Russia has finally declared an end to its decade-long anti-terrorism campaign in Chechnya, leaving more power in the hands of the republic’s President Ramzan Kadyrov. Yet the decision, while perhaps symbolic, does not mean Chechnya’s troubles are over.
In a statement on Thursday, Russia’s National Anti-terrorist Committee said it had “cancelled the decree imposing an anti-terror operation on the territory of Chechnya, effective from midnight [2000 GMT on Wednesday].”
“This decision aims to create conditions to further normalise the situation in the region, to restore and develop its economic and social infrastructure,” it said.
Although the BBC’s Richard Galpin viewed the announcement as symbolic, others saw it as a reflection of a reality that was established years ago. What led to this reality is a controversial subject that holds important implications for Chechnya’s future; the BBC notes: “The separatist rebels have long been pushed to the margins, and have been unable to carry out any serious attacks for the past five years – not least due to the brutal tactics used by President Kadyrov.”
There is no doubt the rebels have faced serious obstacles. Since the entrance of Russian “counter-terror” troops in Chechnya in 1999, the rebels have been continuously pounded and have faced the defection of several powerful clan leaders, including the President’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was later elected president. The elder Kadyrov switched sides to declare loyalty to Moscow and was replaced by his son after his death in a bomb blast in 2003.
It was not until last month that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the region was stable enough to allow for the end of Russian security restrictions. Restrictions included, according to Deutsche Welle, “curfews, roadblocks, spot searches and arbitrary detention.” In addition, although Russia has already withdrawn most of its army units from Chechnya, “tens of thousands of police from other Russian regions and scores of special service units still patrol there. Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Vasily Panchenkov said last month that ending the regime could lead to the withdrawal of about 20,000 ministry troops from Chechnya.”
The relaxation of Moscow’s grip on the region is certainly a welcome move to Chechnya’s ex-rebel president. Kadyrov continues to walk a fine line between support for Moscow and the desire for additional autonomy. The London Times:
Kadyrov’s loyalty is also qualified: he repeatedly expresses devotion to Putin as Chechyna’s “saviour” but pushes for increasing independence from Moscow. He wants international status for Grozny’s airport, for instance, allowing Chechnya the right to establish its own customs posts.
He also agitated for the decision to end anti-terrorist operations because it will require central authorities to withdraw troops from Chechnya, making the Kremlin even more dependent on him.
So why is the Kremlin suddenly okay with qualified loyalty in a territory that Russia has been militarily involved in for a decade? The London Times continues:
For Putin has got what he wanted: to avenge Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of rebel fighters in the first Chechen war of 1994-96 and to undo the principle that ethnic republics could win their independence.
Ironically, Kadyrov has grown so powerful as President of Chechnya that Moscow’s grip on the republic is tenuous at best. The Kremlin has struck a Faustian bargain that allows him to rule unchallenged, provided he expresses loyalty to Russia.
Moscow plays along because while Chechnya is quieter, the rest of the North Caucasus is growing increasingly unstable. Neighbouring Ingushetia has been in turmoil for months, while insurgent attacks have spread to Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria.
The article adds that Russia shot itself in the foot by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia: “Some within the Kremlin now privately acknowledge that this has set an uncomfortable precedent that has fired the ambitions of others in the Caucasus to challenge Russia’s rule.”
Although Russia’s announcement has been a cause of celebration for some, others fear that little will change in terms of human rights, due to Kadyrov’s repressive reputation. In a piece for the Manchester Guardian, Arkady Babchenko questions:
Will there be fewer killings as a result? On one hand, the impunity factor – which meant any extrajudicial execution could be written off as part of the struggle against terrorism – will undoubtedly recede. In recent times, people who were suspected of being connected to rebel fighters were usually killed on the spot rather than being arrested.
The announcement that it’s all done and dusted with the rebels in Chechnya is also far from objective. True, their number is not so great, but the trouble is that Kadyrov’s regime is itself responsible for procreating resistance, by giving those who don’t agree with him no other choice than to take up arms and head for the hills.
Killings and extrajudicial punishments go on now, and they will continue. President Kadyrov says that ending the KTO [anti-terrorism operation] will attract investment to the republic. I don’t know. De jure, Chechnya is part of the Russian federation. But de facto, it is a mono-ethnic republic, to which citizens of Russia do not travel on any account. No one takes holidays in Chechnya’s resorts, no one does business there, no one invests money there and no one is buying real estate.
Ending the KTO is purely a populist move. In fact it means only one thing: that the Kremlin has crowned Ramzan Kadyrov to reign in the region and given him total freedom as the rightful and personal master of Chechnya. A Chechnya where one thing is already clear: his word is law.
Furthermore, as my colleague James Joyner recently noted, Russia’s decision to scale down efforts in Chechnya is likely the result of the economic crisis constraining Moscow’s budget rather than the elimination of conflict conditions. Unfortunately, the end of operations in Chechnya will not spell an end to the republic’s troubles.