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Caucasus Report: May 26, 2006

26 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 18

CHECHEN PREMIER SEEKS TO TRANSFORM HIS IMAGE. When Ramzan Kadyrov was named in early March to the post of Chechen prime minister, he publicly vowed to relinquish that post if he failed to bring about a radical improvement in living conditions within three months. With that deadline now imminent, the Chechen Ministry for Nationality Policy, Press, and Information has reportedly commissioned a public-opinion poll intended to create the impression that the population believes Kadyrov has succeeded in doing so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and May 11, 2006).

Kadyrov has indeed set about transforming the war-scarred face of the republic and, just as crucially, winning the hearts and minds of a generation that can barely remember a time when Chechnya was not at war. The "International Herald Tribune" on May 4 carried on its front page pictures of reconstruction in Grozny, commenting that the extent of the rebuilding would have been "unthinkable" just a year ago. Highways are being resurfaced, the electricity grid repaired, and new cafes and shops have opened. And the rebuilding is not confined to the capital: it extends to the towns of Argun and Gudermes.

Those visible signs of urban renewal have reportedly had a major psychological impact and earned Kadyrov the grudging respect of at least some of Grozny's residents. In a May 3 interview, Tatyana Lokshina, a Russian human rights activist who recently visited Grozny, told "Caucasus Times" that this constitutes a major shift in public attitudes and perception, given that one year ago "no one had a good word to say about" Kadyrov.

The Chechen government's public-opinion poll seeks to quantify that public approval: the questions include "To whom does Chechnya owe the restoration now under way: to the federal center, the republic head, or the prime minister?" "Which of the republic's leaders do you feel most warmly towards?" to which the five possible responses are republic head Alu Alkhanov, Kadyrov, and the respective chairman of the upper and lower chambers of parliament, Akhmar-hadji Gazikhanov and Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, and "I don't know"; and "Have your hopes engendered by the appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as prime minister proven justified?" to which the possible responses are "The political situation has stabilized;" "A feeling of confidence in a better future has been created;" "the socioeconomic sphere has improved;" and "it's difficult for me to say." Alkhanov has publicly slammed that initiative, while Kadyrov has denied any knowledge of who initiated it, RIA Novosti reported on May 18.

Moreover, Kadyrov's leadership style is perceived as almost as important as what he has accomplished, insofar as he is coming to embody the sort of tough leader whom Chechens respect: a man who gives orders, and whose orders are promptly carried out. At the same time, as Lokshina notes, Kadyrov is still feared so intensively that virtually no one is prepared to utter a word of criticism of him or the several thousand armed men under his command.

Kadyrov's orders are not confined to rebuilding. He is also establishing a kind of moral discipline that is in keeping with traditional Chechen values, imposing restrictions on the sale of alcohol, cracking down on drug addiction, banning gambling, and encouraging women to dress modestly, including covering their heads.

At the same time, as noted above, Kadyrov has launched a charm offensive, tirelessly visiting schools, building sites, and hospitals -- and ensuring that the local media give extensive coverage to such activities. And he reinforces that impression of personal concern for individuals by handing out material benefits -- including wads of dollar bills. Where Kadyrov's seemingly bottomless funds derive from is a matter for speculation: part from Moscow, part from the proceeds of stolen oil, and part from a system that requires all state-sector employees to surrender a given percentage of their salaries, and owners of businesses a cut of their profits, according to Lokshina.

There are, however, grounds for suspecting Kadyrov's ultimate objective is not simply to improve the lives of the republic's population. According to Lokshina, Kadyrov is working intensively on improving his personal image, which has been badly tarnished not only by persistent rumors of his personal involvement in torture but also by his inability to express himself articulately in Russian. Lokshina said that Kadyrov has engaged a team of experienced image-makers whose efforts are already bearing fruit, to the point that "today's Kadyrov is no longer a dilettante in the realm of political populism but a full-fledged professional."

Many observers infer from Kadyrov's activities and statements in recent months that he has every intention of succeeding Alkhanov as republic head, and that he is convinced that Moscow supports that scenario. Even before Alkhanov's election in September 2004 to succeed Kadyrov's father Akhmed-hadji, who was killed by a terrorist bomb two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2004), commentators suggested that Alkhanov was intended solely as an interim figure and that he would step down as soon as Ramzan Kadyrov reached the age of 30 -- the minimum age for election as republic head. Kadyrov will turn 30 on October 5.

The Chechen parliament, whose members are overwhelmingly loyal to Kadyrov, recently passed two laws that pave the way for amending the republic's constitution to expedite the replacement of Alkhanov, "Vremya novostei" reported on May 12. That legislation outlines the procedure for the creation of a Constitutional Court and Constitutional Assembly that will amend the republic's existing constitution to remove the stipulation that the republic head is universally elected.

The rivalry and tensions between Alkhanov and Kadyrov erupted into violence last month when bodyguards for the two men reportedly exchanged shots after Alkhanov sought to exclude Kadyrov from a meeting in Grozny with visiting Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2006). Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned the two men to Moscow on May 5 and warned Kadyrov not to seek to undermine Alkhanov, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 6 without naming its sources.

Meanwhile, Alkhanov has reportedly also set about recruiting allies who could be counted on to support him in an anticipated showdown with Kadyrov. Those figures are said to include the commanders of the East and West battalions of the Russian Interior Ministry's 42nd division, Sulim Yamadaev and Said-Magomed Kakiev, and former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantamirov, who as Chechen deputy prime minister had several spectacular public disagreements with Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. Yamadaev hates Kadyrov, whom he suspects of being responsible for the death of his brother, according to an analysis posted on on May 1. A "Wall Street Journal" commentary last year cited reports that Gantamirov was then based at the Russian North Caucasus military headquarters in Mozdok, and that he was being kept "in reserve" as a possible successor to Kadyrov.

Assuming those reports of a tentative anti-Ramzan alliance are true, it is inconceivable that Alkhanov would have set about forging it without Putin's approval. And if Putin has approved such an alliance, that suggests that at the least he has finally come to realize that Kadyrov poses a potential threat, even if he has not yet decided whether or how to set about removing that threat. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER UPBEAT ON FUTURE PROSPECTS. Outgoing parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian insists that his Orinats Yerkir (OY) party is now an opposition force and admits that President Robert Kocharian had a hand in the events that precipitated its exit from Armenia's governing coalition. In an extensive interview with RFE/RL on May 20, he also played down the significance of the defections of over a dozen wealthy lawmakers from his parliamentary faction, claiming that they helped the party to "cleanse itself" and get stronger. "Yes, we are in opposition," he said. "Within the framework of our ideas and programs, we will be criticizing both [Defense Minister] Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian and all those whose activities will be unacceptable to us. But that doesn't mean we must immediately start with personalized criticism."

Baghdasarian did not rule out in that regard the possibility of Orinats Yerkir forming an alliance with some anti-Kocharian groups to contest next year's parliamentary elections. "I don't rule out that Orinats Yerkir will contest the elections in an alliance. But I don't rule out that Orinats Yerkir will contest the elections single-handedly, either," he said.

Many leaders of Armenia's mainstream opposition remain suspicious of Baghdasarian, citing his long history of cooperation with Kocharian and his continuing reluctance to criticize him. Some, notably Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party (AMK), claim that OY's decision to leave the coalition was part of Kocharian's secret plan to further weaken his political opponents.

Baghdasarian angrily rebutted Geghamian's allegations, implying in turn that Geghamian was bribed by the ruling regime to withhold support for another opposition leader, Stepan Demirchian, during the second round of the 2003 presidential election. "Whereas Orinats Yerkir defended Robert Kocharian openly and publicly [during the 2003 election], Artashes Geghamian, being in opposition, did not back Stepan Demirchian in the second round," he said. "If he had done so, a totally new political situation would have emerged in Armenia."

Baghdasarian went on to accuse Geghamian of secretly maintaining close ties with Kocharian's most likely successor, Defense Minister Sarkisian. "While Geghamian speaks out against Serzh Sarkisian, a member of his parliament faction supplies goods to the Defense Ministry headed by Serzh Sarkisian," he charged, referring to businessman Gagik Kostandian.

Demirchian and other opposition heavyweights like Aram Sarkisian and Raffi Hovannisian have sounded more sympathetic to the outgoing speaker of the Armenian parliament. But some of their associates do not hide their mistrust of Baghdasarian, pointing to the fact that he avoided blaming Kocharian on May 12 when he first announced his resignation and Orinats Yerkir's withdrawal from the government.

That announcement came after the OY faction, once the second-largest in the National Assembly with 20 deputies, shrunk by half in a matter of a few days. Government sources said the defections were engineered by Kocharian as part of his efforts to squeeze OY out of his cabinet.

Baghdasarian made it clear on May 20 that he believes Kocharian was involved in the defections. "Yes, there was pressure [exerted on the defectors] from all sides, including the presidential administration and other places," he said.

It is still not clear what exactly led Kocharian, who had gone to great lengths to have Baghdasarian elected parliament speaker in June 2003, to put an end to OY's presence in the government. Some analysts point to Baghdasarian's April 18 interview with a major German newspaper in which he called for Armenia's eventual accession to NATO and implied that Kocharian's reelection in 2003 was fraudulent (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 5, 2006).

Both Kocharian and OY have said that their "political divorce" was due to serious policy differences. Baghdasarian, however, stated as recently as May 2 that he has no major disagreements with his coalition partners. He claimed on May 20 that those disagreements turned out to be "serious" during his subsequent "discussions" with Kocharian and the two parties remaining in government.

Baghdasarian also defended OY's three-year track record in government, dismissing allegations of populism that still dog the party. "The parliament became an open body; we tried to enact numerous laws; we made sure that no schools or kindergartens are put on sale in Armenia today," he said. He claimed credit for the ongoing reform of Armenia's public-education sector and for the modest compensation paid to some of those citizens whose Soviet-era bank savings had been wiped out during the hyperinflation of the early 1990s. Critics will counter, however, that none of that has had a serious impact on the day-to-day lives of most ordinary Armenians.

The 37-year-old Baghdasarian, who has been seen as a potential major contender in the 2008 presidential election, further asserted that OY has not been weakened by the exodus of its wealthiest members connected to the government. "Only 15-20 people left Orinats Yerkir. Good for us. That was a gift from God," he said. "Our team remains strong and has cleansed itself. Orinats Yerkir has tens of thousands of members. Orinats Yerkir is getting stronger every hour, no matter how hard they try to attack and destroy Orinats Yerkir."

"Today we are the largest political organization in Armenia," added Baghdasarian. "We enjoy quite weighty support inside the country and are understood outside it. Forces sharing our value system are numerous, and we will continue to follow that path." (Hrach Melkumian and Armen Dulian)