Sunday, April 12, 2009

Russia's new Chechnya problem

It has all the trappings of a spy novel - a former military commander murdered in an exotic locale by a strongman leader settling old scores - but for Sulim Yamadayev, the end of his life wasn’t a scene from a novel. The former Russian military commander was apparently killed in Dubai two weeks ago on, the speculation goes, the orders of Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov. And Yamadayev isn’t the only opponent of Kadyrov’s to die suddenly in recent months - a former Kadyrov bodyguard was murdered in Vienna, while Yamadeyev’s own brother was killed late last year in Moscow.

You have to wonder if Russia hasn’t created its own monster in the Caucasus Mountains.

On the surface, Ramzan Kadyrov has been a blessing to Moscow. Since becoming President of the Chechen Republic of Russia in 2004 he has basically brought an end to the bloody insurrectionist war that had raged since 1994 when Moscow sent in the troops to put down Chechnya’s bid for independence. Not only did the ensuing war kill thousands of Russian troops and untold numbers of Chechens, it sparked horrific terrorist attacks in the rest of Russia that included the suicide bombings of airliners, the siege of a Moscow theater and the massacre of nearly 300 people, many of them children, in the town of Beslan. In Chechnya, the Kadyrov’s were an influential clan who initially fought against the Russians. But in 1999 Ramzan’s father, Akhmad, decided to switch sides, became president of the Chechen Republic of Russia and then led the fight against the Chechen insurgents - a move that got him assassinated in 2004, and brought his son Ramzan to power.

Ramzan Kadyrov finished his father’s work of routing the rebel Chechens, while pledging his support to Moscow. The result today is that Chechnya is more peaceful than it has been in nearly 15 years, in March Kadyrov boldly claimed that the insurgents and Islamic militants had been “wiped out.” But critics have accused Kadyrov of large-scale human right’s abuses, including the torture and murder of his political opponents, many committed by his own private militia.

And lately Kadyrov has been pushing for Chechnya to be ruled by a version of Sharia - a legal system based on an interpretation of Islamic religious beliefs. Kadyrov has told women to wear headscarves while in public, encouraged Chechen men to practice polygamy (which is against Russian law) and has endorsed the “honor killings” of women who ‘disgrace’ their families. Recently a number of Chechen women have been found shot and left by the side of the road; Kadyrov said that their murders were conducted by their families as honor killings and were thus justified. Though this claim was not supported by either the women’s families or by Russian investigators sent from Moscow, who turned up evidence that some of the women may have worked in brothels frequented by Kadyrov’s militiamen (which is rather un-Islamic behavior on their part…).

Moscow though doesn’t seem to be planning to take any action against Kadyrov, even as he attempts to set up his own Caliphate in Chechnya, running roughshod over Russian law in the process. In this case Moscow seems to have made a deal with the Devil, so long as Kadyrov stays loyal to the Kremlin, keeps a lid on Chechen insurgents and prevents any future Beslan-style terror attacks in the rest of Russia, they’ll look the other way as he rules Chechnya.

But that last part may get harder and harder for Moscow if Kadyrov keeps sending his personal hit squads around the world to settle old scores.
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