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Analysis: Russian Defense Ministry Postpones Ruling On Controversial Chechen Battalion

Sulim Yamadayev (ITAR-TASS) 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, 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.