Troubleshooting Chechnya, Chapter I
Chechnya’s Geopolitical Landscape
We’ll follow terrorists everywhere. We will corner the bandits in the toilet and wipe them out.
In November of 1991, soon after the dissipation of the Soviet Union, Chechnya declared their independence from Russia. Consequently, in 1994, Boris Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya, attempting to maintain access to oil pipelines and to prevent Chechnya’s move towards independence. Although technologically superior, Russian forces admitted defeat in 1996, forcing the withdrawal of all Russian troops. Following this defeat, and in order to ensure his electoral victory, Yeltsin negotiated a humiliating agreement with Chechen rebel leaders, granting them de facto independence. In January 1997, drawing on Yeltsin’s independence pact, Chechens elected their own president, Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet artillery officer who held the position of main rebel military commander during the war.
A decision on Chechnya’s final political status was delayed for five years under a hollow peace deal negotiated with Moscow. In spite of this peace agreement, in 2003 Vladimir Putin appointed Akhmad Kadyrov as a direct representative of Moscow. This autocratic style selection brought forth the first instances of separatist violence to affect regions outside of Chechnya. Extremist violence matched the brutality by Russian forces, creating massive collateral damage among civilian populations. Coincidentally, even with Aslan’s autonomist standing, his assumption of power and subsequent assassination inadvertently ignited the final political unraveling of the region. Accordingly, the Chechen Republic, deprived of a true people’s representation, fostered the formation of political and human rights issues that need addressing before the government can successfully move in a direction of stability and peace.
The original stability issue lay in Aslan Maskhadov’s struggle to maintain peacetime control between Russian forces and separatist extremists. A majority of his troubles stemmed from more radical field commanders, such as Shamil Basayev. Basayev formed a breakaway republic that descended into anarchy, eventually gaining reputation as one of the hostage-taking capitals of the world. On October 1, 1999, Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, sent troops back into Chechnya after militants crossed into the neighboring Muslim region of Dagestan in an unsuccessful attempt to start an armed uprising. Russia’s anti-terrorist operations soon followed after Chechen separatists bombed apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities. Oddly, despite the want for peaceful outcomes, Russia’s counter-terrorist operations spawned some of the first major human rights issues in Chechnya. In October 2003, Vladimir Putin stated, “a legitimate figure will appear, in whose hands all the mechanisms of power should be concentrated.” Ironically, after the forced withdraw of his three strongest rivals, President Akhmad Kadyrov won the election in 2003.
One major issue came about in President Akhmad Kadyrov’s failed attempt to unite Chechnya under a pro-Moscow rule. Earlier in the year, a new constitution passed in a referendum giving Chechnya more autonomy within the Russian Federation. Chechnya’s election intended to lead to a phased withdrawal of Russian forces, with local Chechen security forces taking increased responsibility for security and stability. Conversely, Kadyrov’s security forces had a reputation for brutality and became widely regarded as a private army. Counter-terrorism operations restricted individual rights, allowed brutal searches of persons and entire villages, regulated movements and controlled the overall republic’s infrastructure. In May 2004, Kadyrov was assassinated by separatists after only nine months in power, when a massive bomb exploded at the Grozny stadium during a ceremony marking victory in World War II.
Ultimately, the final cause of political destabilization occurred in March 2005 when Aslan Maskhadov, the only man who could have represented the rebels in peace talks, was killed by Russian forces during a deliberate missile strike. Kadyrov’s successor, Alu Alkhanov, won election in August 2004. Once again, the election’s legitimacy came under question when his strongest rival was prevented from standing.
Although elected as president, Alkhanov stands as little more than a figurehead. Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, who became prime minister in March 2006, stands as the most powerful figure in Chechnya. He controls an anti-terrorism squad blamed by Russian and Western rights groups for abductions, extra-judicial killings and torture. Increasing amounts of forced disappearances, coupled with a lack of The Hague and Geneva Convention regulation, continued to fuel separatist insurgency violence in Chechnya and surrounding regions. Lastly, Chechnya’s current issues mostly stem from Putin’s Chechenisation policy, which allows Kadyrov to establish complete personal control over Chechnya in return for restoring law and order and re-establishing Moscow’s writ over the territory.