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Crisis in Chechnya

Print edition : Jun 04, 2004 T+T-

The assassination of the pro-Kremlin Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov is likely to jeopardise Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans for Chechnya and push the region into further chaos.

in Moscow

THE assassination of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9 has dealt a massive blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin's policy for the region. The Kremlin-supported Kadyrov had just delivered a speech at Grozny's Dynamo stadium as part of Victory Day celebrations which commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, when a powerful explosion shook the VIP enclosure. A converted artillery shell that had been encased in the concrete frames holding the VIP podium was apparently detonated by a built-in timer hidden under the plaster. Although the exact number of people killed is unclear, reports indicate that it is anywhere between six and 32. Over 50 people are reported to have been injured. Among the other prominent people killed is the Chechen State Council chief, Khusein Isayev. The commander of the Russian federal forces in Chechnya, Colonel-General Valery Baranov, was injured seriously.

The explosion is undoubtedly the handiwork of terrorists, but there is considerable speculation in both Chechnya and Moscow that it could have been the work of an insider. Local press reports have quoted Chechen Interior Ministry sources as stating that "the explosion was prepared specifically for the President and by someone in his retinue". The attack seems to have been planned well in advance, taking care of all loopholes. The attackers seem to have been aware of the security procedures and the level of preparedness of the security apparatus at the stadium. Evidently, they refrained from detonating the bomb by remote control because they knew that the stadium had special equipment to jam radio signals.

Kadyrov had been the target of over 15 assassination attempts since 2000, and analysts are surprised that he managed to last as long as he did. He had become the cornerstone of Putin's Chechnya policy, and without him the entire process could be jeopardised. Kadyrov, 52, had been in the forefront of Chechen politics for more than a decade. In 1991, he returned from Oman and joined the rebellion in Chechnya and rose to the position of a mufti (Islamic religious leader). In 1995, he declared a jehad against Russia and the following year the first Chechen war ended with a humiliating defeat for Moscow. However, as President Putin geared to launch the second Chechen war in 1999, Kadyrov threw in his lot with Moscow and abandoned the rebels. He won Putin's confidence and was appointed head of the Chechen administration in June 2000. In the following years, he faced a number of assassination attempts, including one by a female suicide bomber. In October 2003, he won a rather controversial presidential election, as part of a Kremlin-sponsored peace plan. Kadyrov was the Kremlin's man in Chechnya and today there is nobody to replace him.

The Kremlin's reliance on Kadyrov was built around the perception that he was the only man in Chechnya who could control the several gangs and armed factions in the war-torn state. Kadyrov had put into place a daunting security force drawn from the ranks of Chechen rebels who had walked across to him and this force was the prime factor behind his control over the state. The force is led by Kadyrov's son Ramzan, who is just 27. Both the rebels and the federal forces in the state view the `private militia' with suspicion; it is greatly feared by the local population too. Its well-publicised negative human rights record has contributed to the fear in no small measure. Analysts are of the opinion that with the exit of Kadyrov, whose presence was seen as somewhat stabilising, Chechnya could erupt into a bloodbath.

Speaking to The Moscow Times, Defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out: "The Kremlin had backed Kadyrov since 1999, and his death was a major strategic defeat. President Vladimir Putin portrayed Kadyrov as the `political solution' to the Chechen problem. Kadyrov formed a personally loyal security service and police force, employing many former rebels. This force was designed to tackle the threat of separatist fighters and eventually to replace the Russian military in the region. With Kadyrov dead, what should be done with his 3,000- to 5,000-man private army?" He added: "The Kremlin's policy of controlling the Caucasus with handpicked local strongmen is in tatters. It turns out that the Russian military and security services, unreformed and notoriously corrupt, cannot defend our own allies. If Putin does not begin to change course immediately, more such disasters will follow and Russia's influence in the Caucasus will continue to wane."

On May 9, Putin had Ramzan flown into Moscow, assuring him that "retribution is inevitable". He told Ramzan that "his father was a truly heroic man" and "he has left undefeated". Ramzan has been appointed the First Deputy Prime Minister and Sergei Abramov, the Prime Minister, has been appointed Interim President, pending fresh elections. Already there are rumours that signals from the Kremlin indicate that Ramzan may well be the next favoured candidate though it is too early to predict. Analysts feel that Ramzan's knowledge of the situation on the ground, his control of Kadyrov's militia, and the clear lack of another favourable candidate make him the frontrunner. According to the Chechen Constitution, a presidential candidate has to be at least 30 years old. However, this need not necessarily bar his candidature if the Kremlin decides to back him to the hilt. Other than Ramzan, there are a few Moscow-based influential Chechens who could also emerge as candidates. However, none of them has any influence at the grassroots-level in Chechnya, which would logically be the Kremlin's requirement for carrying forward its "road map" for the region. There is also talk of direct presidential rule in Chechnya until elections are held; in this case a Russian commander could be flown into Chechnya.

Although several options are being discussed, analystsconcur on two facts - first, there is no man today to replace Kadyrov in Chechnya as the Kremlin's point man and second, there is no way Putin would agree to a negotiated settlement of the Chechen problem. So, despite a major blow to Putin's plans for Chechnya, the hunt for and the grooming of a successor to Kadyrov is likely to intensify in the following months. Meanwhile, violence is expected to escalate in the war-torn state and is likely to spill over to other parts of Russia. Over the past couple of years, Chechen militancy has wreaked havoc in Russia: in October 2002, Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theatre and took 800 people hostage, 120 of whom were killed when Russian forces stormed the building; in December 2002, a massive suicide bomb attack on the headquarters of the Chechen government in Grozny killed around 80 people; and in May 2003 over 50 people were killed in northern Chechnya in another suicide attack. The months ahead will reveal whether the Kremlin manages to salvage Chechnya or the war-torn state spirals into mayhem.