On 16 April, President Medvedev announced the official end of Russia’s ‘counter-terrorist operation’ in Chechnya, effectively declaring victory in the long war against Chechen separatism. Much of Grozny – virtually razed to the ground during a decade and a half of fighting – has now been reconstructed, and in recent years there has been a marked decline in the activity of insurgent groups. The success is attributed to the iron rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow president of Chechnya, whose ruthless methods have, we are told, brought peace to the region.
We have heard similar things before: Putin proclaimed the ‘end of major combat operations’ back in April 2000, and Russian military spokesmen have regularly declared the separatist resistance to have been defeated. The gradual draw-down of troops implied in Medvedev’s announcement may have more to do with tightening budgets in Moscow than with conditions in the field: that same evening, Russian troops once again clashed with separatist fighters in the Shali region. Such battles take place on a more or less weekly basis, resulting in a continuing trickle of casualties. Even if the promised withdrawal of 20,000 Interior Ministry troops does take place, a force numbering as many as 30,000 would remain. In a region with a population of fewer than a million, this would work out at five times the current ratio of US soldiers to Iraqi civilians. If this is normality, what would an occupation look like?
But behind the largely symbolic announcement of the war’s end lies confirmation of the entrenchment of Kadyrov’s power. Until he was appointed president two years ago, Kadyrov was in charge of his father’s private security force, known as the kadyrovtsy: a several thousand-strong army that became infamous for its participation in the kidnapping and torture of suspected insurgents and their relatives. Even before his elevation, the walls of Grozny were plastered with images of Kadyrov – clad in a beret, Guevara-style, to underline his fighting credentials, or in a skullcap, to indicate Muslim piety – and his expensive armoured cars sped ostentatiously through the streets. His army has continued to grow, in large part due to a policy of ‘amnesty’ for former separatists, who are induced to switch sides on pain of death. How loyal these men are to Russia remains a source of considerable anxiety in Moscow, not least within the army high command which, until recently, had sought to balance other pro-Moscow clans against Kadyrov to ensure that Russia had alternative candidates to run the republic, should he prove inconvenient or uncontrollable. It was Putin who opted instead to give full backing to Kadyrov – replicating on a smaller scale his own drive to entrench a ‘vertical of power’ in Russia.
In addition to allowing the personal aggrandisement of Kadyrov himself, the Kremlin’s fulsome support has meant tacit approval for the elimination of his rivals and enemies. Kadyrov has long had carte blanche within Chechnya: human-rights organisations have detailed case after case of ‘disappearances’, torture and summary executions carried out by his men since 2000, and some victims have testified to Kadyrov’s own participation in these cruelties. Similar accusations were at the heart of the story Anna Politkovskaya was working on when she was killed in the lift of her Moscow apartment block in October 2006.
Kadyrov’s involvement in the killing was never proven: the three men tried for it were reportedly linked instead with the FSB, the Russian security services (and were in any case acquitted in February this year). Six weeks after Politkovskaya’s death, however, another murder took place that unmistakably bore Kadyrov’s imprint: Movladi Baisarov, an FSB lieutenant-colonel and former ally of Kadyrov who had begun to criticise him, was gunned down on Moscow’s Leninskii Prospekt by a detachment of Chechen ‘police’. Having left Chechnya for his own safety, Baisarov had been under constant armed guard until three days before his death, when the FSB withdrew its protection – effectively signalling official sanction for his removal. That the government should not only tolerate but actively facilitate bloodletting in the streets of the capital was alarming enough. But this was only the beginning of a series of killings that has left a trail of bodies stretching from Moscow to Vienna, Istanbul and Dubai.
Last September, Ruslan Yamadaev, a former Duma deputy for Chechnya for the ruling United Russia party, was shot in his car on the Smolenskaya Embankment in Moscow, just yards away from the Stalinist skyscraper housing the Foreign Ministry. The Yamadaev clan had, like Kadyrov, switched to Russia’s side in 1999, and had long been supported by Russian military intelligence (GRU) as a counterweight to Kadyrov, if not a potential alternative. That the GRU might no longer be willing or able to protect the Yamadaevs was confirmed in Dubai at the end of March, when Ruslan’s brother Sulim – recipient of a ‘Hero of Russia’ medal for his loyal services to ‘counter-terrorism’ in Chechnya – was reportedly shot dead. He had been living for several months in the luxury Palm Jumeirah apartment complex under a false name, in the evidently false hope that being far from Moscow would prevent him from meeting the same fate as his brother.
Within days the Dubai authorities had declared the chief suspect to be Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov’s cousin and right-hand man: Yamadaev had apparently been shot with a gold-plated Makarov pistol registered to Delimkhanov, which the Dubai police claimed had been smuggled into the emirate under diplomatic cover. Delimkhanov has strenuously denounced the accusation, and it seems strange for the assassin to have used such a garishly identifiable weapon. But even if the perpetrators cannot be linked directly to Kadyrov, yet another of his rivals has been eliminated; for all Delimkhanov’s protestations, it is he and his master who once again benefit most from the crime. And is it possible that a man prized by the GRU could be disposed of on foreign soil without the approval of the highest authorities?
It is not just Kadyrov’s rivals for power who have been targeted. In the last few months, several Chechens living in exile have been threatened by emissaries of the pro-Moscow regime in Grozny, and four have been killed. Three of these deaths took place in Istanbul, where a number of former separatists have sought refuge: in September 2008, Gazhi Edilsutanov was shot in the head in the Basaksehir district; in December, Islam Dzhanibekov was shot in Ümraniye, and in February Ali Osaev was likewise despatched, execution-style, in Zeytinburnu.
And in mid-January Umar Israilov was shot in broad daylight in Vienna as he fled from as yet unidentified assailants. His case is all the more striking in that the Austrian authorities had known his life was in danger. According to an investigation carried out by the New York Times, Israilov – a former separatist fighter – had been captured by Kadyrov’s men in 2003 and taken to a detention centre in Kadyrov’s home village of Tsentoroi, where he was repeatedly tortured. Several months later, he was offered a choice: work for Kadyrov or die. Israilov chose to live, but in 2004 he deserted, eventually making his way to Austria. Kadyrov’s men then detained and tortured his father, Sharpuddi, in order to induce him to return. He refused, and his father was eventually released. In late 2006, the two men filed separate cases against the Russian and Chechen governments at the European Court of Human Rights, documenting their own ill treatment as well as that of others: according to their testimony, detainees were tied to gym equipment, beaten, given electric shocks, burned with a gas torch, and one was sodomised with a shovel handle; many were subsequently taken outside and shot.
Such allegations were obviously damaging to Kadyrov, and in the spring of 2008 a man called Artur Kurmakaev was sent from Chechnya to persuade Israilov to retract them or face the consequences. We know this because in June, Kurmakaev turned himself in and told the Austrian police about his mission, claiming that Kadyrov kept a list of 300 names of people who were to be liquidated. Doubts have been cast on this part of Kurmakaev’s testimony – not least because having been deported back to Russia, he is now denying his previous assertions. But Kurmakaev is not the only such envoy: in March, Ruslan Khalidov surrendered to the authorities in Norway, claiming he had been sent to assassinate a prominent member of the Chechen diaspora there; Khalidov also alleged the existence of the list. In Strasbourg, Said-Emin Ibragimov, a former minister of communications in the separatist government, was told by the French police that his name was among those on a supposed ‘death-list’, and on a recent trip to the European Parliament he was placed under armed guard by the Belgian police.
Even if the list does not exist, the recent spate of murders demonstrates the real dangers facing those who happen to fall foul of Kadyrov. Last summer, men in black ski-masks wearing the uniforms of Kadyrov’s forces set fire to the houses of several families with sons suspected to be in the resistance, and as part of an official campaign the parents of alleged ‘terrorists’ were forced to appear on local TV begging them to surrender. The human rights organisation Memorial has catalogued 34 kidnappings in the first four months of this year, compared to seven in the same period last year. Chechnya’s much-vaunted ‘stability’ is being imposed at gunpoint. On 16 April, the Russian analyst Dmitri Babich told BBC World that Moscow had chosen Kadyrov because he was ‘the lesser evil’. But the reverse seems closer to the truth: Putin deliberately chose the greater evil, and encouraged it to wipe all the lesser evils from its path – along with such trifles as international law and the Chechens’ democratic rights – and to kill or torture anyone who resisted.
But having given the monster free rein, can the Kremlin control him? Russian commentators now worry that Chechnya, though formally under Russian sovereignty, is effectively independent, since Kadyrov can now do very much as he pleases. Writing in the Moscow Times, Sergei Markedonov argued that ‘a new type of separatism has won out in Chechnya’; Yulia Latynina observed a week later in the same paper that ‘the end of counter-terrorist operations does not mark Russia’s victory over the insurgents, but Chechnya’s victory over Russia.’
If so, it is a hollow one. According to the UNHCR, in 2008 Russia accounted for the third highest number of applicants for asylum in ‘industrialised nations’ – behind Iraq and Somalia, but ahead of Afghanistan; a significant proportion of the 20,500 ‘Russian’ applicants were Chechens, desperately hoping to escape the ‘peace’ of which the Kremlin is so proud. On 23 April, a week after the ‘counter-terrorist’ regime was triumphantly lifted, it was quietly reintroduced in three of Chechnya’s 15 administrative subdivisions.