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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Putin is Losing Chechnya

Paul Goble reports:

The conflict between forces loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and the Battalion East there whose leaders have proclaimed their loyalty to the Russian high command casts doubt on the effectiveness of Vladimir Putin’s approach to Chechnya in particular and the North Caucasus more generally. That approach, which the Russian president has followed over the last five years, involves ceding enormous power to regional leaders as long as they loudly proclaim their loyalty to the Kremlin and keep violence in their republics at a low enough level to allow Putin to claim victory over “terrorist” forces there.

Indeed, Moscow analyst Ivan Sukhov argued in an essay published on last Thursday, the current upsurge of fighting in Chechnya indicates that Moscow’s current policies have not and indeed cannot bring peace to that region but only a kind of temporary armistice. If the central Russian authorities continue to back Kadyrov and allow him to recruit those who earlier fought Moscow, there is no certainty that either at their insistence or his own decision, Kadyrov or someone taking his place will turn on those now supporting him. And if Moscow tries, as it appears to have been doing to keep a reserve option, by allowing radical groups like Battalion East to exist, then it cannot be sure that these groups may not ultimately replace Kadyrov as the “magnet” for other Chechens, even if Moscow supports the Grozny leader.

Unfortunately, Sukhov continued, there are serious reasons to doubt that Moscow truly “understands just what sort of people [currently] occupy certain key posts in Chechnya,” even if all of them as the price of occupying these positions constantly tell the central Russian government exactly what it wants to hear. But at the same time, Moscow fears that any move against Kadyrov could make the situation worse, either by revealing how much Moscow’s security services are implicated on both sides or because it prompts questions about Putin’s policies.

Nonetheless and in an indication of just how explosive Chechnya and the North Caucasus remains – Putin’s claims and the West’s inattention notwithstanding – Russian officials are continuing to explore other options, each of which Sukhov argued appears more likely than not to make the situation worse. In an interview published last week, Ruslan Kutayev, the head of the International Center for the Study of the Problems of the North Caucasus, suggested that some in the Russian capital are still thinking about giving Kadyrov a role in running the entire region and others are discussing amalgamating one or more of the republics there.

Both strategies are fraught with difficulties. If Kadyrov behaved toward non-Chechens the way he has behaved toward Chechens, anger about his ethnicity would undoubtedly combine with anger about his approach, possibly pushing more people toward the Islamist radicals. Alternatively, if Moscow combines existing territories, the problems that could cause are even more obvious and dangerous. If Chechnya reabsorbed Ingushetia – as Kadyrov has urged -- the Ingush would likely rise in revolt. If Adygeia were combined with Russian Krasnodar -- the Circassians likely would seek to block the Sochi Olympics. Or if all the Circassian titular republics– Adygeia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia – were combined, Kutayev noted, Moscow would face a new and more powerful threat in the south, one backed by the more than five million Circassians living in Turkey, the Middle East and Europe.

Kutayev recalled the approach of General Charles de Gaulle to Algeria. Initially, the French leader agreed with most Frenchmen that Algeria was part of France. But as the situation in Algeria deteriorated, the general argued that the French must be willing to provide the support that would allow Algerians to live as Frenchmen. When the French indicated that they lacked the resources and will to do so, then de Gaulle was “honest” and argued that France had no other choice but to allow the region to go its own way. Moscow, Kutayev should face up to this choice and “honestly” decide just what it is willing to do. That is all the more so, he suggested, because if the Russian government continues as it is at present, the republics in the North Caucasus will remain a problem for Moscow whether it stays within the borders of the Russian Federation or are ultimately able to become independent.

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