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Moscow Diary: Chechnya challenge

Russia still has unfinished business in troubled Chechnya - and President Medvedev cannot ignore it, the BBC's James Rodgers reports. His diary is published fortnightly.

CHECHNYA WOES

It was dusty that day. I didn't like to think what the dust contained. I had no idea how many decomposing corpses there might be in the ruins of the city where I stood.

Russian troops in Grozny (file pic)
Violence in Chechnya may return to haunt President Medvedev

It was March 2000. Russia was voting for a new president: the second in its history, a successor to Boris Yeltsin.

Vladimir Putin had emerged from the KGB, via the politics of St Petersburg, to become the natural candidate for the top job in the Kremlin.

His rise to power, and the making of his early reputation as a strong leader, had come from his determination to crush those Chechens who dared to defy Moscow's authority.

In the late summer of 1999, Russia was still stunned by the aftermath of the economic disaster which had struck 12 months before. Then hundreds of people were killed in a series of explosions in apartment blocks. The Kremlin blamed Chechen separatists.

Russia went to war. By the following spring, they had largely subdued their foes: but the cost was the ruins which I saw all around me on that spring day eight years ago, and whatever grisly remains they might conceal.

The next month, I reported on Mr Putin's inauguration as president.

Two weeks ago, I was back in Chechnya. It was my first visit since June 2000. The ruins were gone from the city centre. There were cafes and market stalls. I could make a mobile phone call.

HARD ACT TO FOLLOW

I returned from that trip to cover the inauguration of Mr Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Former President Vladimir Putin (left), with his successor Dmitry Medvedev in the State Duma, 8 May 08
Vladimir Putin (left) groomed Dmitry Medvedev for the top job

"He's not really much of a normal bloke," one Muscovite said to me recently of Mr Medvedev.

His remark shows how hard an act Mr Putin will be to follow.

Mr Putin's great quality as a politician is his ability to talk to different people in their own language. He mixes the language of the barrack room and the boardroom to great effect. He didn't let the formality of his recent visit to Italy stop him from taking a swipe at reporters with "snotty noses" speculating on his private life.

He can be rough at the edges when chatting to soldiers; statesmanlike in his knowledge and economic literacy when stepping onto the international stage.

MORE OF THE SAME?

Those who voted for Mr Medvedev are hoping for more of what they've had under Mr Putin. "Nothing will change" seems a fairly typical view here. There's an element of hope as well as expectation. No one wants to return to the late Yeltsin years, when the currency all but collapsed, and the country's southern edge was in flames.

Mr Putin has presided over the transformation. When he strode through the Kremlin's gilded halls to take his oath of office, there was little clue of what was to come. Few foresaw a Russia as rich and influential as the one we witness today.

Mr Putin's critics would add that this has become a country where riot police have beaten the Kremlin's political opponents. European election observers, if they turn up at all, no longer see voting here as fair.

When Mr Putin came to power, I found it hard to believe that Grozny could ever be a functioning city again. As he leaves office, it is. That's not to say all is well. There are huge economic and security challenges. The Council of Europe says that as many as 4,000 people are estimated still to be missing.

Because Chechnya is so much calmer now, it is talked about far less. But the conflict cast a shadow over the presidencies of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Unless its problems are solved, it may do the same for Mr Medvedev.

Then there's inflation. Last year, it was 11.9%. Figures for 2008 so far suggest the government will struggle to keep it in single figures this year. It's hitting the poorest hardest - those Russians who haven't had the benefits of the boom, those who could provide the basis of a new political opposition.

It may be that "nothing will change" under President Medvedev, but experience of the Yeltsin and Putin years strongly suggests the opposite.


Your comments:

It's difficult not to feel sorry for poor old Chechnya considering the history of sustained violence and repression wielded by Stalin's Soviet Union and then by independent Russia using the region as a political tool. In no way do I agree with Chechnya's methods of raising awareness of its plight through acts of terror, but it becomes obvious that when backed into a corner any proud nation, which Chechnya very much is, would fight back in whatever way possible do defend itself and become free. It's good to see that Chechnya is getting back on its feet, but somehow it feels like the calm before the storm. I hope not.
Anton Conlon, London

You mention the apartment bombings as the catalyst of the Second Chechen War, but no one ever seems to mention the Chechen invasion of Russia in August 1999. Do journalists hope that people will somehow forget about it? This was an undeniable act of aggression against Russia and a far cleaner casus belli than the apartment bombings.
Ben, Czech Republic

I think more needs to be done to Help Chechnya. Years of illegal killings and war-crimes have gone in the war-torn area but the outside world has failed to do anything. This is not only hypocritical but has destroyed Chechnya and its people. Hopefully you can bring to light the 200 year struggle of Chechnya's wishes of independence in the media.
Mab, Lancashire, UK

There is not much difference between the two presidents but certainly Russia will become once again a world power with Putin's leadership. The world needs the balance of the power.
Suresh Baluchetty, Bethesda, USA

I think the rest of the world is jealous of the progress Russia has made. While the rest of us stagnate, they are becoming a superpower in their own right again. In the form of energy.
Austin Holmes, Dallas, Texas, USA

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JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2007
 

IN DEPTH



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