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Ramzan Kadyrov became president of Chechnya in February 2007, formalizing the power he had previously held informally. Although there were signs that his corruption-tinged reconstruction efforts and brutal suppression of rebel groups were yielding increased economic activity, few outside businesses operated in the republic, and heavy military and law enforcement presences remained in place to ensure security. In contrast to the relative calm in Chechnya, the level of violence continued to increase in neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Chechnya, a small, partly mountainous North Caucasus republic, has a history of armed resistance to Russian rule dating to the czarist period. In February 1944, the Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakhstan after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi German forces. Officially rehabilitated in 1957 and allowed to return to their homeland, they remained politically suspect and were excluded from the region’s administration.
After winning election as Chechnya’s president in October 1991, former Soviet air force general Dzhokhar Dudayev proclaimed the republic’s independence. Moscow responded with an economic blockade. In 1994, Russia began assisting Chechens opposed to Dudayev, whose rule was marked by growing corruption and the rise of powerful clans and criminal gangs. Russian president Boris Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops into Chechnya by mid-December of that year and attacked the capital, Grozny. As casualties mounted, Russian public opposition increased, fueled by criticism from much of the country’s then independent media. In April 1996, Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile.
A peace deal signed in August 1996 resulted in the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Chechnya. However, a final settlement on the republic’s status was put off until 2001. In May 1997, Russia and Chechnya reached an accord recognizing the newly elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, as Chechnya’s legitimate leader. The elections were considered reasonably free and fair by outside observers, but Maskhadov proved to be an ineffective ruler, and the region degenerated into chaos.
Following incursions into neighboring Dagestan by renegade Chechen guerrillas and deadly apartment bombings in Russia that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants, Russian prime minister (and later president) Vladimir Putin launched a second military offensive in Chechnya in September 1999. After initial successes, Russian troops’ progress slowed as they neared Grozny. During the hostilities, Moscow withdrew its recognition of Maskhadov as president. The renewed campaign enjoyed broad popular support in Russia, driven in part by the media’s now one-sided reporting in favor of the government.
Russian forces’ indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets caused more than 200,000 people to flee Chechnya, with most heading to the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. After federal troops finally captured Grozny in February 2000, the military focused on rebel strongholds in the mountainous south. Russian security sweeps led to regular atrocities in which civilians were beaten, raped, or killed, while Russian forces were subject to almost daily bombings and sniper attacks by rebels.
As the war persisted and atrocities increased, some Chechen fighters engaged in terrorist acts. A group of rebels stormed a Moscow theater in October 2002, resulting in the death of more than 120 hostages, most from the effects of a sedative gas that Russian troops used to incapacitate the assailants. In September 2004, the rebels attacked a school in Beslan, in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, leading to the deaths of more than 330 people, including numerous children.
A March 2003 referendum on a new Chechen constitution passed with 96 percent of the vote, amid 85 percent turnout, according to official results. However, an independent survey by the Russian human rights group Memorial found that 80 percent of the indigenous population opposed the referendum. Kremlin-backed candidate Akhmad Kadyrov won the Chechen presidency in an October 2003 election, though the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the poll had not offered voters a significant choice, and the U.S. government deemed it “seriously flawed.” Chechen rebels assassinated Kadyrov in a May 2004 stadium bombing. In a subsequent election in August, Alu Alkhanov, Chechnya’s interior minister since 2003, won with a reported 74 percent of the vote. The official voter turnout was 85 percent, but journalists observing the process called that figure wildly inflated.
Despite Alkhanov’s election, a great deal of de facto power shifted to Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who could not become president until he turned 30 in 2006. Alkhanov resigned in February 2007, allowing Kadyrov, then the prime minister, to become acting president. Putin confirmed him in office the following month. Kadyrov had support from some factions within the Kremlin, but was clearly working to expand his own powerbase as well. He saw himself as a regional leader whose influence could expand beyond Chechnya’s borders. He had rebuilt central Grozny and restored some municipal services, drawing on large federal subsidies as well as funds extorted from contractors and government workers. Despite assertions of stability under his rule, serious business activity remained absent, and the republic was still host to Russian troops and a greatly expanded local law enforcement presence.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s rise to power had coincided with several successes against the rebels. In March 2005, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) killed Maskhadov, the separatist leader, and infamous guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev died in a July 2006 explosion for which the Russian government took credit. Basayev, who had claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Moscow and Beslan, was the key link between many of the disparate Islamist, terrorist, and criminal elements in the rebel movement. Meanwhile, Kadyrov and his own force of former rebel troops took over much of the fighting within Chechnya and were able to quash the secessionist guerrillas. There are now reportedly only a few hundred, poorly organized rebels inside Chechnya. The rebel leaders have increasingly moved the battle into the neighboring republics of Kabardino-Balkariya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Toward the end of 2007, observers feared that Ingushetia was deteriorating into a “second Chechnya,” with militants stepping up assassinations, disappearances, and bombings as the security forces responded with extrajudicial killings and other acts of violence.
The resumption of war in 1999 led to the total evisceration of Chechens’ political rights. President Aslan Maskhadov fled the capital in December 1999, and the parliament elected in 1997 ceased to function. The Russian government’s claims to have returned the republic to democratic rule with a March 2003 constitutional referendum lacked credibility. In the October 2003 and August 2004 presidential elections, candidates representing a genuine alternative were not on the ballot, and debate was stifled in an atmosphere of repression and censorship. Under a new system enacted in late 2004, the Russian president recommends a candidate for the Chechen presidency, who then must be approved by the Chechen parliament. Although he effectively serves at the pleasure of the Russian president, the Chechen president was initially appointed for a four-year term under this system. Amendments to the constitution approved in a December 2007 referendum increased the term to five years and lifted a two-term limit. The referendum also replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral body of 41 members. All members will serve five-year terms. The current Chechen parliament was elected in November 2005 and is loyal to Kremlin-backed Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, who took office in early 2007.
Kadyrov headed his father’s security service and reconstituted it as the Akhmad Kadyrov Special Purpose Regiment in 2004. His men, the so-called Kadyrovtsy, reportedly have been involved in abductions, disappearances, extortion, trading in contraband, and the maintenance of unsanctioned prisons and torture chambers. This group represents the chief political power in the republic and has been able to bring most of the territory under its control. In Russia’s December 2007 State Duma elections, Kadyrov helped the pro-Kremlin United Russia party win more than 99 percent of the vote in Chechnya, with more than 99 percent turnout, by running as the top candidate on the list, though he had no intention of leaving his post as president. Other parties claimed that these results were falsified.
Corruption is rampant. Kadyrov’s critics claim that his accomplishments in rebuilding parts of Grozny have been accompanied by a system of kickbacks. The restored apartments are not always distributed fairly, and many of the reconstruction workers have not been paid. It is also not clear how much of the revenue from Chechen oil production has been misappropriated. Chechnya is not ranked separately in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Information in Chechnya is tightly managed. Kadyrov’s financial resources allow him to control all local broadcast and most print media, which provide extensive coverage of his activities. There are three licensed television broadcasters, whose content is progovernment. Russian state-run television and radio continue to broadcast in Chechnya, although much of the population lacks electricity. The rebel movement operates a website with reports from its perspective, but internet usage is negligible.
The Russian military imposes severe restrictions on journalists’ access to the widening Caucasus conflict area, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the Russian government. Few foreign reporters are allowed into Chechnya, and when they are granted entry, they must be accompanied at all times by military officials. The October 2006 Moscow murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent for Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, silenced one of the few remaining journalists brave enough to travel in Chechnya without official escorts and collect evidence of abuses by Russian troops and the pro-Moscow Chechen government. More than one year after her death, the authorities had not conclusively identified her killers.
Most Chechens practice Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. Kadyrov openly advocates giving it a central role in Chechen public life. The strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, with roots in Saudi Arabia, has been banned by the Russian government.
Since the start of the fighting in 1994, many of the republic’s schools have been damaged or destroyed, and education in Chechnya has been sporadic. Most schools have not been renovated and continue to lack basic amenities.
Most international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Chechnya have moved their headquarters outside of the republic because of security concerns. However, the deteriorating situation in Ingushetia forced the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close its facilities there in 2007. Currently, international groups are providing humanitarian aid in Chechnya, and Memorial is conducting human rights research there. In addition to pressure from the Chechen government, the groups face increasing demands from the Russian government, which introduced extensive reporting requirements in 2006. Freedom of assembly is not respected, and labor union activity is almost nonexistent due to economic devastation and widespread unemployment.
The rule of law is extremely weak, with Kadyrov often acting as a law unto himself. Extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other serious crimes are rarely investigated and even more rarely prosecuted. Human rights groups accuse members of the local police of involvement in kidnappings, though Memorial reported in 2007 that the number of abductions was down considerably compared to the previous year. In 2006, 187 people were kidnapped, while the count was only 25 for the first eight months of 2007. There has been some progress in a few high-profile cases against perpetrators. In June 2007, after juries in the Russian city of Rostov refused to convict them in the face of overwhelming evidence, a military tribunal sentenced Captain Eduard Ulman and three other members of a special Russian military intelligence unit to prison terms of nine to 14 years for killing six Chechens in January 2002. However, Ulman and two of the others had disappeared in April, and they were tried in absentia.
The European Court of Human Rights has provided Chechens with an alternative source of justice. In July 2006, the Strasbourg-based court for the first time ruled that Colonel General Aleksandr Baranov, commander of Russian military forces in the North Caucasus, was responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of a prisoner detained in Chechnya in 2000. Memorial estimates that as many as 5,000 people have vanished during the second Chechen war. Subsequently, the court issued several additional rulings holding Russian troops responsible for killings in Chechnya. In October 2007, the court sought to speed up the process by allowing residents of the North Caucasus to file complaints without first exhausting all legal options in Russia. The Russian authorities have sought to prevent such appeals and redirect them to Russian courts.
Widespread corruption and the economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity. Residents who have found work are employed mostly by the local police, the administration, the oil and construction sectors, or small enterprises. Despite numerous problems, the Kadyrov government’s rebuilding efforts have improved the overall economic situation, and local business activity is starting to pick up. Most of the ethnic Chechens who fled the republic have now returned home. The number of refugees in Ingushetia is down to 15,000, from 240,000 in 2000, while the number inside Chechnya itself is 30,000, down from 170,000, according to the UNHCR.
With Kadyrov’s emphasis on traditional Chechen Islam, women face increased discrimination in this male-dominated culture. In September 2007, Kadyrov ordered female civil servants to wear headscarves. At the same time, the war has resulted in many women becoming the primary breadwinners for their families. Children accounted for up to 40 percent of casualties during the war, and they continue to suffer from psychological trauma and poor living conditions, including lack of access to education and health care.