Putin’s heroes

Dec 1st 2005 | GROZNY From The Economist print edition A gruesome war that never really ended may soon flare up again

THE guns are the most conspicuous things, more even than the bullet holes that scar the buildings like so much architectural acne. On November 27th, when Chechnya held parliamentary elections, the weapons often outnumbered the voters: guns brandished by the Russian troops who slouch at checkpoints; guns wielded by the uniformed Chechen police; and, at the polling stations, guns carried by the mainly young, jumpy men from the local militias—the most numerous, and the most feared, of which are the kadyrovtsy, or henchmen of Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord son of a Chechen president who was blown up last year. Vladimir Putin has officially designated Mr Kadyrov junior a “hero of Russia”.

This much-delayed vote was the latest Kremlin bid to show that, after a decade of war with Chechen separatists that has left perhaps 100,000 dead and many more displaced from their homes, Chechnya is on its way to normality. By Russian standards, in some ways the election was indeed normal. Discounting the gang of voters that seemed to track a group of foreign journalists as they travelled between polling stations (at each of which traditional Chechen dancing magically broke out on cue), turnout appeared thin. Not everyone was enthusiastic: “death, hunger and destruction” was all that Chechnya’s post-Soviet leaders had given it, said one man on the outskirts of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, who had crossed out all the names on his ballot paper.

Nevertheless the official turnout was over 60%, and—surprise!—United Russia, the Kremlin’s pet party, took around 60% of the votes. Nothing abnormal there, at least in Russian terms. But what distinguishes Chechnya’s election is the plethora of guns—and the war that the Kremlin misleadingly claims is over, and the rest of the world has largely forgotten.

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The separatists who hide out in Chechnya’s southern mountains continue to clash with Russian forces, and to pay local youths who bomb Russian installations and can supply video evidence to prove it. Russians are still dying in large, if sketchy, numbers. But Mr Putin’s policy of “Chechenisation” has meant outsourcing most of the violence to local militias—especially the kadyrovtsy, who on most estimates number around 7,000. Many, like the Kadyrov family itself, are former rebels. “I was sitting at home,” comments one, with a smile, when asked what he did before joining the militia.

Officially, Mr Kadyrov junior is Chechnya’s first-deputy prime minister, and his militia’s job is to fight terrorism. In reality, and although the perpetrators are often hard to identify (and drunken Russian soldiers still murder people too), human-rights workers reckon that the kadyrovtsy are now responsible for many of the region’s outrages: mass kidnappings, the extraction of meaningless confessions and incriminations under torture, and killings. They answer only to Ramzan, and, usually, there is no redress. “To whom?” asks one torture victim in Grozny, when asked whether he has ever complained.

It is not surprising that most people at the polling stations said that ending the war, which is officially over already, was one of the country’s two top priorities. The other is jobs. Salaries for the kadyrovtsy begin at 14,000 roubles ($485) a month—five times what Tamara, a teacher with four children who was bombed out of her home in the village of Gorogorsk, says she earns. Besides a few roadside shacks and some shepherds, there is little economy to speak of outside Grozny, and unemployment is almost total. There are a few signs of life in the capital; but the city is still a wasteland of abandoned rubbish, stray dogs and half-bombed, half-inhabited apartment blocks, with washing strung across the shell holes and decorated by giant posters of Ramzan receiving his hero’s medal from Mr Putin.

“This is how I introduce myself,” says Movsar Temirbaev, the city’s mayor. “As mayor of the most destroyed city in the world.” There are more cars on the streets, it is said, only because after bombed-out Chechens have paid the 30-50% kickback needed to extract the federal compensation to which they are entitled, the cash does not stretch to a new apartment. Along with embezzlement, local money-spinners include pilfering of oil, trade in stolen military kit and ransoms, sometimes for live kidnap victims, sometimes for corpses. “It’s none of our business,” says a man in the village of Gvardeiskoe, when asked where the money came from for the incongruously grand houses nearby.

Will the newly elected parliamentarians make any difference? “Only to themselves,” says one Grozny resident. The reason, as Andreas Gross, of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, puts it, is that “the real power [in Chechnya] is not with the elected authorities.” In a pre-election poll, 2% of Chechens said the election results would be determined by the voters; 9% said by Mr Putin; 72% said by Ramzan Kadyrov. Next year, when he turns 30—the age that Chechnya’s constitution prescribes as the minimum for its president—Mr Kadyrov’s de facto power may become official. The new parliament’s main job, say some Chechens, will be to approve his nomination by Mr Putin as president.

It is hard to find many reasons for hope that Chechnya will get any better. Alu Alkhanov, who took over as Chechnya’s president from Mr Kadyrov senior, said this week in Grozny that he was willing to meet followers of Aslan Maskhadov, an ex-president turned rebel leader who was killed in March (given his predecessors’ nasty fates and Ramzan’s impending birthday, Mr Alkhanov would do well to plan a retirement strategy). But there are few credible, moderate leaders left. A few recently demobbed separatists ran in the election; one, Magomed Khambiyev, is said to have turned himself in after several relatives were kidnapped. Mr Khambiyev stood for the Union of Right Forces, a liberal party whose strongish showing was the election’s only semi-surprise. But no active separatists took part.

Conversely, it is quite easy to see how things might get a lot worse. Mr Putin’s Chechnya policy amounts to a gamble on Ramzan Kadyrov’s loyalty. It is a risky bet—not just for the benighted Chechens, nor only because the paramilitaries’ abominations drive some young people to join the separatists as their best chance of vengeance. Russian soldiers in Chechnya say that the kadyrovtsy already clash often, and violently, with federal troops, as well as with official Chechen police. In the end, concludes one gloomy Russian lieutenant, “there will be another war”—this time, quite possibly, against a foe whom the Kremlin itself has succoured.

The problem with Russia is that we do not know what to think about its international position.

Firstly, because of his relations with Saddam’s Iraq
Of course Russia opposed the Iraqi War, and a lot of important Russians have been indicted in the Oil For Food Scandal.

Not only has he sold weapons to Syria (and very special ones), but also to Iran, even when Teheran has said that they were training Chechenyan terrorists.

It has also asked USA to leave Kirjizstan and Uzbekistan with China to “protect oil resources”. That is very funny, as China is today the world’s leading consumer on oil resources.

It’s also striken me that, Yevgeni Adamov, the former Russian Energy Minister, is fighting extradition to the United States, accused of fraud and money laundering of more than $9million that USA gave Russia to protect Russian nuclear facilities.

So, can we trust Russia?


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One response to “Putin’s heroes

  1. Pingback: Russian Reporter critical of Putin’s protegé Kadyrov, murdered « Toasted Bread

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