Chechnya: Russia Declares 'Mission Accomplished' in Strong-Man State

Article excerpt

After nearly a decade of harsh "antiterrorist" operations that frequently targeted civilians in Chechnya, the Kremlin has declared the mission accomplished and pledged to withdraw at least half its troops from the now pacified, mainly Muslim republic.

According to the Kremlin, years of relentless - if often controversial - security measures combined with generous reconstruction aid provided by Moscow have proven to be a winning formula that isolated Chechnya's separatist and extreme Islamist rebels, cornered them in the republic's remote mountains, and ultimately defeated them. It is also seen as a victory for former President Vladimir Putin's strategy of "Chechenizing" the conflict by turning power over to Moscow's local allies, led by Chechnya's current strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

Announcing the decision to lift the emergency regime Thursday, the official National Antiterrorism Committee painted a picture of civilian life returning to normal in the formerly embattled territory and stated that Chechnya is now ready to conduct free trade, travel, and investment with other parts of Russia and even to receive international flights at Grozny's airport.

"The situation is stable and this change of status will help us in continuing efforts to restore our economy, build more housing, and attract outside investment," says Ziyat Sabsibi, who is Mr. Kadyrov's official representative in Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. "We have particularly high hopes of getting investment from the Persian Gulf and Middle East," where there are large communities of expatriate Chechens, he says.

Kadyrov told journalists this week that most former rebels have been either killed or come over to the pro-Moscow local government, leaving "no more than 70" of them still holed up in mountain hideouts. Lifting the state of emergency will enable Moscow to pull out some 20,000 Interior Ministry forces - though an equal number will remain indefinitely - and also allow the cancellation of curfews, Chechnya's formerly ubiquitous security check points, and summary house searches by police, he said.

Critic: Russian withdrawal 'purely symbolic'

Critics say it's true that Chechnya today is mostly peaceful and that the horrific human rights abuses committed by Russian forces in early stages of the war have largely abated. But they argue that life in the little republic of 1.1 million people is anything but normal. They say that the Kremlin has bought the appearance of stability at the cost of consigning Chechnya into a legal black hole, where Mr. Kadyrov's forces run the republic without regard for the Russian Constitution or even the Kremlin's authority.

"Chechnya exists today as a kind of enclave, completely outside the framework of Russian or international law," says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, who was reached by phone in Grozny. "This decision to lift the state of emergency has purely symbolic significance for the population of Chechnya. Today, the human rights abuses are committed by [pro- Moscow] Chechens rather than Russian security forces, but the atmosphere of impunity is the same," she says.

A tiny republic's dark history

The northern Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is part, was conquered by Imperial Russia in the 19th century and later forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Chechens, a warlike mountain nation, rose up repeatedly and declared independence as the USSR was collapsing in 1991.

An invasion launched by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 killed an estimated 100,000 people, mainly civilians, and ended in Russian defeat two years later. But a de facto independent Chechnya became a nexus for crime and subversion throughout the region. After a wave of apartment bombings, blamed on Chechen terrorists, that killed 300 Russians in 1999, the Kremlin again ordered Russian troops to invade the tiny republic. …

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