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Chechnya: Activist Discusses Republic's Political Situation

A newly constructed mosque in the Chechen city of Gudermes (ITAR-TASS) With a Group of Eight (G8) summit scheduled for July in St. Petersburg, Washington is paying renewed attention to Russia. Tatyana Lokshina, chairwoman of the Moscow-based Demos think tank, spoke about the human rights situation in Russia on May 25 at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lokshina spoke with RFE/RL Washington correspondent Julie Corwin about the situation in Chechnya.

RFE/RL: There was a recent public-opinion poll conducted by a republican ministry that showed that people believed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov had already made some improvements in life in the republic since his appointment in March. Does the poll accurately reflect people's opinions? Is Kadyrov a truly popular leader now? Or are people afraid to criticize him?

Tatyana Lokshina: Kadyrov is becoming so much more popular. It's even surprising particularly for those people who have been working in the region quite a lot and remember how the locals used to refer to Kadyrov. Today it's different. The rhetoric of the public at large is along the lines of, well, whatever he is, no matter how bloody he is, at least, he's a real man, at least, he's a real boss, at least he's a real Chechen. And finally, something is changing. Now you cannot deny -- even the strongest critics of Kadyrov, like myself -- cannot deny the reconstruction [of Grozny] is actually happening. He is pouring some money into that.

RFE/RL: What else has he done?

Kadyrov (right) meeting with President Putin in May (epa)

Lokshina: He's also talking about something he defines as federal Shari'a [Islamic law], which is a revival of Islam, a revival of the traditional values, and that's another thing that makes him popular.

RFE/RL: How much does President Vladimir Putin support Kadyrov? 100 percent?

Lokshina: I don't think it's about Putin supporting Kadyrov 100 percent. I strongly believe that at this point the Kremlin is simply focused on the year 2008, the [national presidential] election and all the relevant problems. As far as Chechnya is concerned, as far as the entire northern Caucasus is concerned, despite the spill-over of the conflict, which is evident to everyone, this is not a priority. The only thing that Moscow wants from Chechnya is just to have the lid shut over the boiling pot and keep it shut until the year 2008. They want to do everything to prevent an explosion.

RFE/RL: But the Kremlin is confident in him?

Lokshina: Apparently they believe he is relatively capable of holding the situation together, of preventing some major armed violence in the republic, and they are trying to keep him satisfied. However you try to analyze the situation, he got his Hero of Russia award. That was bonus No. 1. This is the highest award in the country. Then he became the leader of the Unified Russia party in Chechnya, which is this major pro-Kremlin party, which is really influential in Chechnya. That was his bonus No. 2. Then finally he became prime minister quite recently. That was bonus No. 3.

RFE/RL: Had the Kremlin planned for him to be prime minister?

Former Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov (epa file photo)

Lokshina: My sources tell me, and I'm convinced of it, that the president's office, Putin's office, never wanted him to become prime minister. But then [Sergei] Abramov, Moscow's envoy to Chechnya, had a very serious traffic accident, and certainly everyone in Chechnya believes that it was arranged. For a while, Abramov was saying he would definitely return to Grozny. And then suddenly -- click -- he says he's not returning to Grozny. And when he was asked by journalists and it's very significant, if he was not returning because of the health reasons. He explicitly said "no, I'm not returning to leave some space for Ramzan Kadyrov -- to give my job to Ramzan Kadyrov."

RFE/RL: Will this be enough? Will there be bonus No. 4?

Lokshina: Next comes the presidency, because Ramzan is going to be 30 this fall. And I think that the Kremlin is not so lacking in intelligence as to give him the presidency right away. They will probably withhold the bonus for about a half of year or so. But ultimately Ramzan will threaten, and he'll get it and what comes next? Because presidency is indeed the end of this ambition within the Russian Federation. And, he's young, he's ambitious, he surrounded by former rebels whose allegiance to the Kremlin is more than questionable -- let's put it this way. He's bound to crave more.

RFE/RL: So Kadyrov has made the public happier and has satisfied the Kremlin, what is the situation really like on the ground? There's more new construction, but is there less lawlessness?

Lokshina: The greatest tragedy today is that now after so many years of bloodshed and thousands and thousands of lives lost, we actually came back to the reference point. Because if you compare Chechnya today with the way it used to be between the two wars, what we find is a very criminal, very chaotic, very out-of-control entity. And the only major difference is that at that time it was a quasi-independent, self-proclaimed state, accountable for whatever was happening in its territory. But today it's a full-fledged subject of the Russian Federation.

During the question-and-answer period after her talk, Lokshina was asked if Kadyrov is trying to compete with separatist military leader Shamil Basayev by implementing his federal Shari'a laws.

Lokshina: [Kadyrov] is trying to demonstrate to the public in Chechnya that he's a real Chechen leader, that he's for the traditional values, that he's for the religious values, and that he will make sure that Chechnya lives by its own laws. Federal legislation does not quite matter. Even if Chechnya is not formally independent, Ramzan Kadyrov is trying to demonstrate that under his rule, Chechnya can exist as almost an independent entity while at the same time milking Kremlin for the money.

Crisis In Chechnya

Crisis In Chechnya

RFE/RL's complete coverage of Russia's war-torn Republic of Chechnya.


An annotated timeline of the Chechnya conflict.