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. …