Analysis: Russian Defense Ministry Postpones Ruling On Controversial Chechen Battalion
Meeting in Moscow on April 18, senior Defense Ministry officials decided to postpone until after the May 7 inauguration of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev any decision on the future of the Vostok battalion headed by Hero of Russia Sulim Yamadayev. Following a standoff on April 13 and 14 in Gudermes between members of Vostok and of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's bodyguard, Kadyrov personally accused Yamadayev and his brothers of crimes against the civilian population, and the Chechen parliament adopted an appeal to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and to outgoing President Vladimir Putin in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces either to disband Vostok or to replace Yamadayev as its commander.
The Vostok (East) battalion and its Zapad (West) counterpart were established in 2003. They are affiliated with the Defense Ministry's 42nd Motorized Rifle Division that is permanently stationed in Chechnya, and are at the same time directly subordinate to Russian military intelligence (GRU). Like the Kadyrov family, the Yamadayev brothers fought during the 1994-96 war in the ranks of the Chechen resistance commanded by Aslan Maskhadov, but distanced themselves from Maskhadov in the summer of 1999 after renegade field commander Shamil Basayev launched the first of his incursions into neighboring Daghestan. In contrast to Zapad, the Vostok battalion, like the police and security forces loyal to Kadyrov, is manned primarily by former resistance fighters who took advantage of successive amnesties to lay down their arms. In a November 23 interview posted on the website utro.ru, Yamadayev accused the North and South battalions, which are subordinate to the Chechen Interior Ministry, of being in cahoots with the Chechen resistance and repeatedly thwarting operations conducted by his own men against the remaining resistance fighters.
Vostok as a unit, and Yamadayev as its commander, have long had a reputation as loose cannons. Daghestan National Security Council Secretary Akhmednabi Magdigadjiyev belatedly identified Vostok as responsible for an incident in May 2005 in which uniformed armed Chechens closed in on the Avar-populated village of Borozdinovskaya in northeastern Chechnya, burned several homes, and abducted 11 men who have never been found. Yamadayev denied any involvement in that incident, and some Russian commentators suggested that Kadyrov (then Chechen deputy prime minister) might have orchestrated it in order to discredit Yamadayev. A legal demand for compensation brought by Borozdinovskaya villagers against the Russian Defense Ministry was rejected.
In the fall of 2006, just days after Yamadayev's men went on the rampage at a meat plant near St. Petersburg owned by one of Yamadayev's rivals, a small detachment from Vostok was included in the Russian peacekeeping force deployed to Lebanon.
In late February, Adam Demilkhanov, a relative of Kadyrov's who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, said that residents of Chechnya's southeastern Vedeno Raion had complained about unspecified reprisals committed by Vostok, triggering speculation that Kadyrov had decided to neutralize the potential threat posed by Vostok and Yamadayev. Whether the confrontations that resulted from traffic collisions on April 13 and 14 in Gudermes were spontaneous or planned in advance by Kadyrov, the Chechen leadership seized on them to demand that either Vostok be disbanded or Yamadayev replaced as its leader.
The lack of an immediate response to that request serves to highlight the diverging views and preferences within the Russian leadership with regard to the situation in Chechnya and Kadyrov as its leader. While President Putin, his administration, and the Federal Security Service have consistently expressed their support for Kadyrov, the Defense Ministry is said to have profoundly disliked and mistrusted the Kadyrov family ever since Putin first named Akhmad Kadyrov, Ramzan's father, as republic head in June 2000. On April 16, senior Defense Ministry official Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov denied that any armed clash in Gudermes involving Vostok personnel ever took place. He said that the two sides simply engaged in "saber-rattling," but that there was no shooting and no casualties.
The choice of Shamanov to issue that denial was in itself significant. In 1999-2000 he commanded the Western Group of Federal Forces in Chechnya, and Chechen Republic human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, who is close to Kadyrov, last year formally protested his appointment (after a stint as governor of Ulyanovsk Oblast and then as an aide to Serdyukov's predecessor as defense minister, Sergei Ivanov) as head of the General Staff training department on the grounds that men under Shamanov's command committed serious human rights violations, including opening fire on fugitives.
Armenia: Yerevan, Moscow Set Up Uranium Venture
The Armenian and Russian governments set up on April 22 a joint venture that will explore and possibly develop untapped uranium reserves in Armenia's southeastern Syunik region. "The new joint venture will explore and ascertain our uranium reserves," Armenian Environment Minister Aram Harutiunian said after signing a relevant agreement in Yerevan with Russia's state-owned Atomredmetzoloto company, which mines and processes uranium.
In accordance that agreement, the Russian firm will have a 50 percent stake in the venture and invest about $3 million in exploratory work to be conducted in Syunik during the first year of operations. The mountainous region bordering Iran was explored by Soviet geologists in the 1950s-70s and is estimated to contain 30,000 metric tons of uranium ore. Harutiunian said earlier this month that the Russian government will turn over to Yerevan classified Soviet-era data on the precise location and size of potential uranium deposits in the area.
An agreement on a more extensive Russian-Armenian exploration of those deposits was reached during an April 2007 visit to Yerevan by Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's Federal Agency on Atomic Energy (Rosatom). He was confident that Armenian and Russian specialists will discover commercially viable amounts of the radioactive metal used in nuclear power generation.
Kiriyenko said Armenia could become one of the few countries of the world with a full uranium production cycle from extraction of the metal to its transformation into nuclear fuel. Some of that fuel would be supplied to the nuclear power station at Metsamor, he added at the time. The Soviet-era plant generates approximately 40 percent of Armenia's electricity.
The Armenian government intends to replace Metsamor's sole functioning reactor with a more modern and twice as powerful facility before its anticipated deactivation in 2016. Russian energy companies have expressed strong interest in the construction of a new nuclear plant and, according to Kiriyenko, are well placed to win an international tender for the project to be called by the Yerevan government.
Both Harutiunian and Atomredmetzoloto's executive director, Vadim Zhivov, stressed that the Russian-Armenian joint venture will concentrate on ascertaining just how rich Armenia is rich in uranium and has no plans for mining operations for the time being. Zhivov said Russian investments will rise to "tens of millions of dollars" if the exploratory work lives up to Atomredmetzoloto's expectations.
A U.S. company, Global Gold, has been prospecting for uranium in another Armenian region for the past two years.