As the Kremlin prepares for Chechnya's August 29 presidential elections, some analysts contend that it is facing the prospect of losing control over the North Caucasus. Even while taking steps to ensure the election of a leader loyal to Moscow, Russia's policy makers have proven unable to cope with a recent violence spree by militants in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
Seven candidates have registered for the race, but strong backing from Moscow has rendered Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov the runaway favorite to win. Shortly before Alkhanov's June 24 registration as a candidate, the 47-year-old official was received in the Kremlin by President Vladimir Putin in a nationally televised meeting. The carefully staged meeting, most Russian experts say, sent a clear signal that Alkhanov is the Kremlin's pick to win.
That impression was only strengthened with the July 22 news that authorities had refused to register Alkhanov's only serious contender for the presidential post, the Moscow-based, multimillionaire entrepreneur Malik Saidullayev. Election officials cited various technical errors in Saidullayev's registration form as the reason for his application's rejection.
In terms of his own qualifications for the post, Alkhanov can offer the support of Moscow and the clan of the late Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov, assassinated in a bomb blast in Grozny on May 9. Law enforcement accounts for most of Alkhanov's public administration experience and he has little if any experience in running an economy. Not a particularly charismatic candidate, he has also failed to draw a large following among Chechen voters.
Yet in the eyes of Kremlin strategists, these drawbacks appear to be fully compensated by Alkhanov's fierce loyalty to Russia and to what is called "Kadyrov's line." As Alkhanov himself observed during his televised meeting with Putin, "people want a continuation of the course."
Some regional analysts point out that Moscow was reluctant to change anything in its Chechnya policy after the assassination of Kadyrov. "In reality, Russia needs a weak president in Chechnya," political analyst Vitaly Ivanov wrote in a June 21 commentary for the Vedomosti daily. A strong leader who would be able to consolidate power in Chechnya might "resume claiming broad sovereignty rights" and ask more than the federal center would be prepared to concede.
Askhanov's willingess to maintain the status quo was most recently on display when he rebuffed a peace offer from rebel leader and former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. His remarks came roughly two weeks after terrorist attacks on government and other buildings in the Ingush city of Nazran that left hundreds injured and some 88 civilians, police and Russian army troops dead, as well as the republic's interior minister and two prosecutors. Alkhanov has named Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev and former Chechen President Aslan Mashkhadov as the instigators of the attacks..
"I have always said that if we announced that we were prepared for negotiations with [Maskhadov], he would never hold them with us," Askhanov said in a July 6 interview published on the pro-rebel website Chechenpress.com. "He is not the kind of person who needs peace. On the contrary, he needs instability both in Ingushetia and Chechnya."
But while Alkhanov may be a safe bet for the Kremlin, some Russian analysts believe he will find it difficult to radically improve the situation in Chechnya. "If the population doesn't recognize the winner, all hopes for early settlement [of the conflict] will remain dim," noted regional analyst Ivan Sukhov in the Vremya Novostei newspaper on June 21.
If peace does not come, the conflict could easily spread to the nearby predominantly Muslim autonomous republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. Already, the June 22 raid by Islamic militants in Ingushetia has laid the basis for that fear. A July 27 video statement from Basayev that claims a joint operation of 570 "Chechen and Ingush mujaheddin" were responsible for the attack promises to heighten tensions still further. In the clip, posted on the pro-Chechen Kavkazcenter.com website, Basayev goes on to claim that the fighters "are taking what was taken from us," an apparent reference to the thousands of Chechens killed in the breakaway territory's 1994-1996 war with Russia and the current conflict, now in its fourth year.
Ingushetia has long been a haven for both Chechen and local rebels, who enjoy support among parts of the republic's population. Like Alkhanov, Ingushestia's president Murat Zyazikov, a former Federal Security Service general, is seen as the Kremlin's pick and does not enjoy broad popularity. Meanwhile, militant strains of Islam are gaining ground. Local Islamic radicals made up the bulk of the assailants, while a local Wahhabi leader reportedly led the assault.
"Social tension has become a fact of everyday life not only in Chechnya," Russian lawmaker Ramazan Abdulatipov told the Noviye Izvestia daily in a June 23 interview. "Parallel groupings [of fighters] operate in Ingushetia and Dagestan. They have well developed lines of communication and coordinate their actions unlike Russian secret services who have basically failed to do their job."
In an interview published in the July 2-8 edition of Moscow News, Ingushetia's representative to Russia's Federation Council, Isse Kostoyev, took that analysis one step further. Ingushetian police had attempted to repel the attack with pistols since adequate weaponry was not available. Even if Interior Ministry troops had managed to arrest the assailants, he argued, there would have been no place to put them the republic's Interior Ministry has been headquartered in a crumbling school since 1992 for lack of construction money from Moscow for a new facility. "Ingushetia as a republic exists only on paper," Kostoyev said.
For now, at least, Chechen rebel representatives are eager to promote the idea that Chechnya's elections will only add to the region's instability. Akhmed Zakayev, rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov's special representative abroad, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on June 22 that recent abductions and killings of ethnic Ingush are part of what he terms a "popular uprising" against the Russian-backed Zyazikov. If hostilities in Chechnya continue, Zakayev warned, they could trigger a domino effect in Ingushetia and beyond. "If the war in Chechnya is not stopped, it will spread over the entire Caucasus," Zakayev said.
Similar warnings have been issued before by Chechen representatives, but this time, independent Russian analysts increasingly agree. On July 13, Acting Chechen President Sergei Abramov narrowly escaped with his life from a bomb blast in Grozny that occurred just hours after two gun battles between presidential security forces and rebel fighters near the village of Avtury that left 19 security troops and 24 rebels dead.
"The North Caucasus appears to be on the verge of war which may be more bloody than the two previous ones," the independent Noviye Izvestia newspaper argued in a June 23 editorial.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.