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Russia Signals Intent To Wind Down War In Chechnya

Russian soldiers unfold their flag in Grozny in 2000
Russian soldiers unfold their flag in Grozny in 2000
(RFE/RL) -- After 10 years of armed conflict in breakaway Chechnya, is Russia about to declare victory and pull out?

That seems to be the message coming out of Moscow and Grozny in recent days. State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said on March 26 that it is time for Russia to end its effective state of war in the separatist republic, where it has battled rebel forces since 1999.

Gryzlov's comments came one day after Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader, predicted that a decree ending Russia's "anti-terrorist operation" would be enacted by the end of March.

"We have completely rooted out terrorism and extremism," Kadyrov said. "There are still certain circles of bandits that run around neighboring regions and make their appearance here. But they do not represent any threat for us.

He continued: "We are building a new economic and political life in the republic. The people have already forgotten [the rebels]. That is the main thing."

Analysts say the decision is most likely motivated by financial concerns, as Russia reels from its worst recession in a decade.

Speaking to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center explained that it will be difficult for Russia to pursue a costly military reform and continue operations in Chechnya in the midst of an economic crisis and low oil prices.

"I think financial problems are playing a decisive role," Malashenko said. "There is an economic crisis and we are discussing how to finance the armed forces. I think there is an objective reason for what is happening. The most interesting question is how will this develop."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on March 17 that Russia would rearm its military and boost its nuclear forces in response to NATO expansion, beginning in 2011.

Struggling Republic

In 2006, Vladimir Putin, then Russian president, declared an end to the "counterterrorist" operation in Chechnya. Moscow, however, has still not lifted all restrictions on the republic related to the conflict.

Kadyrov said on March 25 that Chechnya still did not have its own customs system and that this was preventing its airport from handling international flights.

Kadyrov met last week with Putin, now Russian prime minister, to discuss security and other issues.

There are currently 50,000 Russian troops stationed in Chechnya. Citing an unidentified Russian military official, the Interfax news agency reports that 20,000 of these could withdraw if the Kremlin were to end the effective state of war in the republic.

Ruslan Martagov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Anti-Terror Foundation, tells RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the withdrawal of Russian troops will not necessarily mean the end of the conflict.

"There need to be free elections. In that case, the rebels would be fighting against authorities who are chosen by and respected by the people," Martagov said. "Today they are fighting against authorities who were appointed by the Kremlin, and they have a moral right to do so."

Martagov, who served as spokesman for the Moscow-installed Chechen government of Doku Zavgayev in the mid-1990s, adds that a team of international lawyers and experts also should be sent to Chechnya to assess how many people have been killed and injured in the conflict.

Tightening Grip

The prospect of a Russian withdrawal has also prompted fears that Kadyrov might use the pullout as an opportunity to further cement his authority over the republic.

Thirty-two-year-old Kadyrov, the republic's president since 2007, is seen as presiding over an increasing culture of violence and human rights abuses in Chechnya. Numerous witnesses have accused Kadyrov of personally ordering the torture and disappearances of potential enemies.

Others, however, say Chechnya is slowly returning to a state of normalcy.

Ivan Sukhov, a journalist and Chechnya expert who recently returned to Moscow from the Chechen capital, Grozny, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the situation in the republic is much better than it was several years ago.

Sukhov said it is realistic for antiterrorist operations in Chechnya to end.

But the region's separatists have indicated they will continue to fight regardless of the Russian pullout.

Kutayba, a rebel fighter in Chechnya, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the militants planned to continue their battle.

"They claim to be conducting an antiterrorist operation against us. This is not true. We are the ones conducting an operation against them," Kutayba said. "And we will not stop our resistance until we have established Shari'a law in the Caucasus."

RFE/RL's North Caucasus and Russian services contributed to this report.

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