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Ex-rebel is new Chechen leader

March 03, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A Kremlin-backed strongman who has spearheaded efforts to pacify war-battered Chechnya through a mix of repression and economic reconstruction won legislative approval Friday as the southern region's president.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of a former president of the republic of Chechnya who was assassinated in 2004, previously was prime minister. He has been the most powerful figure in the region since his father's death. However, he turned 30, the minimum age for the top post, only in October. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin nominated him for the position Thursday.

Kadyrov expressed his appreciation and loyalty to Putin in televised remarks Friday, declaring that "there is support and understanding from the supreme commander in chief, and it only remains to serve him hand and foot."

Kadyrov won parliamentary approval with 56 out of 58 votes, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

During the first Chechnya war, from 1994 to 1996, Kadyrov and his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, joined separatist rebels who won de facto self-rule for the republic. But the two men switched to the pro-Moscow side when Russian forces returned to Chechnya in 1999, launching the second Chechnya war.

Ramzan Kadyrov headed the presidential security force at the time of his father's death in a bombing in the Chechen capital of Grozny. He subsequently built up a powerful personal militia that was composed largely of other former rebels granted amnesty after switching sides.

Human rights organizations have frequently accused Kadyrov's militia of human rights abuses including kidnappings, torture and murder, allegations that he denies. Russian federal forces in Chechnya also have been accused of such abuses against civilians and suspected separatists.

In recent years, pro-Russia forces have killed several top separatist leaders. The strength of the insurgency has faded even as Moscow has granted ever-greater autonomy to the pro-Kremlin Chechen government.

Putin dismissed former Chechen President Alu Alkhanov last month, paving the way for Kadyrov. While Alkhanov and Kadyrov denied there was a power struggle, they had engaged in increasingly open disagreements in recent months.

Dmitry Kozak, Putin's envoy in southern Russia, alluded to those differences in televised comments Friday.

"With Kadyrov's appointment, all those contradictions that had undermined the efficiency of the government in Chechnya have disappeared," he said.

Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that despite questions about his commitment to human rights and democracy, Kadyrov has had some real achievements.

"Some called him simply a gangster, but Ramzan has managed to discharge three main obligations to the Chechen people," Malashenko said. "First, he established order in Chechnya, even though it is a totalitarian type of order. But before, it was not possible simply to walk around Grozny. Second, he promised amnesty to separatist fighters, and as a result most of them surrendered. Maybe 500 to 600 rebels remain, but they are not active right now. Third, Russian soldiers are not murdered anymore."

Speaking at a Moscow news conference Friday, Thomas Hammarberg, the European Union commissioner for human rights, praised the pace of reconstruction in Chechnya.

But Hammarberg said that Chechen and Russian authorities hadn't tried hard enough to provide information about people who disappeared during the fighting. About 2,600 people are officially counted as having disappeared, he said.

Hammarberg said that in his meetings with the Chechens, he stressed the issue of accounting for those who have disappeared and allegations that law enforcement officers torture suspects.

Courts in Chechnya place too much reliance on written confessions from defendants, and this creates an incentive for police to use beatings and electrical shocks to try to extract confessions, he said.

Prisoners he spoke with complained about their treatment immediately after arrest and during interrogation, the EU envoy said. "I'm convinced that much of what I heard has a real background, and that these kinds of illegal interrogation methods are used at a fairly wide scale."

Yakov Ryzhak of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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