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A Never-Ending War

By Roland Oliphant Russia Profile 07/29/2009
Violence in Chechnya is Getting Worse and Negotiating with Exiled Rebels Will Not Stop It


A suicide bomb attack in the capital of Chechnya on Sunday seems to have been aimed at undermining Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s claims to have brought the insurgency under control. Desperate to convince Moscow that he can be a conciliator as well as a fighter, Kadyrov has opened talks with exiled rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev. But the insurgents in the mountains appear determined to keep fighting.

On Sunday a suicide bomber – a relatively rare species of terrorist in the Caucasus, but increasingly visible as of late – blew himself up outside a theater in Grozny. The theater was packed, but he had not made it into the building. He detonated his bomb when suspicious policemen stopped him outside (according to accounts in the mainstream press sourced from the statements of the Chechen authorities. The Islamist rebel Web site Kavkaz Center claimed the explosion occurred “at some distance” from the theatre and suggested that the bomber’s real target was Kadyrov himself, who was apparently in the area). The blast killed six people – four senior police officers and two builders – and injured nine others.

That the insurgency in Chechnya continues is not news. Despite Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s regular declarations of “victory” and the ending this April of the counter-terrorist regime that had been in place for the best part of a decade, the separatist campaign has smoldered on. So have the security forces’ clumsy attempts to stamp it out. In April the Memorial human rights group told Radio Liberty that since the beginning of the year, 34 Chechens had been abducted by unidentified armed men believed to belong to security forces. The murder of Memorial representative Natalya Estemirova two weeks ago was almost certainly connected to her work reporting house burnings targeted at families of suspected terrorists.

In fact, said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Moscw-based center for political information, “the war between illegal armed formations and Kadyrov’s team is intensifying.”

Unraveling the chain of cause-and-effect in the Caucasus is never an exact science, but one school of thought traces the start of the current spate of violence to the deportation in June from Egypt of Maskhud Abdullaev, the 22-year-old son of Supyan Abdullaev, an associate of rebel leader Dokka Umarov. This caused a brief stir in the press – Amnesty International and other human rights groups condemned the decision to return Abdullaev to Russia though he has previously been granted asylum in Azerbaijan. He then disappeared from view, only to resurface on Chechen television to condemn his father’s activities and insist that his statements are “absolutely free” and he is under “no pressure.”

“This situation of the ‘kidnapped’ student, in my opinion, provoked the assassination attempt on Yekurov. And this in turn provoked an escalation of the relationship between Chechnya and Ingushetia in Dagestan, which led to the mass shooting of the members of the security forces,” said Mukhin. “So out of a fairly small incident grew a full-on terrorist war.”

Whatever the cause of the escalation in violence, it is bad news for Kadyrov. Senior figures in the security services were said to be unhappy with the end of the counter terrorist regime in the first place, and the Chechen president is trying his best to prove to Moscow that the move was not a mistake. Sunday’s bomb seems to be a deliberate attempt to sabotage those efforts.

On Friday – two days before the attack in Grozny – it was revealed that senior representatives of Kadyrov’s administration had met with in Oslo with Akhmed Zakayev, the rebel spokesman who since 2002 has been exiled in London. The talks centered on “political issues being solved not by force but by political means,” according to Zakayev’s comments carried by Reuters. Although no concrete agreements were reached – or at least none that were made public – the rhetoric on both sides seemed to be upbeat.

Analysts were quick to draw a link between the Oslo meeting and the subsequent attack in Grozny, the hypothesis being that escalating violence would discredit Kadyrov’s attempts to play the negotiator by talking to Zakayev.

It is no secret, of course, that Zakayev has little influence on the insurgents on the ground. “The Republic of Ichkeria that Zakayev claims to represent is a myth, and the insurgents on the ground understand this very well” said Mukhin. Indeed, the rebel leader who seems to run the campaign in Chechnya and who Kadyrov singled out for condemnation after Sunday’s bombing is Umarov. Kavkaz Center, which backs Umarov, disparagingly refers to Zakayev as the “the head of a ‘telephone government.’”

A cynic – especially a Russian cynic – would point to Zakayev’s close ties to Boris Berezovsky, and the (reputed) fact that the oligarch’s funds have depleted rapidly with the onset of the economic crisis. Talking to Kadyrov keeps Zakayev in the public eye, and by appearing to surrender to his former brother-in-arms and fellow Chechen, rather than Moscow, saves some kind of face. This makes the prospect of an understanding between the two men far from impossible.

But if a deal does materialize, it will not quell the current spate of violence. In June Kavkaz Center claimed that a squad of 20 suicide bombers had been formed in Chechnya. Since then there seem to have been two suicide attacks – on Yevkurov on June 22 and in Grozny on Sunday. If the rebel Web site is telling the truth, that means there are 18 attacks still to come.
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