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Chechnya: Barayev Death Highlights Russian Military Corruption

  • Jeremy Bransten

Chechen rebel leader Arbi Barayev has died during fighting with Russian troops. Known as "The Terminator" for his personal count of 170 murders, including the executions of three Britons and a New Zealander in 1998, Barayev is the most senior rebel leader to have been killed or captured by the Russians since the second Chechen war began in September 1999. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten discusses the implications of Barayev's death with a Moscow-based journalist who has reported on Chechnya for several years.

Prague, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Although the death of Arbi Barayev is being portrayed as a major strategic victory by the Russian authorities, he was in fact not a difficult target.

Despite being named as one of the Kremlin's most wanted Chechen rebels, Barayev had spent the past two years living openly in the republic, often appearing in public and even hosting two lavish wedding receptions.

Commentator Sanobar Shermatova has reported on both Chechen wars for the weekly "The Moscow News." She tells RFE/RL that Barayev and other top Chechen warlords remained alive, and rich, by taking advantage of both rampant corruption and competition among the different Russian military and security bodies in Chechnya:

"This fight among the special services in Chechnya led to the most important Chechen commanders being left in peace -- including such generals [and] slave-traders as Barayev and the Akhmadov brothers. Until now, they were alive [and] healthy, and no one tried to even arrest them even though they lived openly in Chechnya."

Barayev, more than any other warlord, was emblematic of this symbiotic relationship with the Russians. But Shermatova says corruption among the Russian armed forces and special services -- once a taboo subject -- has become so acute that Kremlin officials have begun to address it:

"Many officials have even begun to talk about this openly. Until this spring, they kept quiet -- you didn't talk about the military stealing oil and doing business with the Chechen fighters. But as of this spring, it's been openly talked about."

Corruption takes many forms in Chechnya, but oil smuggling is among the most lucrative businesses. Shermatova says the operation is directed at the highest military levels:

"When we speak about the military, we're talking about both the Interior Ministry and the army. But primarily we're talking about the Interior Ministry, when we speak of stealing oil and other illegal businesses -- at the top levels. We're not talking about rank-and-file soldiers who maintain order, who fight and do their military service. We're talking about the senior officers, about several dozen generals who make a living on these illegal operations."

Shermatova says there are clear signals that Russian President Vladimir Putin would like to normalize the situation in Chechnya and pull out the bulk of Russian troops. But, she notes, Putin is fighting on two fronts. He must deal not only with Chechen rebels, but also with military commanders who have a vested interest in ensuring that corruption and violence continue to flourish in Chechnya -- so that they can continue to profit from it.

"Vladimir Putin's authority depends on how he deals with the situation in Chechnya. For now, we see attempts to normalize the situation there, to strengthen civilian institutions. But on the other hand, we see resistance under the surface from the military, which does not want to let go of this republic because its officers receive medals [and] promotions for fighting in Chechnya, and they are involved in business which is bringing them big profits."

Ironically, Shermatova says, Barayev suited the purpose of certain corrupt Russian commanders. He was a useful business partner, and at the same time justified a continued Russian military presence with his violent attacks against civilian administrators and Westerners. Shermatova notes it was not until Putin personally berated his generals for their inaction that they belatedly took action.

"The operation against Barayev only began after Vladimir Putin, at [a meeting of] the Security Council, criticized the heads of the power ministries and tasked them with undertaking new operations to neutralize Chechen commanders."

Barayev's demise may be a sign Putin's orders are finally being followed. But many other warlords remain, and Shermatova says Putin faces an uphill fight:

"Vladimir Putin's power is still very weak. In reality, it's the military that still has the real power in Chechnya."

And, as far as possible, the Russian military appears determined to keep it that way.