After nearly a decade of harsh "antiterrorist" operations that frequently targeted civilians in Chechnya, the Kremlin has declared the mission accomplished and pledged to withdraw at least half its troops from the now pacified, mainly Muslim republic.
According to the Kremlin, years of relentless – if often controversial – security measures combined with generous reconstruction aid provided by Moscow have proven to be a winning formula that isolated Chechnya's separatist and extreme Islamist rebels, cornered them in the republic's remote mountains, and ultimately defeated them. It is also seen as a victory for former President Vladimir Putin's strategy of "Chechenizing" the conflict by turning power over to Moscow's local allies, led by Chechnya's current strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Announcing the decision to lift the emergency regime Thursday, the official National Antiterrorism Committee painted a picture of civilian life returning to normal in the formerly embattled territory and stated that Chechnya is now ready to conduct free trade, travel, and investment with other parts of Russia and even to receive international flights at Grozny's airport.
"The situation is stable and this change of status will help us in continuing efforts to restore our economy, build more housing, and attract outside investment," says Ziyat Sabsibi, who is Mr. Kadyrov's official representative in Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. "We have particularly high hopes of getting investment from the Persian Gulf and Middle East," where there are large communities of expatriate Chechens, he says.
Kadyrov told journalists this week that most former rebels have been either killed or come over to the pro-Moscow local government, leaving "no more than 70" of them still holed up in mountain hideouts. Lifting the state of emergency will enable Moscow to pull out some 20,000 Interior Ministry forces – though an equal number will remain indefinitely – and also allow the cancellation of curfews, Chechnya's formerly ubiquitous security check points, and summary house searches by police, he said.
Critic: Russian withdrawal 'purely symbolic'
Critics say it's true that Chechnya today is mostly peaceful and that the horrific human rights abuses committed by Russian forces in early stages of the war have largely abated. But they argue that life in the little republic of 1.1 million people is anything but normal. They say that the Kremlin has bought the appearance of stability at the cost of consigning Chechnya into a legal black hole, where Mr. Kadyrov's forces run the republic without regard for the Russian Constitution or even the Kremlin's authority.
"Chechnya exists today as a kind of enclave, completely outside the framework of Russian or international law," says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, who was reached by phone in Grozny. "This decision to lift the state of emergency has purely symbolic significance for the population of Chechnya. Today, the human rights abuses are committed by [pro-Moscow] Chechens rather than Russian security forces, but the atmosphere of impunity is the same," she says.
A tiny republic's dark history
The northern Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is part, was conquered by Imperial Russia in the 19th century and later forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Chechens, a warlike mountain nation, rose up repeatedly and declared independence as the USSR was collapsing in 1991.
An invasion launched by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 killed an estimated 100,000 people, mainly civilians, and ended in Russian defeat two years later. But a de facto independent Chechnya became a nexus for crime and subversion throughout the region. After a wave of apartment bombings, blamed on Chechen terrorists, that killed 300 Russians in 1999, the Kremlin again ordered Russian troops to invade the tiny republic.
That war, now almost a decade old, created a flood of refugees and left terror-stricken survivors living a tenuous existence amid the shattered ruins of Grozny and other Chechen cities. In 2004, the Russian human rights group Memorial estimated that the two wars had killed more than 200,000 civilians and up to 40,000 Russian troops.
In addition to thousands of civilians killed as "collateral damage" in antiterrorist military operations, human rights groups allege that Russian security forces also ran special squads that targeted potential opponents for abduction, torture, and summary execution.
"Over 5,000 people have disappeared without a trace, the vast majority at the hands of the security forces," says Ms. Lokshina. "Only one Russian officer has ever been convicted for such violations. There is no accountability for the past; thousands of loved ones have no hope to find justice, and this remains an ongoing source of deep instability."
Tough leader for a tough land
The current Chechen leader is the son of Akhmad Kadyrov, a former rebel and Muslim cleric, who was tapped by the Kremlin for leadership but later murdered by Chechen Islamists in a spectacular 2004 stadium bombing.
The younger Kadyrov, a bull-necked flamboyant figure, who wears a track suit even on visits to the Kremlin and keeps a pet tiger in his mansion, became the republic's de facto ruler and was later elected Chechnya's president in a Moscow-orchestrated political process.
Moscow has spent billions of dollars on reconstruction projects in Chechnya, all of it channelled through Mr. Kadyrov, and last summer Prime Minister Putin announced a further $4.7 billion allocation for the next four years. But some experts fear that Kadyrov is increasingly going his own way. For example, he recently defied Russian law by backing "honor killings" of Chechen women by male relatives, and openly calling for legalized polygamy. "I am saying to everyone, whoever has the desire or the opportunity, you need to take a second wife," Kadyrov said recently.
Malik Saydullayev, a Moscow-based Chechen businessman who unsuccessfully ran for president against Kadyrov, says the Kremlin has capitulated to Kadyrov's demands for a "normalization" of the republic's status, but that nothing has been solved for the Chechen people.
"There is no real leader, elected by the Chechen people, and in this situation opposition will go on," Mr. Saydullayev says. "I think that the situation will grow even worse."
Several high-profile critics of Kadyrov have met tragic ends in recent years, including Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent for the crusading Moscow weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who was gunned down in the lobby of her Moscow apartment in 2006. More recently, a former bodyguard who accused Kadyrov of human rights abuses, Umar Israilov, was murdered in Austria by a Chechen assassin, and former Chechen general and Kadyrov foe Sulim Yamadayev was murdered in Dubai in March.
Will Russia's withdrawal bring more power to Kadyrov?
But even some Kremlin critics argue that Ramzan Kadyrov's harsh one-man rule in Chechnya may be a necessary evil. "It seems that Kadyrov is the worst option, except for all the others," says Yulia Latynina, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta. She says the extremist Islamic rebels, who've spread their struggle around the volatile north Caucasus, are a deadly and growing threat. (See here for more details.)
"Chechnya under Kadyrov is controlled much more effectively than [the neighboring republics of] Ingushetia and Dagestan, where things are falling apart," says Ms. Latynina. "Kadyrov today is the only working institution in Chechnya. There is no society, nothing but him."
On the other hand, some who usually back the Kremlin's tough handling of Chechnya say they have reservations about removing federal forces, because it leaves Kadyrov in sole control of the republic.
"Yes, we had to lift the emergency regime in Chechnya, but there are too many 'buts' about it," says Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist deputy who chairs the State Duma's security commission. "All this is meant to help Kadyrov to keep Chechnya within Russia, but if financing from Moscow decreases, Kadyrov might change his position toward Russia. I don't trust Kadyrov."