Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Salambek Khadzhiyev : MOSCOW'S MAN IN CHECHNYA : Marked for death as a 'traitor,' the prime minister lives on the run. Still, he hopes to restore normal life to the torn region.

June 20, 1995|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GROZNY, Russia — It's hard not to feel a little sorry for Salambek Khadzhiyev. The chemical engineer-cum-politician installed by Moscow to rule its rebellious republic of Chechnya has little power and lots of enemies.

Khadzhiyev is prime minister of Chechnya's so-called Government of National Revival but has no means of his own to revive anything. Russia supplies his entire budget, and it's not nearly enough to rebuild this capital, which has been ruined by war.

To many fellow Chechens, he is a collaborator with a Russian occupation army he cannot control. To the Chechen separatist regime ousted from Grozny, he is a traitor, a man marked for death.

Khadzhiyev keeps on the move, sleeping in different places around the mountainous republic, surrounded by armed relatives--the only bodyguards he trusts. His Russian wife, two daughters and son have been sent to Moscow for safety.

"Whoever gets into politics at this stage is either a KGB agent or a complete idiot," he told members of his Daimokh (Fatherland) movement late last year, as the Russians were preparing to invade Chechnya and assembling a government-in-waiting.

Soon afterward, in December, he appeared on Russian television, introduced as the next leader of Chechnya.

"Somebody had to do it," Khadzhiyev says now.

"I couldn't sit on the sidelines," he explained in an interview. "It would have been more beneficial to me to do exactly that. But I would have been giving wise advice while my people were dying. I couldn't do it."

The prime minister (whose name is pronounced hah-JEE-yev ) spoke in his office at Grozny's State Institute for Petroleum Projects, which he heads. Relatively undamaged by Russian bombing, the building became the seat of government after Chechnya's rebellious President Dzhokhar M. Dudayev fled his destroyed palace, leading his separatist army into the relative safety of the Caucasus Mountains.

The orange curtains had been opened to a warm spring day in the prime minister's office. He used to keep them closed, but visitors questioned his courage; they said he feared assassination, one means of settling disputes here.

"How could those curtains stop a grenade launcher?" he asks now. "Anyway, there is no need for anyone to kill me. Nothing would change."

The 54-year-old prime minister was wearing a suit and reading glasses that gave his soft face a professorial look. It is partly because he does not resemble a gangster that Moscow appointed him, belatedly, over such leather-clad anti-Dudayev warlords as Umar Avturkhanov and Beslan Gantemirov who were already on Russia's payroll.

But Khadzhiyev must work with the warlords and a bureaucracy full of their appointees. With such friends, he doesn't need enemies. Gantemirov, who is mayor of Grozny, pulled a gun on the prime minister during a recent discussion over where the prime minister's powers end and where the mayor's begin.

To protect his domain, Khadzhiyev has, in the time-honored tradition of the Caucasus, a region of blood feuds and clan politics, appointed no fewer than eight close relatives to top government posts.

But Moscow has the real power. Khadzhiyev's regime has no independent source of revenue for what he calls his prime task--to restore "normal, civilized living conditions" to one of the late 20th Century's most devastated cities.

A former Soviet minister of oil production, Khadzhiyev has an impressive grasp of the technical details involved. He rattles off statistics tracing his progress restoring Grozny's drinking water, gas, sewage pumps, schools, railroads and oil pipelines.

Housing is a problem, though. "We must build new housing for 30,000 families," he said. "That will cost $3 billion. Russia has given us $1 billion."

Won't Russia give you the rest, he was asked at an assembly of Chechens.

Not now, he answered. It doesn't have the money.

"Then what are you doing in this job?" a woman in the crowd demanded.

It is an awkward, nagging question for a man accustomed to wealth and respect.

If Khadzhiyev was not born to govern, he nevertheless rose through the Soviet system to political prominence. He was born Jan. 7, 1941, to a family of Dagestani origin that had settled in the Chechen village of Shali. His ancestry made him an outsider in Chechen society.

Still, he earned a doctorate in chemistry, became one of only two Chechen members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and won a seat in the highest legislative body, the Supreme Soviet. Under the umbrella of the Soviet Defense Ministry, his oil institute became a commercial enterprise and prospered in joint ventures with a Yugoslav company.

"He was the 'oil king' of Chechnya," said Yakha Vatsanayeva, a professor's wife. "His workers were always paid very well, and he lived like an emir."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|