A War That is Gone But Not Forgotten
A rare visit to Chechnya shows the cruel aftermath
GROZNY, RUSSIAOne day last summer, Khamzat Tushayev joined the ranks of the disappeared. His wife, Satsita, trembles as she tells the story, which starts with a June 7 phone call from a man claiming to be with the prosecutor's bureau. The caller asked Tushayev, 47, a former separatist rebel, to come in for questioningwhich he did the next morning. "I stayed at the gate, and the guard let my husband inside," she recalls. "I waited and waited. He didn't come back. So I asked the guard to phone the prosecutor's office. But this was what they said: 'There was never any such person here.'"
Satsita, 43, has not seen her husband since. Her repeated inquiries, aided by Russia's leading human-rights group, Memorial, have come up empty. Such is the Kafkaesque world of Chechnya in what officials call peacetime.
This devastated corner of Russiawhere a 12-year separatist war cost the lives of some 50,000 to 100,000 civilians and some 10,000 Russian soldiershas dropped out of western view. Yet the Chechen conflict is key to understanding the new Russia. President Vladimir Putin sees his ruthless military campaign here as a cornerstone in his quest to bring order; critics say that it reflects Putin's wider authoritarianism that has crushed the free media and much political opposition throughout Russia.
An unapologetic Kremlin claims success in breaking the violent Chechen rebellion, which began as an independence movement before morphing into Islamist radical-ism. Guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev, instigator of the 2004 Beslan school-hostage massacre, died last summer in an explosion reportedly rigged by Russian agents, and little remains of his fighting force. "We are part of Russia. You can't argue with that," says Akhiyat Zaitov, 64, as he surveys the knee-high ruins of thousands of houses in his home village, Bamut, once a bastion of guerrilla resistance.
In the capital, Grozny, where years of Russian bombardments wreaked vast destruction, life is returning at a startling pace. Flashy, glass-fronted businesses stand where months earlier there were just skeletons of buildings. Fountains sparkle on the central square where hundreds died in some of the fiercest urban battles since World War II.
Hearts and mines. Yet there are signs of hollowness in the Kremlin's declared victory. On a rare trip by a foreign journalist to the strategic southeastern Vedeno valley, Russian troops could be seen on high alert as their armored columns trundled through semideserted villages. Hilltops are dotted with military positions, and locals say land mines make the forests too dangerous to enter.
Day-to-day security in swaths of Chechnya is left to locally recruited Kremlin-loyalist forces, who run things much as they please. This makes their de facto chief, Putin-appointed President Ramzan Kadyrov, perhaps the most important man in Chechnya. Kadyrov, 30, is the son of a prominent Islamic leader who in 1999 abandoned the rebels for the Russian side and served as Kremlin-installed local president before being assassinated in 2004.
In the Chechen villages and small towns, the young Kadyrov's power seems unlimited. His portraits are peppered across the ruins of Grozny, at the entrance of many villages, and on the windshields of his supporters' cars. Local television is filled with his pronouncements. Mysteriously wealthy, the burly, bearded Kadyrov boasts about his private zoo, which includes a lion and a wolf, in his home village of Tsenteroi. When he turned 30 in October, guests danced on a floor littered with money. Like some medieval potentate, he accepted a flood of gifts, reportedly including a Ferrari sports car, that would raise eyebrows anywhere, not only in poverty-stricken Chechnya.
But Putin needs Kadyrov, whose militia forcespopularly dubbed "Kadyrovtsy"are proving effective against rebel remnants. Unlike the Russians, the Kadyrovtsy know the territory, they know the language, and, most important, they know the complex, unwritten rules of Chechen society, based on ancient mountain laws and the traditions of eclectic Sufi sects. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Memorial cite another characteristic of the Kadyrovtsy: enthusiasm for Russian methods of rooting out rebel suspects, namely torture, kidnapping, and illegal execution. According to Memorial, between 3,000 and 5,000 peoplelike Satsita's husbandhave "disappeared" in the past six years. Even official government sources put the figure at about 2,700. And although the figures drop every year, they remain alarming in a traumatized society of about a million people. Last year, Memorialwhich is able to operate only in 30 percent of Chechen territorylisted 172 kidnappings, with half of those still missing and nine found dead.
Many observersmost notably the slain Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskayahave accused Kadyrov of personally promoting these abuses. Two days before her October 7 murder in Moscow, Politkovskaya branded Kadyrov a "heavily armed coward" and the "Stalin of our times." But the Kremlin does not share these qualms, and Putin has bestowed on Kadyrov the country's highest honor, Hero of Russia.
What does cause jitters in Moscow is that the bulk of the estimated 7,000 armed men associated with Kadyrov are themselves former rebel fighters enticed or coerced into switching sides. "Everyone knows the so-called pro-Moscow militias in Chechnya are in fact tribal military formations loyal only to their chiefs," said Moscow-based military affairs specialist Pavel Felgenhauer. "Basically, the rebels in Chechnya have entered a rest period and are getting training under the Russian flag."
Chechen panache. The ambitious Kadyrov, meanwhile, is using that unquestioned power to shed his image as a Kremlin puppet and become something of a national leader. His growing number of admirers, especially youths who grew up with little but war, point to his typically Chechen panache and his ability to say what ordinary people are thinking. He has appealed to the many devoutly Muslim Chechens by calling for women to wear head scarves, for permitting polygamy, and for banning gambling.
A sad irony is that in many ways Chechnya again resembles the legal black hole that characterized de facto independence in the 1990s. And now that corrosion is spreading into Russia proper. In September, another top Chechen leader who switched sides to become a Russian officer, Sulim Yamadayev, was reported in the Russian media to have led a mafia-style armed raid on a meat processing plant located on a valuable piece of real estate in St. Petersburgmore than 1,500 miles from Grozny. In November, another legalized warlord, Movladi Baisarov, was gunned down in central Moscowresisting arrest, by the official account. With journalist Politkovskaya shot dead and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, another opponent of Putin's actions in Chechnya, fatally poisoned in London, the Chechen-related body trailregardless of who carried out the killingsseems to be spreading.
Worryingly for Moscow, discontent stretches across the North Caucasus region, a patchwork of tiny ethnic minorities that, like the Chechens, share poverty, Islam, and often histories of chafing at Russian rule. An extensive underground network connects armed bandssometimes Chechens, sometimes members of other ethnic groups, and sometimes including a handful of al Qaeda-linked foreigners. They attack police, soldiers, and officials while preaching radical Islam as an alternative to Russian rule. The authorities tend to respond with brute force, rarely attempting to address the roots of the unrest, which human-rights organizations list as economic hopelessness, political disenfranchisement, and thirst for revenge against the security forces.
Satsita, like most Chechens, knows exactly how destructive and futile this cycle of conflict can be. A brother-in-law was killed fighting the Russians. A daughter became a suicide bomber after her husband of six weeks was shot by soldiers. Satsita's husband joined the rebels but won amnesty. Now, he has vanished. As tears slide down her cheeks, she says, "I have lost all hope."
This story appears in the March 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.