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Robert Bruce Ware: Chechnya After the Elections

Chechens have twice gone to the poles in the past six months. What has been gained, and what has been lost?
In the March 23rd referendum, Chechens voters approved a new constitution by a suspiciously high margin. Electoral fraud probably contributed to that result. Yet it seems clear that most people in Chechnya are exhausted by twelve years of turmoil and bloodshed and long for a stable political foundation upon which to establish normal lives. Many Chechens supported the referendum because they saw it as a portal for social stability. The result of the referendum was probably exaggerated, but it was probably not erroneous.

This is indicative of Chechnya's most important gain: There is a new culture of moderation that shuns radicalism in all its forms, whether nationalist or Islamist. The posture of Chechen exceptionalism, and the warrior mythology that could understand freedom only in terms of blood and glory have lost their self-destructive grip. Shamil Basayev is not the hero he seemed in 1995, and the acidic nationalism of former Chechen president Djokhar Dudaev would no longer get a hearing. Most people in Chechnya now realize that their years of independence were a failure and that it will be necessary to come to terms with their neighbors.

Most Chechens supported the constitutional referendum because they could see that the establishment of a new political system was the only achievable solution to the republic's problems. There is no point negotiating with the Chechen militants. Their years in power saw greater abuse and suffering than the present. Their ranks are, and always were, so fragmented that there is no one who could possibly guarantee any agreement that might be reached. Some of the militants have been implicated in terrorist acts that make negotiation with them inconceivable. Today the militants have little popular support, as illustrated by their increasing resort to terrorism. As a marker of this shift in Chechen culture, the referendum was an important step.

Yet while participation in the constitutional referendum was a formal gain for Chechnya, it foreshadowed a substantial loss, for the constitution itself is fundamentally flawed. Chechnya has no use for the presidential system that the constitution established. Chechen society traditionally has been fragmented among a multiplicity of rival groups with no tradition of an overarching political structure. Chechnya does not need a president, who inevitably will come from one of these groups and will thereby invariably alienate members of other groups. Instead Chechnya needs institutions that promote power-sharing among members of its strongest groups. It needs institutions that give as many groups as possible a stake in the system, and thereby pulls rival groups together in a single political process. Chechnya needs a collegial executive body, perhaps along the lines of the 14-member State Council that has helped to reconcile the multiethnic society in the neighboring Republic of Dagestan for the past nine years. Chechnya did not get the constitution that it needed. That was the first important loss of this year, and it set the stage for losses that followed. 

Chechnya's constitution was the work of its chief beneficiary, Akhmad Kadyrov. Kadyrov, who is Chechnya’s President Elect, was appointed by Moscow to head the Chechen administration in June 2000. In January 2001, Kadyrov offered Russian President Vladimir Putin what was in essence a three-step plan to stabilize the situation in his war-torn republic. According to Kadyrov's proposal Moscow would withdraw troops and then appoint a consultative body, subordinate to Kadyrov, to draft a new Chechen constitution and electoral regulations, to be followed by the election of a new Chechen leader. During the past two years events in Chechnya have occurred roughly according to that plan, at least in so far as there have been limited troop withdrawals. The grand finale of Kadyrov’s plan was the Chechen presidential election on October 5th.

The presidential election must be considered as a loss for Chechnya because it marked a further setback for power-sharing, and a further concentration of power in Kadyrov's hands. The loss was inevitable following the elimination of Kadyrov’s three main competitors. At the end of August Kadyrov was challenged by Aslambek Aslakhanov, Chechnya’s Duma representative, Khusein Dzhabrailov, the deputy manager of a large Moscow hotel, and Malik Saidullayev, a prominent Moscow businessman. All three were leading Kadyrov by wide margins in several poles. 

However, on September 3rd, Dzhabrailov withdrew from the race following a meeting with Russian presidential aide, Alexander Voloshin. On September 11th, Aslakhanov withdrew after accepting a position as an aide to President Putin with responsibilities for the North Caucasus. On the same day, Saidullayev was disqualified due to legal technicalities. 

Because Aslakhanov never mounted a serious campaign organization nor outlined a detailed platform, it is not clear that he was ever genuinely interested in the office. It is seems likely that Aslakhanov entered the race in order to ensure that he remained at the center of the Chechen power struggle. Perhaps he intended either to negotiate a deal such as that which he concluded with the Putin administration, or, alternatively, to raise his standard against the unpopular Kadyrov, knowing that Kadyrov would never permit him to win. He might then be all the better positioned in the aftermath of the election as Kadyrov's problems multiplied. Ruslan Khasbulatov, another Moscow-based Chechen, seemed to play a similar game, remaining in contention until the final days of registration. The departure of these three candidates left Kadyrov facing six challengers, none of whom had the stature to offer serious competition. 

The cost of these events was four-fold: First, the presidential election lost the opportunity for political legitimacy that is provided only by meaningful democratic choice. Second, the people of Chechnya lost the opportunity to take control of their lives. Third, Moscow lost the opportunity to demonstrate to the people of Chechnya, and to the world, that the people of Chechnya are free to choose for themselves. 

Finally, everybody lost a crucial opportunity to share power. In some cases, the result of close electoral competition is a shared mandate that paves the way for some form of ruling coalition. This would have been much to Chechnya's advantage. While Kadyrov has concentrated on security issues, Saidullayev and Dzhabrailov would have been likely to focus on crucial issues of economic development. Nothing could have been better for Chechnya than the combined talents of Kadyrov, Saidullayev, Dzhabrailov, Aslakhanov, Khasbulatov, and others such as Bislan Gantimirov.

Still it is not clear that Kadyrov would have been defeated in a more competitive election. At the beginning of September the Moscow-based Chechens were leading Kadyrov significantly in the polls, but that lead would have likely diminished for several reasons. First, at the beginning of September the campaign was had already taken a negative turn. A negative campaign would have hurt Kadyrov less than anyone else since everything that could possibly be said against him has been said for years. Second, the three Moscow-based Chechens would have split the votes of those who preferred an outsider, while there was no Chechnya-based Chechen to rival Kadyrov. Third, while some voters were intimidated into supporting Kadyrov, others voted for him because they concluded that he was the only candidate strong enough to provide stability, and stability is what most Chechens want. Indeed, any other president would initially have been weaker than Kadyrov, and therefore more dependent upon Moscow. Perceptions of that weakness and dependence would quickly have undermined his support. Kadyrov would not have won the first round of a competitive election, but he might have won the second. It is a great loss for Chechnya, for Moscow, and for the legitimacy of the Kadyrov administration that no one will ever know. Yet even if Kadyrov had lost the election he was clearly not going anywhere. Kadyrov controls more than 3000 armed supporters. Regardless of the electoral outcome he would have been a prominent figure in any future administration.

The fundamental problem is that any presidential system attempting to operate in Chechnya’s traditionally fragmented society will tend to discourage pluralism and power sharing among diverse groups. Instead Kadyrov is forced, by the logic of the political system that he designed, into increasingly greater dependence upon an armed core of supporters, controlled by a close-knit group of family and friends. The exclusive nature of this group will continue to alarm and alienate members of other groups who will form loose alliances in opposition to the president. The result will be an increase in intra-Chechen conflict.

Incidents of intra-Chechen conflict have been increasing since the third quarter of 2002, as incidents of Russian/Chechen conflict, including the brutal zachistki operations, have been decreasing. Some observers have gone so far as to predict that the flawed presidential election will set the stage for civil war in Chechnya. Such predictions are, at best, a decade late. Chechnya has careened toward civil war each time that it has attempted to sustain a presidential system. That was the case under the presidency of Djokhar Dudayev from 1991 to 1994. Whatever must be said against Russia's invasion of Chechnya in December 1994, it was in partial response to Chechnya's civil war. Following Russia's defeat, Chechnya again teetered toward civil war under the presidency of Aslan Maskhadov. The invasions of Dagestan in August and September of 1999 were an off-shoot of the power struggle between Chechen radicals and moderates. In a sense, the Chechen civil war has ebbed and surged since 1992, interrupted by two Russian invasions. The only times that Chechens have stopped fighting each other was when they were united against Russia. Unfortunately, this vicious cycle is likely to be extended by the adoption of a presidential system in the March constitutional referendum and by the flawed presidential election that followed.

Moreover, the lack of genuine electoral competition combined with his forced dependence upon his close circle of supporters is likely to make Kadyrov more difficult for Moscow to control at the same time that it makes him more confrontational at home. Meanwhile Chechen militants, who seek to avoid being side-lined but who lack popular support and genuine military assets, will be driven toward new acts of terrorism. This will further harden Kadyrov's stance and make it difficult for him to shift his focus from security problems to the crucial issues of economic development. The irony is that if Kadyrov could sustain a focus upon economic development the militants would become irrelevant. However, Kadyrov is more likely to concentrate his attentions on the militants and thereby empower them.

There might yet be progress if Kadyrov successfully moderates his new administration in at least four ways. First, Kadyrov must seek firm power sharing agreements with Chechen leaders such as Malik Saidullayev, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Bislan Gantimirov, among others. Second, he must restrict the brutal tactics that have been practiced by some of his supporters. Third, he must personally guarantee that allotted housing compensation, and other forms of relief and support reach the ordinary Chechens for whom they are intended. Fourth, he must end profiteering activities on the part of his supporters.

If all else fails, then Chechnya still may be saved by the fact that most Chechens have lost interest in anything that smacks of violence, extremism, and instability. Their exhaustion may be the political ballast that ultimately prevents civil war and gradually imposes social order.

Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who studies the Caucasus.

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