Thomas de Waal

The Russian government has been saying for three years that the war in Chechnya is over. They are half-right. Most of the checkpoints are gone. Where Grozny’s presidential palace once stood there is now a grandiose fountain. A huge statue of Akhmad Kadyrov, the president the Russians imposed on Chechnya who was assassinated in May 2004, stands in the main square. There are traffic jams in the streets, the cafés are busy, and people walk around with mobile phones. But most houses still don’t have running water. Chechens speak of random violence, entrenched criminality and permanent poverty. And recently the violence has spread. If Chechnya itself is more peaceful, its neighbours are not. The seizure of School No. 1 in Beslan in North Ossetia in September last year was the worst attack, but there have been dozens of killings in formerly peaceful parts of the North Caucasus since then. Last month a Chechen-inspired raid ripped apart Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, leaving more than a hundred people dead. No one now believes that there is anywhere in the region that is safe from Chechnya’s violence.

In the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, there were two main combatants: the Russian army and a co-ordinated Chechen guerrilla force. Now there is a multitude of groups of armed masked men living off racketeering and an illegal oil trade. Memorial, the human rights monitoring agency, recorded 396 abductions last year, but believes the true figure to be much higher: it has access to less than half the republic’s territory and many Chechens are afraid to report the kidnapping of a relative in case it leads to more trouble. The main culprits are the Kadyrovtsy, the pro-Moscow ‘presidential security service’ of 10,000 men led by Ramzan Kadyrov, the 29-year-old son of the late pro-Moscow president. Officially, the younger Kadyrov is deputy prime minister – the new ‘president’ is a Russian former police chief called Alu Alkhanov – but actually he runs the show. Unshaven, rambling and boastful, he dominates local television broadcasts and government meetings, airing his views on world politics, threatening his enemies and then promising them extravagant pardons. An ex-boxer with no education, he is said, like the late Uday Hussein, to have a taste for personally torturing his enemies.

Putin supports the Kadyrovtsy because they do the bulk of his dirty work for him. In most of mountainous Chechnya, they are now at the forefront of military operations against the rebels and more visible than Russian soldiers. Two other private militias nominally affiliated to Russian military intelligence are the Yamadaevtsy and the Kakievtsy, named after their leaders, Sulim Yamadaev and Said-Magomed Kakiev. In June, a raid by the Kakievtsy drove the whole population of a village across the border into Dagestan. All these bands live off a black market economy made up of Russian subsidies, misappropriated reconstruction money, illegal oil trading and bribes. In an economy geared towards private gain and public insecurity, abduction is a prime means of control.

Three months earlier, the Russians killed Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel commander who was elected president after the first Chechen war, and who signed a peace treaty with Yeltsin in May 1997. His hold over his field lieutenants was weak, and as lawlessness increased in the newly quasi-independent Chechnya – a lawlessness apparently encouraged by Moscow – he was soon eclipsed militarily by his more radical comrade and rival, Shamil Basaev. When Putin initiated the second Chechen war in 1999, he was able to declare Maskhadov to be just another terrorist leader. Nevertheless, his assassination was the final blow to any hope of a political dialogue between Moscow and the vast number of Chechens who feel alienated from Russian rule. Maskhadov’s official successor as leader of the independence movement is a man of a different generation and character, a little-known Muslim cleric called Abdul-Khalim Saidulaev.

Akhmed Zakaev, who was one of Maskhadov’s three envoys abroad and is now in exile in London, told me in May that his leader’s death had profoundly changed things in Chechnya. ‘It’s a fact,’ he said, ‘that Basaev is now a leader in the North Caucasus. Of course he has influence. Our goal is for the people who are resisting to do so not under the flag of Basaev but under Saidulaev.’ A reasonable plan – except that Saidulaev is not a military man, is virtually unknown in Chechnya, and has no leverage on Basaev.

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