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Russia: Who Is Out To Discredit The Chechen Police, And Why?

  • Liz Fuller

http://gdb.rferl.org/020C6220-E29A-4035-8E5A-47C686058EF7_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/020C6220-E29A-4035-8E5A-47C686058EF7_mw800_mh600.jpg Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) February 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Chechen police, until recently regarded as beyond criticism thanks to their links to Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, have recently been accused of incompetence and implicated in the October 2006 killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.


It is not clear whether subsequent renewed rumors of the imminent dismissal of pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, a move that would strengthen Kadyrov's position even further, were launched to counter those potentially damaging disclosures.

The influence Kadyrov wields, and the dread he inspires, derives in part from the high regard in which he is seen to be held by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But even more so it comes from the combined strength of the police and security agencies that, even if not formally directly subordinate to him, in effect function as his private army.

Sporadic attempts over the past two years to curb such abuses by forbidding police to wear masks or drive unmarked vehicles or those with darkened windows have proven largely ineffective.

Kadyrov's Power Base


Estimates of the strength of those units vary: Kadyrov himself boasted last month that he has 17,000 men under his command. But not only do the Chechen police (nominally subordinate to Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov) and security forces serve as Kadyrov's power base: by virtue of his position and influence they function as a law unto themselves, on occasion committing serious crimes with total contempt for the law and order they should be seeking to enforce.

In extensive and meticulously documented reports, human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have chronicled numerous cases of the arbitrary arrest and torture, and even the summary execution, by police of civilians suspected of sympathizing with the Chechen resistance.

Indeed, while several years ago most such crimes were perpetrated by the Russian forces deployed in Chechnya, today it is the Chechen police who are primarily responsible. Sporadic attempts over the past two years to curb such abuses by forbidding police to wear masks or drive unmarked vehicles or those with darkened windows have proven largely ineffective.

As a result of the symbiotic relationship between Kadyrov and the police and security forces, those bodies have to all intents and purposes been beyond criticism, at least from within Chechnya. President Putin too has expressed approval of the work of the Chechen Interior Ministry. He told journalists at his annual press conference in January 2006 that "it must be said that Chechnya's law enforcement bodies are taking firm control of the situation and assume more responsibility.... Knowing local customs and local conditions and reacting more subtly to processes in society, Chechnya's law enforcement system is becoming very effective, sometimes more effective than the federal forces.... I believe we can speak of the completion of the counterterrorism operation [in Chechnya] with the understanding that the Chechen law enforcement bodies are practically assuming the bulk of the responsibility for law and order."

Troop Withdrawal


Six months later, Putin issued instructions to the federal Interior Ministry to draft a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops from Chechnya over the next two years. Kadyrov perhaps construed that ruling as confirmation that the Chechen Interior Ministry is capable of maintaining order on its own.

True, Kadyrov himself has on occasion noted and condemned minor shortcomings in the work of the Chechen police, but there appears to have been no systematic attempt either to raise professionalism or to stamp out abuses. Over the past month, however, Kadyrov has taken a more critical line. Meeting on January 10 with Interior Ministry officials, he criticized the traffic police for negligence in failing routinely to flag down suspicious vehicles, including those without license plates, according to the government website chechnya.gov.ru on January 10.

The traffic police responded by launching a special operation to verify whether all drivers of vehicles with blue police license plates are bona fide Interior Ministry personnel entitled to that privilege, according to chechnya.gov.ru on January 18. At the same January 10 meeting, Kadyrov also deplored, and called for an end to, the mandatory payments that would-be recruits to the police force are required to pay. Police officers, like all other government employees in Chechnya, must donate a sizable percentage of their monthly salary to the benevolent fund named after Kadyrov's late father, Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, who died in a terrorist bombing in May 2004.

Kadyrov repeated his criticisms of the traffic police at a high-level meeting in Grozny on January 19 to evaluate the work of the Chechen Interior Ministry in 2006. The generally upbeat account of the proceedings posted on chechnya.gov.ru included a wealth of statistical data, such as the quantity of weapons and explosives confiscated and the number of criminal investigations -- 497 -- opened in 2006 in connection with suspected participation in or assistance to the Chechen resistance. It also registered a steep decline both in the number of abductions and the percentage of such crimes solved.

But the official Chechen version of the proceedings failed to include trenchant criticism by Major General Mikhail Shepilov, deputy commander of the Joint Group of Forces in the North Caucasus. According to RIA Novosti, Shepilov noted specifically the "unjustifiably low" number of serious crimes solved; the high incidence of illegal possession of weaponry; and failure to crackdown on extortion, bribery, and other economic crimes. "The criminalization of the economy has a negative effect on the government's authority, including the police," he was quoted as saying. Like Kadyrov, Shepilov too noted the "unsatisfactory" performance of the traffic police. He attributed the various shortcomings he enumerated to the low level of professional training.

Fighter To Police Officer


Shepilov singled out for special censure collusion between the police and Chechen resistance fighters, but the published summary of his remarks gave no indication how widespread such collaboration is. The covert assistance provided by some members of the police force to the resistance is the inevitable corollary of the wholesale induction into the police force of resistance fighters who have surrendered their arms, including some beneficiaries of the 2003 amnesty.

The rationale for coopting former resistance fighters into the police is twofold: to provide them with an alternative source of income, and to preclude their recruitment by any potential rival to Kadyrov, such as former Grozny Mayor Bislan Gantamirov, who is believed to be biding his time at the Russian military base in Mozdok, ready to serve as Chechnya's next pro-Moscow strongman in the event that Kadyrov dies an untimely death.

But some former resistance fighters-turned-policemen take advantage of the freedom of maneuver their new employment offers to aid and abet their former comrades in arms. The extent and impact of such connivance is impossible to quantify, but in an interview with Chechenpress in August 2006, London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev said "thousands" of nominally pro-Moscow armed Chechens freely volunteer such help, which is invaluable in enabling the resistance to continue operating.

Within days of Shepilov's negative evaluation of the Chechen police, Joel Simon, who is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told a press conference in Moscow on January 23 that he had been informed by an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry official that the Prosecutor-General's Office was probing the possible participation of police from Chechnya in the October 7 murder in Moscow of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who for years investigated and reported on human rights abuses by federal and local forces in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately issued a denial; Kadyrov's office similarly released a statement in which he ruled out any Chechen involvement in Politkovskaya's killing. But Kadyrov has nonetheless set in motion a "purge" of the Chechen police, according to the weekly "Kommersant-Vlast" on January 29.

Alkhanov's Successor


Meanwhile, Russian media embarked upon a new round of speculation that Kadyrov's nominal superior, administration head Alkhanov, is about to be dismissed. Speculation that Alkhanov would be shunted sideways as soon as Kadyrov turned 30 -- the minimum age for the job -- began almost immediately after Alkhanov was elected to succeed the late Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in August 2004.

But the current rumors identify as Alkhanov's probable successor not Ramzan Kadyrov, but Labor and Social Security Minister Magomed Zakhayev, 57, a trained lawyer who served as deputy prime minister under the elder Kadyrov.

Alkhanov, who celebrated his 50th birthday earlier in January, both fuelled speculation and added to the confusion by informing journalists in Rostov-na-Donu on January 24 that he has no intention of seeking a second term after his current term expires in 2008. Some Russian media inferred from that pronouncement that he would step down earlier, a possibility his press service swiftly denied. Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak likewise told journalists that Alkhanov's transfer to another post is not currently under discussion, kommersant.ru reported on January 26.

It is of course impossible to determine with any certainty whether or not a direct correlation exists between the federal Interior Ministry's overall negative evaluation of the work of the Chechen police, the allegations of their involvement in Politkovskaya's death, and the renewed speculation about Alkhanov's imminent appointment to a new post.

One alternative explanation for Shepilov's criticism could be that the Interior Ministry is out to delay a withdrawal of its troops from Chechnya because the financial interests of senior personnel engaged in the illicit sale of Chechen oil are at stake. Moreover, observers both in Moscow and abroad have long suspected that a powerful faction or factions within the Russian leadership regard Ramzan Kadyrov as a loose cannon and a potential liability, and therefore seek to delay if not thwart his appointment as Chechen leader.

Ramzan Kadyrov Turns 30
Ramzan Kadyrov's personal residence in Gudermes (TASS)

'PLEASED, HAPPY, AND GRATEFUL': RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service interviewed a number of Chechens in the republic, in Moscow and Amsterdam. An overwhelming majority had nothing but praise for their prime minister -- and hope that he might soon become president:

"All of us are pleased, happy, and grateful," one woman said. "And all of us know perfectly well who should be thanked for that -- of course, Ramzan Kadyrov, who followed the noble path of his father [assassinated Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov]."

"We should have such a birthday every six months. Because of his birthday, they are building roads, renting out apartments, patching up the holes. Today the airport is opening up! It would be hard to think up a greater joy for Chechens," a man in Chechnya said. "We have spent so much money on taxis in order to get to the airports in Sleptsovsk, Nazran, Nalchik. What has Ramzan done for us? We don't even know it all. Everything that God has given him, he has dedicated to the prosperity of the Chechen Republic. God help him. Let him have a birthday every six months. That's what I say."

"Why wouldn't people want him to become president? He's done a lot of work and provided a lot of help," another man said. "It's good that poor people have someone to help them. I think that poor people would want to see him as president."

Chechens further afield, however, had few warm words about Kadyrov. This woman spoke to RFE/RL from Amsterdam.

"I don't think he is an exceptional person," she said. "And I don't think that people are praising him because they have forgotten about their killed and tortured. I think that all this is being done to put an end to things, so that they would stop the killing. They think he can do this. They think that here he is tsar, judge, and God. So they are afraid. They are afraid to criticize him. The price of the airport that is being opened and the other buildings has been the blood of many people. What is built on blood cannot stand. History tells us how quickly people like him are forgotten -- so-called dictators after they are either chased out of power or killed. A lot of things will appear wrong, inadequate, disgusting when he is no more. I feel sorry for the people who live there. Most likely, they are praising him because they think they have no other choice."


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The fighting in Chechnya has raged, with short breaks, since 1994. It has brought misery, death, and destruction to the North Caucasus republic and to Russia as a whole. View an annotated timeline of the conflict.

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