Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Putin on surprise visit to Grozny

President Putin yesterday paid a surprise visit to Chechen capital Grozny, BBC reports. The purpose was to attend the opening of the newly elected Chechen parliament. Putin spent a full forty minutes in Grozny, before helicoptering out of the Chechen capital.

Of course, this is yet another propaganda-ploy by the presidential administration, trying to signal a normalisation of conditions in Chechnya. That the war-ridden republic is far from any situation that could be characterised as normal, is a completely different story compared to what the Russian government argues. Instead, since the conflict began back in 1994, it has gained dynamics of its own, propelling it deeper and deeper into a conundrum of hopelessness and desperation for Chechens and Russians alike.

By the actions of Russian army and interior troops as well as Chechen groups, the war has reached a permanent state of criminalisation, which will perpetuate it as long as no real steps are taken for creating a dialogue for peace and stabilisation. That responsibility has increasingly been transferred to the Chechens themselves, has internalised the conflict to a certain degree. Moscow now, instead of active involvement, tries to fight a war by proxy. As e.g. the Beslan tragedy shows, the policy of internalisation appears to be failing, as the Chechen conflict threatens to engulf the entire northern Caucasus into a state of permanent insecurity.

Since Russia resumed the war in 1999, the Putin administration has consistently avoided any attempts at dialogue, and potential counterparts to peace talks have been eliminated by Russian special agencies. Russian vows to combat criminality - regardless of who the perpetrators are - have so far had little or symbolic results. Still, as RFE/RL reported a few weeks ago, some "feelers" for dialogue have recently been made, e.g. suggestions that Chechen pro-Russian president Alkhanov might be willing to meet representatives of the Chechen diaspora abroad. Such a dialogue would, however, exempt any exile groups even remotely involved in the conflict, why it must must be considered merely "gesture without motion." Also, what weight Alkhanov's words carry is unclear, as he merely seems a puppet on a chain for Chechnya's real leader - 29 year old Premier, Ramzan Kadyrov.

As for the 27 November parliamentary elections in Chechnya, there is little doubt that the outcome was pre-arranged to ensure a victory for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, supporting president Alkhanov. That the Communists came in second, was also no great surprise, as it follows the general setup for the 2007 Russian parliamentary elections. Besides United Russia and the Communists, the liberal Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) gained four seats in the parliament. What relation results have to genuine popular sentiments is unknown, and would, indeed, be of much greater interest than the Kremlin-ministered results. That both the OSCE and the Council of Europe, even beforehand, declared that the elections would be neither free nor fair, hardly needs mentioning.

Finally, as for Putin's surprise visit to Grozny, one might ask what he learnt by it. Indeed, one of the main problems of the Chechen conflict, seems to be that the Russian leadership has no real insight in it. It is obvious that Putin repeatedly has been deceived or misinformed on the situation, creating a basis for misjudgement and errors. However, this seems of little interest for the Kremlin. The policy towards Chechnya is set and the Russian president has no intention to alter it. Responsibility for the continuation of the conflict falls heavily on Putin.

The gravity of misperceptions may be illustrated by a recent visit of a government minister to Grozny. Standing on a main street in the city, he asks why it is a dirt road and why it hasn't been asphalted. Having for years channeled funds for the reconstruction of Chechnya, the minister could simply not grasp that so little had been done, and that money apparently had ended up in someone else's pockets instead. Alluding to a well-known song, the minister might as well have asked: "Where has all the money gone - long time passing?" Of course, the answer is obvious: "When will they ever learn?"

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