Page last updated at 07:54 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 08:54 UK

Chechen problem far from over

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

After two wars and 15 years of bloody conflict, Russia has declared an end to its "anti-terrorist operations" in Chechnya.

On the surface this looks like a victory for the Kremlin.

Ramzan Kadyrov
Ramzan Kadyrov says Chechnya is at peace after years of conflict.

The official Russian version goes something like this: After years of arduous struggle the terrorist threat in Chechnya has been neutralised. The Chechen republic is once more at peace, and reconstruction is in full swing.

Chechnya's young pro-Moscow President, Ramzan Kadyrov, has said as much on Russian television.

"There was not a single terrorist attack in 2008," he said. "The people of Chechnya have long forgotten about the war. We're developing, building and restoring the economy of the republic."

According to Mr Kadryov there are no more than 50-80 rebel fighters still holding out in the mountains.


Russia's first war in Chechnya, in the mid-1990s, was a disaster. Thousands of poorly-trained Russian conscripts were slaughtered as they attempted to retake the Muslim republic by force.

After two years Moscow was forced to negotiate a ceasefire.

In 1999 Russia's then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a second massive offensive. In the ensuing battles Chechnya's capital Grozny was pounded to rubble. More than a third of the Chechen population fled. By 2002 the UN named Grozny "the most destroyed city on the planet".

Russian forces in Grozny, Chechnya, 2000
Grozny - "the most destroyed city on the planet"

But at the same time the Kremlin's strategy changed. The key was the defection to Moscow of several powerful Chechen clan leaders.

The most important was Akhmad Kadyrov, the former chief mufti, or senior religious leader, of the Chechen republic.

In 2003 Akhmad Kadyrov became President of Chechnya. His strategy was to divide the rebel movement. Those who could be persuaded - or bought - were offered amnesty, and a job in the Chechen security forces. Those who held out would be hunted down and killed.

A year later Akhmad Kadyrov was killed in a bomb blast at Grozny football stadium.


In his place Moscow turned to his son Ramzan. A former rebel fighter with little education, Ramzan Kadyrov has nevertheless proved a ruthless exponent of Moscow's cause. He commanded a private army of former rebel fighters, known as the Kadyrovtsy.

They are accused by human rights groups, like Memorial, of systematic abuses, kidnappings, torture and murder.

In the last eight years thousands of young Chechen men and women have disappeared.

Fireworks explode over the Akhmad Kadyrov mosque in Grozny, Chechnya late on March 9, 2009.
President Kadyrov named a mosque in Grozny after his father

Today, at the age of just 32, Ramzan Kadyrov is Chechnya's president. He rules over the tiny republic by fear. Last year human rights groups reported a new campaign had begun against those suspected of joining the rebels.

Groups of masked gunmen are reported to have begun burning down the houses of families whose young men have "gone to the forest".

Mr Kadyrov himself is reported to have gone on Chechen television and warned: "The families of those in the forest are collaborators in their crimes."

At the same time Moscow has been pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Chechnya's reconstruction.

The capital, Grozny, has risen from its ruins at extraordinary speed. At its centre is a huge new mosque, said to be one of the largest in Europe.

Problems persist

But if Moscow and its local allies have succeeded in pacifying Chechnya, their problems are far from over.

Mr Kadyrov himself has admitted that unemployment in Chechnya remains above 50%. That means tens of thousands of young men with no formal income and nothing to do.


And the war has not ended, it has moved elsewhere. To the east, in the republic of Dagestan, 21 people were killed recently in a three-day gun battle between Russian troops and rebels.

To the west, in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, a violent insurgency is growing.

But there is yet another worry for Moscow. By localising the conflict in Chechnya the Kremlin has devolved enormous personal power to Ramzan Kadyrov.

He is careful often to declare his absolute loyalty to his mentors in the Kremlin. But at the same time he runs Chechnya like a virtual independent fiefdom.

Some in Moscow wonder how long that loyalty will last.

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