By Paul Goble
Tomorrow, the Chechen authorities will celebrate the first anniversary of the end of the Russian “counter-terrorist operation” (KTO) there not because Chechnya has become less violent during the intervening months – it hasn’t – but rather because the end of the KTO formalized Moscow’s deference to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
In a commentary in advance of that date, Sergey Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentator on the North Caucasus, notes that “the republic powers that be [in Chechnya] consider [the end of the KTO] as virtually the main achievement of the last decade” because of the shift in power it represents (www.politcom.ru/9941.html).
But both because the violence in Chechnya continues – indeed, according to some measures, Markedonov says, it has increased – and because violence has spread not only to other parts of the North Caucasus and into central Russia as well, many in Moscow are asking whether the central Russian government ended the KTO there too soon.
Answering that question, Markedonov continues, is not as simple as it might appear. On the one hand, the lifting of the KTO in Chechnya reflected the reality that the target of the KTO was “separatist terrorism” which over the last several years, particularly after Beslan, has been largely displaced by the Islamist kind.
Today, the Moscow analyst says, “terrorist acts are committed on the territory of Chechnya” just as they were before, but now “it is hardly possible on this basis to consider Chechnya a more dangerous place than Ingushetia or Daghestan” or even hitherto quieter places like Kabardino-Balkaria.
Consequently, he argues, “a return to the KTO regime in Chechnya would scarcely change the situation in a radical way both in various North Caucasus subjects and in the Russian capital,” a disquieting Markedonov says those who advocate doing so need to take into consideration.
That is all the more so, he suggests, because “the main challenge to Russian security in the North Caucasus emanates not from the separatists but from the Islamists, and for them Chechnya is one of the points for applying force but not the only one and even not the main one,” whatever officials in Moscow may think.
But does that mean that Moscow’s decision to end the KTO in Chechnya a year ago was the right decision? To answer that, Markedonov says, one must examine more closely exactly what happened on April 16, 2009. On that date, at the direction of President Dmitry Medvedev, the National Anti-Terrorist Committee ended the KTO in Chechnya as a whole.
On that date, Chechen President Kadryov told the Chechen media that “from now on, April 16 will be marked as a national holiday.” But he did not say then and no one should have assumed that terrorism in his republic had been ended once and for all. Even now, a year later, Markedonov continues, “we cannot say” that.
Indeed, as the Kavkaz-Uzel.ru news portal reported in March of this year, in the first 320 days after the end of the KTO in Chechnya, 292 people had died there as a result of violent clashes, a figure nearly twice as large as the 154 people who had been killed during the same period of time prior to the end of the KTO there.
In some respects, of course, the announcement last year has more to do with public relations than it did with real strategy. The same thing was true in January 2006 when then-President Vladimir Putin declared that “it is completely possible to speak about the end of the counter-terrorist operation” in Chechnya.
That is because, Putin said, “the law enforcement organs of Chechnya in practice are taking on themselves the primary responsibility for the situation of the law enforcement sphere,” even though Putin’s words preceded rather than followed the definition of KTO by a law passed in March 2006.
Until that law was passed, Markedonov notes, “the very definition of ‘counter-terrorist operation’ was to put it mildly weakly developed in the framework of law.” Unfortunately, serious problems continue because “up to now for the higher powers that be, terrorism is a certain form of criminal behavior …not a political instrument for addressing ideological tasks.”
Because of the lack of legal precision, he says, “”in reality, the KTO was a kind of ‘insurance mechanism’ of the federal powers that be in a republic which for long years had been under ‘suspicion.’” But by April 2009, Moscow felt confident that the Kadyrov government could control the situation and would remain loyal.
Beginning in 2003, Markedonov says, the Kadyrovs, first father and then son in fact had succeeded in pushing out “the federal presence from the republic. Slowly, step by step, but consistently. “ And it is that reality that provides the context for understanding why Moscow lifted the KTO and why Kadyrov was and remains so pleased.
Ending the KTO “became no so much a demonstration of the successes of the government in the field of the struggle with terrorism as the definition (more or less formal) of the arrangement of forces which had come into existence in Chechnya,” one in which radical autonomy was purchased by declarations of loyalty.
Over the last year, Markedonov says, “this autonomous has essentially broadened,” as can be seen by the statement of new Presidential Plenipotentiary Aleksandr Khloponin a week ago that he would not be “a buffer” between Moscow and Grozny, thus reaffirming that “the ‘special relationship’” between the Chechen and Russian capital would continue.
Consequently, there is every reason for Chechen President Kadyrov to celebrate the anniversary of the lifting of the Russian KTO in his republic, but there may be fewer reasons for those who want Chechnya to be incorporated into the common legal space of the Russian Federation to do the same.