Russia is reported considering the withdrawal of more than 20,000 Interior Ministry troops from Chechnya and an effective end to a state of war in the Caucasus republic. The move may be linked to financial problems caused by the global economic crisis.
Russian news media are quoting anonymous Interior Ministry sources as saying Moscow could end what it refers to as an "anti-terrorist" operation in Chechnya by the end of March. A statement broadcast on Russian state television by Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has added to the speculation.
Kadyrov says there is information that all restrictions imposed on Chechnya will be lifted by the end of this month. He says the struggle against rebels is effectively over, and only remains on paper. He says when restrictions end, the airport and customs service in Grozny will function properly, and Chechnya will operate like a normal subject of the Russian Federation.
The anti-terrorism operation in Chechnya was launched in 1999 under Russia's late president Boris Yeltsin. As many as 100,000 people may have died in the two wars between Russia and Chechnya since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but exact figures are not known.
An Interior Ministry spokesman told VOA his superiors did not tell him anything about à possible troop withdrawal. But the Interfax news agency quotes unnamed law enforcement officials as saying more than 20,000 out of the current 50,000 troops currently in Chechnya could be withdrawn. And the speaker of Russia's lower house of Parliament, Boris Gryzlov, says conditions in the republic are much improved and allow for an end to the anti-terrorist operation. But he also notes the expense of maintaining so many troops.
Gryzlov says lawmakers understand that enforcing the anti-terrorist regime requires rather significant forces and resources; forces in terms of Interior Ministry troops, and resources in terms of the federal budget. He adds that in a time of global economic crisis, Russia needs to consider the need to keep such a large force in Chechnya.
Alexey Malashenko, military analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told VOA he agrees the situation in Chechnya is much better than it was five-six years ago. But he disputes Ramzan Kadyrov's estimate that no more than 50 to 100 insurgents remain.
Malashenko notes the situation in the republic is complicated. There are, he says successes as well as problems; and just as before, there are those who live in the mountains and cities who continue to launch attacks on federal forces and those of Ramzan Kadyrov.
Malashenko adds that shooting in Chechnya will not stop with the wave of a wand, or with a signature on a piece of paper, but Kadyrov will, nonetheless, try to show Moscow he can keep control of the republic with his own forces.
The latest fatality in Chechnya occurred Wednesday, when masked gunmen abducted and shot a police officer in the southern Vedeno region.