New Chechen president's task - act tough to soften suffering

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

MOSCOW -- A few days before the election that won him the presidency of Russia's violence-plagued Chechnya region, Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov gave a startling order to the police force he commanded: Shoot anyone wearing a mask.

However ominous the directive sounded, it was portrayed as a move to reduce Chechens' fears rather than increase them. This is a land tormented by lawlessness on both sides of a guerrilla war and by intense poverty, and many people think Chechnya needs hard actions to right its problems.

Alkhanov framed his challenge delicately Monday, the day after being elected with nearly 74 percent of a vote marred by violence and allegations of fraud.

His most important task "is that the course of stabilization, the course of peaceful existence, the course of restoration continues," Alkhanov said at a heavily guarded news conference. "And it will continue only in the presence of an effective power structure."

Yet the winner of Sunday's election faces a tough hurdle. As Moscow's obvious favorite among the seven candidates, he is seen as the point man for a Russian government widely despised by the region's predominantly Muslim population, which has chafed under Russian rule since the 1859 conquest by czarist armies.

Restoring rule of lawOrdinary Chechens may have little sympathy for increasingly radical Islamic rebels who have been fighting Russian forces for nearly five years. But people also fear and resent Russian soldiers, Chechen police and other security officers who allegedly have abducted and killed hundreds of civilians, often operating in masks.

"The population can't understand who they are dealing with -- law enforcement officers or bandits," Alkhanov said when explaining his shoot-on-sight order Thursday. "Law enforcement officers have no reason to hide their faces if they are acting in accordance with the law."

Restoring a sense that Chechnya is under the rule of law is key to the Kremlin's strategy for bringing peace to a region a little smaller than Connecticut. Unable to defeat the guerrillas and unwilling to negotiate with them, Russian President Vladimir Putin is banking on undermining support for the separatists by establishing a semblance of civil society.

Those efforts made little progress, or even deteriorated, under Alkhanov's predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov. Bloodshed continues unabated. Some 30 people were killed in a night of attacks on police stations and patrols in Grozny on Aug. 21, and suspicions are strong that Chechen fighters or their supporters bombed two Russian airliners that crashed nearly simultaneously a week ago.

Kadyrov and his son also undertook the controversial policy of having the police and security forces absorb rebels who laid down their arms. They argued that would exploit former rebels' knowledge and give them work in a region where three-fourths of the estimated 1 million people are unemployed.

Alkhanov supported the initiative, even though many in the Kremlin opposed it, including Said Peshkoyev, Putin's deputy envoy to the region, who complained to the Moscow News, "How can we possibly arm those who only yesterday were committing crimes?"

That question took on new resonance when Kadyrov was assassinated in May by a bomb that many people suspect was set off with the complicity of someone in the security forces.

It is unclear whether Alkhanov intends to continue the policy of giving ex-rebels security jobs, but he is clearly eager to find other ways of boosting employment for his people, who live largely without electricity or telephone service.

He has proposed making Chechnya a "free economic zone" to attract private investment in its war-ruined cities and factories and to create "a dynamic banking system." How much freedom the Kremlin would allow for such creations is unclear, however.

When the Russian government called the election that brought Kadyrov to power, officials also spoke of granting the republic a substantial degree of autonomy, but the idea since seems to have gone dormant.

Alkhanov appears to be inclined to follow orders from above. He is a career police official dating from the Soviet era and, unlike one-time rebel supporter Kadyrov, he has never allied himself with the separatists.

Some observers say that ultimately the key to Chechnya's future is not what Alkhanov espouses or accomplishes.

"It now depends not on Alkhanov, but on the position of the Russian authorities and their desire to put an end to abductions and violations of human rights," Lydumila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, said Monday, according to the news agency Interfax.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: