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Latest Events May Bring More Volatility to Chechnya, say Experts - 2004-05-10


The volatile Caucasus republic of Chechnya faces more uncertainty, and likely more violence following Sunday's assassination of pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov. His death also renews the challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin to deliver on the promise he made when he was first elected four-years ago to end the Chechen conflict.

After coming to power four-years ago, in part due to his promise to stamp out Chechen separatists, President Putin began his second four-year term with dramatic evidence that he has not yet done that, and under increasing pressure to develop a new stragety that can deliver on his promises.

The assassinated Chechen president was an important part of Mr. Putin's plan. He was elected just seven-months ago, in elections organized by the Kremlin. He led a pro-Moscow administration, and had his own security force with a reputation for brutality in dealing with separatists and anyone even suspected of supporting them.

Russian officials have reportedly pledged that a new presidential election will be held in Chechnya within four months, as outlined in the constitution. But there are already calls from pro-Putin Russian politicians for Moscow to re-assert direct rule over Chechnya - an approach that has failed to quell separatist violence in the past.

Others are urging the Russian president to reconsider his long-standing pledge not to negotiate with the Chechen separatists, who he calls 'terrorists.' But few, if any, believe that will happen, especially as President Putin is already vowing retribution for the attack.

Historian Victor Levine of Washington University in the United States says the Chechen conflict is so deep that he sees little hope for a political resolution.

"There is no middle ground for negotiations for a settlement, the Russians because they have expended so much on the conflict, and in part because the Chechens themselves, in their own desperation, have turned to acts of terrorism of which this is the latest, including bombings in Moscow," explained Mr. Levine. "The Chechens regard this as a matter of life and death and I suppose the Russians do, to a certain point, because this is a matter of political life and death because afterall Putin has staked a great deal on it."

Until a new strategy can be formulated to deal with the latest crisis in Chechnya, the republic's former prime minister, Sergei Abramov, will rule. A visibly shaken Mr. Abramov was shown on Russian television meeting with President Putin in Moscow late Sunday, about 12 hours after the assassination. He later returned to the Chechen capital, Grozny, to take up his new duties.

The director of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies, Igor Bunin, believes Mr. Abramov, a 32-year-old former banker, will exert limited influence, at best, as the acting president.

Mr. Bunin said Mr. Abramov inherited his position by accident and, as such, will serve only in a temporary capacity. He also believes Mr. Abramov will be, in his words, like a puppet, with President Putin and rival Chechen clans competing to control him.

Pro-Putin Russian legislator Ramazan Abdulatipov agrees that Mr. Abramov is in no way ready to be president.

Speaking on Russia's Echo Moscow radio Monday, Mr. Abdulatipov said the appointment proves that the Kremlin still does not understand how to choose the right person to rule Chechnya. He said that is because Moscow still considers Chechnya to be, in his words, one of its suburbs.

Mr. Abdulatipov was the man who negotiated the late President Kadyrov's defection from Chechen separatists to the Kremlin side, following the first Chechen war.

Russia's leading military analyst on Chechnya, Moscow-based Pavel Felgenhauer, says Sunday's attack is, in his words, a strategic disaster for President Putin's Chechnya policy. Mr. Felgenhauer says the bombing is raising fears of a new cycle of violence in Chechnya between Mr. Kadyrov's loyalists and his enemies, who had long pledged to kill him.

Mr. Felgenhauer says Sunday's attack also proves that repeated Kremlin claims are not true, that the situation has stabilized in Chechnya and that the political process is in its final stages.

"It just shows that the Chechen rebels still retain organized, underground networks because such operations can not be planned and performed with such precision and deadliness just by amateurs," he said. "They have a well established underground network and [there is] nothing apparently much that the Russian authorities and the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities can do about that because you can not use tanks against an underground network."

Mr. Felgenhauer says the most important thing now is for the Kremlin to find a viable replacement for Mr. Kadyrov, a task he says is more easily said than done.

And he is worried by the decision to give the late president's son, Ramzan, a senior position in the new Chechen administration. Ramzan Kadyrov was in charge of his father's security force, which Russia's widely respected coalition of human-rights groups known as Memorial has said is more feared in Chechnya than Russian federal forces that have waged two bitter wars in the region in the past 10-years.

"The appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as first deputy prime minister means that maybe they [the Kremlin] will try and install the son instead of the father," said Mr. Felgenhauer. "I do not think it will work and I actually believe that his lifespan may be rather short. It is not a healthy thing to be a pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya. The Chechens have an old tradition, and they pride themselves [on it], that not a single family ever ruled the Chechen nation [and] any family that tried to the rule the Chechen nation was eliminated to the last cousin."

Mr. Felgenhauer and the other analysts say the Kremlin needs to be very careful when drawing up new plans to restore order in Chechnya. Otherwise, they say the region will remain a dangerous powder-keg for decades to come, not only for its inhabitants, but for the political leadership in Grozny and Moscow.

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