Andrei Soldatov’s recent article in Yezhednevny Zhurnal [about Moscow’s alleged ceding of control of the counter-terrorist operation to Ramzan Kadyrov, see the link (tr.)] left me with mixed feelings. I do not consider myself too proficient a judge of the control structures of the security agencies in Chechnya, and am therefore always interested to read what the experts have to say on this subject. Soldatov is without any doubt a highly informed specialist in this field, so anything written by him is likely to help one towards a better understanding of what is taking place in the republic. However, it seems to me that in the conclusions it makes his article repeats the stereotypical fears that are characteristic of Russia’s liberal community.
Let me explain what I mean.
The article gives a detailed description of the successful operation Ramzan Kadyrov has carried out to seize control of the “last important federal structure in the republic” – the Operational Staff (OSh). This is a coordinating centre, designed to lead and organize all security operations Chechnya. In 2001 the Operational Staff (earlier known as ROsh) was placed under the direction of the Federal Security Service (FSB). In 2003 it was transferred to the control of the Interior Ministry in order to make the counter-terrorist operation look like a purely policing exercise. Soldatov’s article contains a good many details with which those who are interested may acquaint themselves, but I shall skip to the end of the story, as the story itself is not germane to my reflections. By ending the counter-terrorist operation, Ramzan Kadyrov sent a kind of signal for the activation of the plan to seize control of the Operational Staff. To achieve this, all that had to be done was for a “silovik” loyal to Kadyrov to be placed in command of the Staff. As a result, President Medvedev approved or authorized the return of control over the body to the National Anti-Terrorist Committee, which takes its orders from the FSB, and Alexander Sulimov, head of the Chechen branch of the FSB, became head of the Operational Staff. From the context of the article it follows that Sulimov is a figure who is under Kadyrov’s control.
What conclusions does Andrei Soldatov draw from this? With obvious regret he notes that the federal centre is losing the last levers of influence on Kadyrov’s power politics. It is in this part of the article that the author seems to follow an uncritically adopted ritual which offers the reader a completely inadmissible angle of vision on the events in Chechnya. I don’t blame Soldatov, who is merely reproducing an ideological framework which, used as a tool of analysis, may not be recognized as unacceptable from the point of view of morality. Kadyrov’s “systemic separatism”, with which the political scientists and experts like to frighten Russia’s civil society, has long acquired the status of a perfectly valid term that may be used in a particular sense that is tacitly accepted by everyone. This is that the concentration of power in Kadyrov’s hands will inevitably lead to Chechen autonomy, which in turn will pose a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian state. In other words, Kadyrov has managed completely to escape from the Kremlin’s control and is about to create a virtually separate state system that will be connected to Russia only in name.
At this point doubts arise about the purity of the analysts’ approach and whether they have any desire to see things in terms of the value of human life – a criterion to which the liberal camp gives recognition by default. After all, this is precisely what was meant by “Chechenization” – the delegation to the Chechens of the repressive functions that formerly belonged to Russia’s power structures. From its inception to the present day, the republic has been impervious to Russian legislation, though in different ways at different times. It is now as though there had been no liberal criticism of the armed forces and security services at the beginning of the second military campaign: the accepted view is that when the war was being waged by the federal agencies, the repressive violence was systemic in nature and helped to strengthen the public good, but that when the Chechens took over, the whole process fell into the hands of savages and inveterate sadists.
With the best will in the world, I cannot recall an instance when the leadership of the Operational Staff came to the defence of the victims of killings and abductions, when it attempted to restrict the use of torture or tame the practice of suicide bombing. On the contrary, I remain convinced that the bloodshed and violence have been orchestrated and perfected under the direct supervision of the FSB. It seems hardly probable that Arkady Yedelev, in his position as head of “the most important federal structure” in Chechnya, has done much to prevent the assassination of rights activists or investigate cases of disappearance and summary execution. It is no secret that the FSB and the Chechen police use the same methods, which have not changed since the beginning of the second, and even the first Chechen war. The only gradations are to be perceived in the setting of new targets: if you can’t defeat the insurgents, you extend the repression to a wider range of people – their relatives and sympathizers. And so on, ad infinitum.
What causes anxiety to the Russian government’s voluntary helpers is apparently the fact that Kadyrov is killing people not in order to increase the might of the Russian state, but to strengthen his own personal power. The man in the street, however, is bound to feel absolutely indifferent – after all, murders that are “needed” or “unneeded” by Russia, “useful” or “harmful” to it, will be committed in Chechnya no matter who is in charge. Kadyrov’s power is no better and no worse than the power of the FSB or any other Russian agency, since they are all reinforced by the same conveyor belt of death. And the protection of the public interest, the interest of the state, will not help the lawyers of the future to obtain a mitigation of the indictment. What matter are not the goals but the methods, and it’s the shedding of blood that counts, not good intentions. Seen with the eyes of the victims, the Russian state struggling for its territorial integrity and Kadyrov’s provincial dictatorship are no different from each other. In both cases the people end up equally dead, and their injuries look the same. And it does not matter at all how the power is divided up, or which of the criminals cherishes a dream of freedom and independence.
I always read with interest what Soldatov writes, and his analyses of the workings of the power structures are usually spot on. But in this particular analysis he has probably gone a bit too far. When he and other experts from the liberal camp suddenly start talking about the interests of the state, one has a feeling that they are eager to keep the federal centre in control of the nightmare that is happening in Chechnya. The fact that the federal centre is itself both the source and the main custodian of the brutality and repression recedes into the background.
And if the horror is not being wrought by Kadyrov for the good of the state but in order to bolster his own personal power, such a situation can only be viewed as extremely ugly.