The Chechen leader Russian President Vladimir Putin picked to snuff out Islamic extremism has a motto he shares with visitors via a billboard of himself at Grozny airport: “Happiness is serving the people.”
For Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who switched sides, that means having a chance to expand his influence over neighbors by obtaining power to battle terrorism across the mainly Muslim North Caucasus. He tamed this once war-torn province of southern Russia with a security crackdown condemned by human rights groups.
After two ethnic Chechen brothers became the suspects in last month’s Boston bombing, the Chechen elite led by 36-year-old Kadyrov is urging Putin to grant him the authority to track down insurgents throughout the impoverished region. That includes neighboring Dagestan, the most violent Caucasus republic, where the Tsarnaevs once lived, and Ingushetia, where federal forces have been fighting rebels for more than a decade.
“Kadyrov’s pan-Caucasian ambitions are very dangerous,” Grigory Shvedov, chief editor of the Moscow-based news and research group Caucasian Knot, said by phone. “They could lead to ethnic strife and ultimately to war.”
Chechen forces in April conducted a cross-border raid into Ingushetia to the west. In 2010 and last year they also carried out operations on the frontier with Dagestan on the Caspian Sea to the east, according to Caucasian Knot. All three regions border Georgia, with which Russia fought a five-day war in 2008.
Three hundred Chechen troops in armored personnel carriers crossed into the Ingush village of Arshty on April 18, claiming to be hunting for rebel leader Doku Umarov, leading to a clash with local police in which six Ingush officers were wounded, Shvedov said.
In February last year, Kadyrov said that he had got the agreement of the two neighboring regions to carry out joint anti-terrorist operations amid a large security deployment on the border between Chechnya and Dagestan by Chechen forces.
“Of course the experience of Chechen forces who went through fighting is being used across all of Russia, including the North Caucasus,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said by phone yesterday. “Anti-terrorist operations are carried out by federal forces in Russia, law and order is the responsibility of regional structures.”
Peskov said he can’t comment on Kadyrov’s goal of leading anti-terrorist operations in neighboring regions without knowing the details of the proposal.
Even without Putin’s explicit endorsement, the Chechen leader’s ambition is making his neighbors uneasy. Dagestan, which is three times the size of Chechnya and more than twice as populous, warned Kadyrov against conducting security deployments on its territory without prior approval, according to Zikrula Ilyasov, the region’s first deputy national affairs minister.
“Any counter-terrorist operations must take into account the specific characteristics of each region,” Ilyasov said by phone from the regional capital, Makhachkala, on May 27. “Without coordination with local authorities, it’s a major mistake.”
Ingushetia, too, warned Kadyrov over his regional ambitions after Chechnya passed a law last year laying claim to two border districts.
“Attempts by any side to review existing borders without any grounds and outside the legal framework could provoke a chain reaction of territorial claims and unleash new conflicts,” the press office of regional leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov said in September. Yevkurov, a former military officer, needs Putin’s approval to renew his mandate this year.
Kadyrov, who declined to be interviewed, is used to that sort of conflict. He came of age during Chechnya’s separatist wars in the 1990s. With his father Akhmad he once fought on the rebel side before swearing loyalty to Putin. The Russian leader groomed him to lead the region after Akhmad was killed in a bomb attack in a Grozny soccer stadium in 2004 during a World War II victory day parade.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, which tracks government abuse, has accused Kadyrov’s forces of abductions and torture, allegations he has repeatedly denied.
Grozny, a city of 270,000 that was almost reduced to rubble during the wars, has been rebuilt and now boasts gleaming new libraries, concert halls and theaters as well as luxury high-rises and a mosque modeled on the 17th century Blue Mosque in Istanbul that can accommodate 10,000 worshippers.
Chechnya has become relatively safer since Kadyrov took over. Order is enforced by the “Kadyrovtsi,” an armed security force including former rebels that numbers about 30,000, according to Memorial, a Moscow-based human rights group. Still, Chechnya ranked second among Russia’s region behind Dagestan in terror-linked crime last year, according to the Prosecutor General’s office.
Kadyrov has implemented Islamic codes of behavior, banning the sale of alcohol except for limited retail outlets for two hours a day and requiring women to wear head scarves, long skirts and sleeves in all offices, schools and universities.
That measure of order contrasts with the 1990s, when central authority was weak, and militias killed and kidnapped people for money with impunity.
“If Putin gives the order, Ramzan can achieve success,” Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, speaker of Chechnya’s parliament, said in an interview in the regional capital on May 21. “His experience, authority and bravery in the fight against terrorism should be put to use in neighboring republics as well as on a global scale.”
In Dagestan, bomb attacks occur almost every week. Last year, 405 people were killed as a result of the violence, including 110 law enforcement officials, according to Caucasian Knot. The second-most deadly place was Kabardino-Balkaria, where 107 people were killed, followed by Ingushetia with 84 deaths and Chechnya with 82.
In the first three months of this year, Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria had the second-most deaths, 20, after Dagestan’s 67 fatalities, Caucasian Knot data shows.
“As far as human rights and freedom of speech, it’s a disaster -- everything is decided by one person: Ramzan,” Heda Saratova, a Chechen human rights activist, said in an interview in Grozny. “At the same time, we lived through the horrors of war and we are grateful for what he’s done. I’ve been to Ingushetia and Dagestan. There weren’t any wars there, but the situation is much worse than here.”
Chechnya, which received $2.7 billion of federal funds from 2008 to 2011 -- 10 times more than Dagestan -- has cut unemployment from 68 percent in 2006, the year before Kadyrov became president, to 28 percent, according to the Federal Statistics Service in Moscow.
In Ingushetia, where Yevkurov has relied less on harsh security measures to rein in militants, the jobless rate is 46 percent, the highest in the country.
Unemployment is cited by Russian officials as a decisive factor in fueling extremism. About 9 million people live in the North Caucasus, an area the size of Tunisia, according to Russian government data.
The number of active militants in the region, where the average age is 18, was about 1,000 and growing in 2011, Alexander Khloponin, Putin’s representative to the North Caucasus Federal District, said at the time.
In Dagestan, home to more than a dozen ethnic groups, the Nogai people are pushing for their own autonomous district, which would include parts of neighboring Russian regions. The Kumyks, another ethnic group, are agitating for an end to what they consider discrimination by regional authorities.
For Kumyks, Kadyrov, in neighboring Chechnya, is a hero, said Absalitdin Murzaev, who heads a community group.
“We will look for positive examples to follow, including in Chechnya,” Murzaev said by phone May 28. “They’ve achieved great social harmony; 18,000 Kumyks live there and they’re grateful to the Chechen leadership because they aren’t treated differently in the distribution of resources.”
Abdurakhmanov, the Chechen parliament speaker, in 2006 said Chechnya had a right to annex enough Dagestani territory to give it access to the Caspian Sea. He’s since retracted those claims, though he still insists that Chechnya is the rightful leader of the North Caucasus because of its success in combating terrorism and promoting ethnic harmony.
“We support all faiths and nationalities,” Abdurakhmanov said. “Ramzan is driving terrorists out of the republic, if necessary by wiping them out personally, leading the troops and fighting them himself.”
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