Russian military command will not be enough. According to Ivan Sukhov and Olga Allenova, well-known Russian journalists who write about the situation in the North Caucasus, rumors are circulating both in Moscow and in the Caucasus that President-elect Dmitry Medvedev wants to see a leader in Chechnya who will be loyal to him personally and has plans to get rid of Kadyrov as a man of the incumbent president, Vladimir Putin. On April 16, the newspaper Vremya Novostei published an article by Sukhov in which he said that “there is information that Kadyrov received a message from Moscow that he will soon get a new position in the federal government.” “It is clear,” wrote Sukhov, “that any position for Kadyrov outside of Chechnya will mean his political annihilation.” Allenova told Radio Liberty that the North Caucasus is full of rumors that many leaders of the North Caucasus republics will be replaced by new ones when Medvedev comes to power (Radio Liberty, April 23).

The fact that such rumors really are circulating was confirmed by Kadyrov himself.

“The enemies of Chechnya and Russia are spreading fabulous rumors that I will get another job, in Moscow,” he said. “I am not going anywhere: my task is to make Chechnya a prosperous land and I will accomplish it” (Grozny-Inform, April 17).

Kadyrov made this statement at the peak of the crisis in Gudermes, and the statement reveals the true reason for Kadyrov’s hostile attitude toward the Yamadaev brothers: he regards them as his main political rivals.

The decision of the Defense Minister to put the Vostok issue on hold until Medvedev’s inauguration is also symbolic because it demonstrates the political background of the conflict. If Medvedev indeed has plans to replace Razman Kadyrov in Chechnya with one of the Yamadaev brothers, it could mean that the new president of Russia will be a much more independent figure than some observers believe. On the other hand, to topple Kadyrov could be also a collective decision by the Kremlin, which no longer sees him as a person capable of winning the war against the insurgency that is again on the rise in Chechnya.