Putin left with few options on Chechen war

Posted in Russia | 11-May-04 | Author: Seth Mydans| Source: The New York Times

MOSCOW - The assassination of the Russian-backed president of Chechnya on Sunday has left the Kremlin with few good options in pursuing a brutal and thankless war that has continued on and off for almost a decade.

The president, Akhmad Kadyrov, 52, was buried Monday in his home village just seven months after being elected in a stage-managed vote that was intended to demonstrate that the war had become a manageable, localized conflict.

As Moscow's surrogate, he had consolidated government functions and armed power, leaving the Kremlin with no obvious alternative. A new election is to be held by Sept. 9.

"The danger is that things could turn chaotic, and you might see Chechnya being plunged into a new war or a war of personal feuds and retributions," said Dmitri Trenin, an expert on Chechnya with the Carnegie Endowment, in a telephone interview.

Although major combat had already ended when Kadyrov was elected, terrorist attacks have continued both in Chechnya and in other parts of Russia. Kadyrov was killed by a bomb that had been planted under the seats of a stadium where he was attending a rally in the capital, Grozny.

The number of people who were killed with him varies from one official report to another. In telephone interviews on Sunday two officials said the overall toll was at least 14.

After a decade of war, Chechnya is filled with cross-currents of feuds and violence and experts said they could only guess at who might have placed the bomb.

Russian officials blamed rebel bands for the killing. The most prominent rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, denied any involvement in an interview with a rebel news agency, Chechenpress.

"I know the terrorists are trying to hunt me down," Kadyrov told the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass a few days before he was killed.

Kadyrov's credentials had included a past as a Muslim religious leader and an anti-Moscow rebel. This background gave him a measure of credibility among some Chechens, but also many enemies.

Since his election, the surface of life in Chechnya had become quieter and the occupying Russian military had removed some roadblocks from the streets of Grozny. But beneath this calm, Kadyrov's private army was maintaining its grip through a campaign of kidnappings and terror, according to local residents and human rights groups.

The Russian forces, which numbered 40,000 when Kadyrov was elected, have also been implicated in kidnappings and brutal killings.

Particularly worrying in the short run, said Tanya Lokshina, a human rights worker who was in Grozny on Sunday, is that Kadyrov's private army of 2,000 to 3,000 fighters is now leaderless and more dangerous than ever.

The fighters, who include a number of rebel defectors, will now feel at risk and could launch a new wave of violence in an attempt to eliminate rivals, she said.

The fighters, known as Kadyrovtsy, are under the command of Kadyrov's son, Ramzan. He was named Monday by the Kremlin to be the first deputy head of the regional government, under a Russian envoy, Sergei Abramov, who is widely seen as a temporary placeholder.

But the younger Kadyrov is not expected to succeed his father. He is in his 20s, with a reputation for brutality and without the political weight to maintain power.

"Kadyrov's death has left a political vacuum in Chechnya," said Ramazan Abdulatipov, a Russian parliamentary deputy. "It turns out that there is no one to pick up his banner."

Some officials in Moscow called on President Vladimir Putin to take direct control of Chechnya, a move that some experts said could be a formula for more civil war. Trenin suggested that Putin might seek to put together a coalition leadership in Chechnya, although this would be difficult given the mutual antagonisms among leading figures there.

Chechnya's vulnerability under the personalized leadership of Kadyrov echoes the larger political picture in Russia, where Putin has - to a lesser extent - has centralized power as he enters his second term.

The Chechen war is seen as his war, escalated at his initiative in 1999 when he was prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin. He has several times declared that the war is over, and Kadyrov's election was intended to demonstrate normalization.

Kadyrov's killing came just two days after Putin was inaugurated for a second four-year term, with a declaration that peace had finally returned to Chechnya.

Munir Akram, Pakistan's UN ambassador and the current Security Council president, opened a meeting on East Timor expressing the council's "outrage at the terrorist attack that occurred on Sunday in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya."

"The council condemns this act of terrorism in the strongest possible terms," the statement said.

Annan "was dismayed to learn of the terrorist attack," said a UN spokesman, Fred Eckhard, in a statement.

"Such acts can never be justified," the statement said.