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Doubts Over Moscow's Man in Chechnya Threaten Russia's Plans

August 20, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — With about six weeks to go before the elections that were supposed to end four years of war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, there are growing signs that the man Russia has counted on to preside over the new stability could lose the election.

The new doubts about Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration and essentially the Kremlin's man in Chechnya, threaten to turn on its head Russia's plan to install a stable new government and emerge from a war that increasingly shows little signs of political resolution.

Even if Kadyrov wins the popular vote with Kremlin intervention, various Chechen and Russian analysts said this week, the former religious leader has become so unpopular in the republic that some Kremlin officials now believe his presidency would almost guarantee continued violence and instability.

Worse, these analysts said, no easy political alternative has emerged. Kadyrov and his militiamen have become so entrenched in Grozny, the Chechen capital -- thanks in large part to the Kremlin's backing -- that they might well retreat to the mountains and take up arms against anyone else elected to the presidency.

Officially, the government in Moscow says it is not backing anyone in the Oct. 5 presidential elections -- even as the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya this week acknowledged for the first time that there are doubts about Kadyrov's viability.

"It is clear the federal authorities are reluctant to associate themselves with a loser. So we don't have a favorite in Chechnya," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia's senior spokesman on Chechnya, said in an interview.

In a sign of the Kremlin's growing doubts about Kadyrov's prospects, Yastrzhembsky said Kadyrov -- whose brutal tactics and corrupt aides have prompted many in Chechnya to fear him more than the Russians -- has been offered another post outside Chechnya. He predicted that the Chechen administrator is enough of a politician to accept the offer, if it becomes necessary, rather than join the opposition.

"Kadyrov has been told already that if he loses, the government [in Moscow] will not abandon him like this, and he will get another appointment someplace else, but not in Chechnya. He has been warned that it's a totally different game now, and he has to fight for his own goals himself," Yastrzhembsky said.

He said he would "rule out" any possibility of Kadyrov taking up arms against another elected government if he loses. "His own experience tells him that you can make deals with the government. And since he's been promised, in case he loses, an appropriate appointment by the government, that means he's got a guaranteed future in politics."

Yastrzhembsky's comments signal a remarkable turnaround on the part of the Moscow government, which is officially neutral but which had long been expected to help guarantee Kadyrov's election as a means of implementing Moscow's plan for a new, stable government in Chechnya that is firmly in the Kremlin's pocket.

Very little of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's policy aims for Chechnya have gone according to plan in recent months. Declaring the war in the breakaway republic essentially at an end earlier this year, Putin envisioned a peaceful transition under a referendum, approved by 90% of the voters in the republic in March, which offered amnesty to some of the rebels and guaranteed that Chechnya would remain a constituent part of the Russian Federation.

Instead of winding down, the conflict has in some ways escalated, with dozens of Russian soldiers killed in rebel ambushes in recent months and several major terrorist attacks mounted against military targets near Chechnya and civilian targets in the heart of Moscow.

Meanwhile, Kadyrov and the militiamen around him are increasingly blamed by the public for the kind of thefts, attacks and kidnappings that have drawn criticism of Russian forces in Chechnya. Since his appointment by the Kremlin in 2000, the former Muslim cleric has seen his own popularity plunge.

Anna Politkovskaya, a Moscow journalist who has covered Chechnya for years, said there is evidence that the Kremlin, far from abandoning Kadyrov, is making it difficult for other candidates to register and campaign against him.

Kadyrov recently stepped down from his post as administrative chief to campaign, and with the deadline for registering today, at least 14 other candidates, including prominent politicians and businessmen, have signaled their intent to run.

Yastrzhembsky made a point of noting that a decision to run by Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former Russian parliament speaker who backed out of the race earlier this month, might well affect the outcome --and, presumably, the Kremlin's views about who will win.

"A lot will depend on whether Khasbulatov decides to run or not," he said.

The Putin government, Yastrzhembsky emphasized, has come to realize that it needs a popularly elected leader to have any hope of carrying out a peaceful transition.

"We need a strong president that would have the real confidence of the people in Chechnya. Otherwise, if the president is weak, then we will have to do the bulk of the work for him," Yastrzhembsky said.

If Kadyrov loses, Politkovskaya warned, it could escalate a brewing civil war.

Many analysts believe that the Kremlin will in the end engineer a victory for Kadyrov, if for no other reason than the lack of an alternative. Also, noted Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, Kadyrov still enjoys a close relationship with Putin.

"If the Chechen elections take place tomorrow, there's no doubt Kadyrov will be the winner," Malashenko said. "Despite all the problems, I don't know if anyone else is so respected in Moscow. And don't forget one thing. This is a Russian election. The problem is not how they will vote, but how somebody will count the results. And what Moscow wants is what will happen."

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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