The war is over. Russia on Friday announced the end of counterterrorist operations in Chechnya, which should see the withdrawal of 20 000 federal troops. This marks the end of the tight security regime that has been in place for almost a decade since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent in federal troops in 1999.
The event is being celebrated as a victory, but two serious questions remain. First, was what has been achieved worth the price paid? Second, have the Kremlin’s objectives really been reached?
Chechnya enjoyed de facto independence until 1999, when Putin ordered in the Russian army to quash separatism in the North Caucasus region.
Unlike in the first war in the mid-1990s, Moscow managed to co-opt several powerful clan leaders who had previously fought on the opposing side, among them Akhmad Kadyrov. These now pro-Moscow forces were essential to the “pacification” of Chechnya that followed.
After being elected president in 2003, Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004. But the rebels were on the wane: over the next few years, a number of important rebel leaders were hit, and hundreds of fighters surrendered. Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, now rules as president with an extremely tight grip. The various security forces operating in Chechnya have been brought step by step under his control, and huge amounts of federal money have been ploughed into the reconstruction of the republic.
That Ramzan Kadyrov has brought some sort of order and stability to Chechnya is widely accepted in Russia. The insurgency is blunted; budget revenues have increased; reconstruction is ongoing. But the price was a heavy one, with massive human rights abuses reported within the republic and extrajudicial shootings in recent months as far afield as Dubai and Austria. This is stability in a similar sense to that which Putin has brought to Russia: eliminating dissenting voices by coercion or buying them off.
There is also a sense that the stability is something of a myth, carefully constructed for consumption, both internal and external, via the media, much the same as Russia’s “raising itself from its knees” under Putin. The insurgency is not over; neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia also remain extremely volatile.
The consolidation of power under Ramzan Kadyrov leads to the second question of whether Moscow has achieved its objectives. Chechnya has not seceded, but neither has it been integrated into Russia. Elites have been pacified, but problems not solved. The pact with the Kadyrovs meant ceding a great deal of power to the local ruler in return for formal recognition that Chechnya is part of Russia. Kadyrov pays lip service to Moscow, which in return acquiesces to the more unsavoury aspects of his rule.
One North Caucasus expert has gone so far as to say that Kadyrov has achieved the dreams of the separatist leaders, but by connivance with Moscow rather than fighting. In this sense, the end of security operations there represents a victory for Kadyrov. He already runs Chechnya as his personal fiefdom, a state within a state, and will now gain even greater control. This creates a potentially enormous headache for Moscow. What if the Kremlin decides it needs to remove Kadyrov from power? – guardian.co.uk