Chechnya, or the Chechen Republic, is a small republic of Russia, bordering Georgia. It is not an independent state but an autonomous republic which used to be peaceful during communist rule. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and inspired by the successful secession attempt of its neighboring country Georgia, Chechnya was the field of two wars against Russia in 1994 and in 1999 causing 160 000 deaths. Since then, the conflict between Russia and Chechen militants has resumed in the form of two important terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2004. In a 2002 raid on a Moscow theater, Chechen militants killed 129 hostages, according to the AP. In 2004, militants killed 330 hostages after taking over a school in the Russian town of Beslan (Ingushetia). International Media covered Chechnya recently after the Boston marathon bombing.
In response to terrorism, Russia tightened its grip on Chechnya and installed a pro-Moscow Chechen regime in a controversial referendum (separatists parties were banned) which reintegrated Chechnya to Russia,. Akhmad Kadyrov (ex-separatist) was elected president with 83% of the vote in an internationally monitored election on October 5, 2003 but was assassinated on May 9, 2004. Parliamentary elections in November 2005 saw the pro-Kremlin United Russia party win over half the seats. In 2007, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov was appointed President by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In April 2009, Russia declared the nearly decade-old “counterterrorism operation” against separatist rebels to be over.
Today, there has been increased investment in reconstruction projects and the shattered city of Grozny is being rebuilt. While Russia is keen to highlight these signs of rebirth, the rebels struggle continues.
In Russian, Grozny means “awesome”
Surely, the capital of Chechnya, is back to life. Grozny has been completely rebuilt with a brand new mosque, Business Centre, a Marble Arch, avenues etc. The main street in Grozny is called Putin Avenue, named after the Russian President who destroyed Grozny in the past but who is now financing the reconstruction, directly supervised by Ramzan Kadyrov. As part of the renewal of the city, the first international flight to leave Chechnya in 15 years has took off from Grozny airport in 2011. Chechnya continues to depend on grants from Russia, nearly two billions euros in 2012. However, behind the restored façades of Grozny, there is another world of fear and social deprivation that no one talks about.
If Grozny has been reborn, not all traces of war have been erased. In Grozny, people who work often don’t receive their wages and nearly 36% of the population is unemployed. Behind the shining façade of the city, there is a world of misery only few people speak about. Many Chechens still live in temporary houses. The compensation promised by Russia after the war has never materialized. Many are feeling abandoned by the authorities. The Russian government spent $30 billion in the North Caucasus from 2000 to 2010, and plans to deliver a further $80 billion of federal funds to the region’s 9 million population by 2025.
Outside Grozny stands many check points and other cities like Nazran exudes the nastiness of poverty, crime and neglect. Provincial boundaries feel also like crossing international Borders for example with Ingushetia and North Ossetia.
A self-aware fragile strategy towards North Caucasus and Chechnya
Vladimir Putin cut a deal with Kadyrov in exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin, he received power and reconstruction aid. “The Chechen Republic must remain part of Russia. Everything else is negotiable”. Kadyrov is almost untouchable and started building a totalitarian regime with a strong personality cult. Kadyrov is the only leader in any of Russia’s 21 republics to have his own militia and has imposed elements of Islamic law, including a ban on unveiled women in public buildings, mainly to keep extremists groups under control.
Everything is controlled and freedom of speech is limited. Kidnapping is a taboo word but an uncomfortable reality. 5000 people have disappeared since the end of the war. The regime justifies this method as part of the fight against terrorism and there is an order from Moscow to eliminate terrorism by any means.
Several republics in the region no longer subject themselves to Russian legal or political norms, although formally they remain under Moscow’s authority. Chechnya remains a gray zone, neither independent, nor under Russian control, nor at peace.
For Kadyrov, the end of subsidies from Moscow would be disastrous. About 90 percent of the Chechen government budget consists of transfers from Moscow, and a huge chunk of employment is dependent on the Grozny reconstruction boom that Moscow funds. If any help were to stop, the fragile province will become weaker and remain a fertile field for conflict. Moscow is paying the price for keeping the Chechen Republic part of Russia with no other way to leave the region. All this give incredible power to Kadyrov, which he is ready to apply as everything remains negotiable.
Now that the economy is struggling, the Kremlin is in a weaker position and must grant greater autonomy and political power. Development or military strategy, none of them are working, even if the financial help provided short term stability to the Region. From this point of view, would it not be better to give independence to Chechnya?
The answer is no and is also economic. As Chechnya is a Caucasian republic in an oil and gas transit corridor between the Caspian and the Black seas, Russia would never allow independency. As an example, Putin’s first job when appointed Prime Minister on 9 August 1999 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin was to build an oil pipeline bypassing Chechnya.
However, Putin is aware of the situation even if he is still playing his anti-western policy card. He stated that Russia “shouldn’t ignore accusations by certain Western media and reports by international organizations about the so-called widespread abuse of citizens’ rights in the North Caucasus,” but “they should look at themselves first. They also commit plenty of violations.”
According to Putin, the North Caucasus still faces security threats, economic problems and widespread corruption despite positive changes, and the region’s main economic indicators are well below average Russian figures. The region has the highest unemployment rate in Russia.
The Russian president said that more than 1,600 corruption-related crimes, or a dozen of crimes daily, were uncovered in the region from January through June. This year, he said, regional officials have embezzled about 6.5 billion rubles (almost $200 million) from the federal budget.
The reality of the situation explains a mass exodus of Chechens. Over the past year and a half, 43 160 Chechens have been prevented entry through Poland’s eastern border.
Refugees from Chechnya give quite different reasons, forcing them to leave their homeland. The main reason for the migration of Chechens is inability to endure psychologically monstrous outrage and humiliation to which the residents of Chechnya are exposed daily from Kadyrov’s clan.
In an interview with the Chechen Service of Radio Liberty, one of the leaders of the Chechen diaspora in Poland quoted Chechen refugees who are forced to languish in Polish camps: “We cannot psychologically endure humiliation and abuse from Kadyrovites. They do what they want, kidnap whom they want, kill whom they want, seize property from whoever they want … If you take up arms and go to the mountains, they immediately call you terrorists … People cannot tolerate this lawlessness, withstand it psychologically, that is why so many are leaving. As for the fact that they built something there, it is not for the common people, but for themselves …”.
Putin has failed in his “historic mission” to solve the problem in North Caucasus except if finally his mission was just a simple stabilization of the region at any cost just to maintain Russian national interests.