Late in the night of October 6, 2011, a green light flooded three huge high-rises in downtown Grozny. The crowd gasped stunned by the beautiful sight. Further in the background a light shined on a dome and the bright minarets of Europe’s largest mosque with a rainbow-colored fountain in the front. Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme and double Oscar winner Hillary Swank, brought here especially for the occasion, gave their birthday wishes to the host from a floating stage on the nearby Sunzhi river. British singer Seal sang and renowned violinist Vanessa-Mae played — each reportedly receiving $500,000 for their time. The occasion was the lavish celebration of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s 35th birthday. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was among the first to extend his congratulations.
Kadyrov’s car park consists of over 120 luxury models; his stables are filled with purebred Arab horses; his house glistens with golden faucets and expensive marble. He has 10,000 to 20,000 men in his armed units and controls private prisons into which any dissenter can be thrown. All of this has secured the obedience of Kadyrov’s subjects. He is, no doubt, the biggest winner in the war the Kremlin announced against Chechnya 18 years ago. Chechnya’s history appears to be as a web of intrigue and treachery perpetrated by the Chechens themselves as they fought for power. The Chechen people lost the most in this war with a quarter of a million killed (including 42,000 children), thousands of handicapped and thousands more in emigration. Those who have stayed can barely make both ends meet.
In 1990, a year before the USSR fell apart, its leaders had no clue this would happen. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, a contender for Russian presidency, were fighting for power. Pro-independence movements that had sprung up in the republics could affect the election of any top official. Yeltsin tried to curb Gorbachev’s influence in the Caucasus by dispatching his emissaries to Tartu, Estonia, where one of the most prominent Chechens, Soviet Air General Dzhokhar Dudayev, was serving in the military. They succeeded in urging him to return to Grozny faster than he had originally planned.
On October 27, 1991, Dudayev was elected president of Chechnya. He counted on Yeltsin’s support, but Yeltsin kept silent. Instead, his deputy Aleksander Rutskoy announced a state of emergency in Chechnya. But Gorbachev vetoed the deployment of commandoes in Grozny. Most likely, the idea was that now Yeltsin and his Russian Federation would have to deal with the explosive republic. Thus, it makes sense that the last USSR defense minister, Marshal Shaposhnikov, issued no orders regarding the colossal armories located in Grozny. Later, in May 1992, Russia’s first Defense Minister Pavel Grachev decided to keep 50% of the weapons stored in Chechnya. But why?
Dudayev had the support of most of the Chechen population, while Moscow threw its weight behind his opposition (and, at the same time, the previous government). Dudayev’s chief opponent was the criminal Ruslan Labazanov whom the FSB had released from death row. With the Kremlin financing his operations (50 million rubles from the budget), he helped bandits escape from prisons, spread chaos and stoked antigovernment rallies. Dudayev did not want a war. He was aware of the threat it posed and looked for a compromise. From 1991 until the late fall of 1993, he actively sought a meeting with Yeltsin. His inner circle paid multimillion dollar bribes to achieve this end. He wrote letters to Russia’s Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. But it was all in vain. Yeltsin needed a “small victorious war,” because his popularity ratings had plummeted after 1993. The generals needed a war, too, because war was the only way for them to conceal the fact they had already sold tons of weapons illegally. Moreover, Chechnya had oil and good conditions for refining.
No one anticipated that the Russians would lose the war. Dudayev did not live to see its end – he was killed by a rocket which recognized his U.S.-made cell phone after the Russian intelligence services learned its specs from their American counterparts. General Lebed signed a peace treaty in Khasavyurt only after Minutka Square in Grozny was covered with the bodies of Russian soldiers. Chechnya was free. Theoretically, that is. The Chechens wanted a democratic election, while the Kremlin did everything to prevent one. And then the Chechens received their first ever real international aid which came from the OSCE. The election would not have taken place without the courageous and persistent OSCE representative in the republic, Tim Guldeman. In the atmosphere of a national holiday, the people elected Aslan Maskhadov their president. He favored negotiations, rather than war, with Moscow.
Shamil Basayev felt like he had lost his cause. Basayev was a military commander and Chechen children sang songs about him during the war against Russia. To Basayev, Maskhadov was the enemy rather than a friend in this struggle. Instead, his friend was Al-Khattab, whom he had known since the war. Al-Khattab was a native of Jordan and a proponent of Muslim fundamentalism (more specifically, Salafism which includes Wahhabism) who received funding from rich sheiks in the Persian Gulf. Chechnya had no money after Moscow imposed a financial blockade on Grozny. Maskhadov was left with an empty treasury, ruined industry and near total unemployment. Khattab set up a base in Serzhen-Yurt, offering good pay to young, armed and jobless men. Basayev set out on the path of Wahhabism, which was alien to the Chechens. The FSB also viewed Wahhabism as a chance to harm Maskhadov.
Few people at the time gave thought to how sincere Basayev was in his undertakings. Few remembered that he had fought with the Russians against the Georgians in 1992 and had trained at a GRU training center. Later, aided by Russian intelligence, counterintelligence and the Interior Ministry, he formed the cruel “Abkhaz battalion” in pro-Russian Abkhazia. It appears that these contracts were suspended during the patriotic war and resumed after its conclusion. Now Basayev and Moscow had a common enemy – Maskhadov. He had to be discredited, ridiculed and humiliated. Basayev used his extensive connections to start killing sprees.
Six International Red Cross doctors were shot in the head at dawn (by FSB officer Adam Demiyev). Three Brits and one New Zealander of Grainger Telecom, who were in Chechnya to set up a cellular connection system, were beheaded (by FSB agent and GRU officer Arbi Barayev, who showed extreme cruelty to both Chechens and foreigners). Polish scientists were kidnapped (by the Akhmadov brothers, FSB agents in Urus-Martan). Chechen bandits eagerly joined in. They kidnapped foreign journalists who were watched by the entire world (and whom the Kremlin’s messengers saved by paying sky-high prices). Worse still, they kidnapped ordinary people, particularly Chechens. Kidnapping turned into a good business which Maskhadov fought against without much success. The world began to gradually turn its back on the Chechens, who just a short while ago were heroes in their struggle for freedom.
Weakened by its confrontation with the Wahhabis, Maskhadov hoped to receive help from Moscow. He dispatched a negotiator, but he was arrested on the orders of then FSB Chief Vladimir Putin and convicted. (He died in prison a short time later.) Maskhadov failed to realize that he and his poor republic were already marked as the victims in a new battle for power in the Kremlin. Since March 1999, the operation “Successor” had been being prepared, and the successor would be a new persecutor of the Chechens. The war was inevitable. Basayev and Khattab provided a reason when they penetrated Dagestan in August 1999. This first move went almost unnoticed. Real terror needed to be inflicted on the Russian people to gain attention. In September 1999, residential buildings in Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk were blown up. The people most interested in trying to discover the truth about these acts were later murdered – Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, as well as the journalist Otto Latsis who died after a beating. However, Maskhadov kept seeking a way to hold negotiations that would, he thought, put an end to war. In this undertaking, he had the support of several politicians in Russia and many in the West. But for some reason, a day before an agreement on understanding was to be signed in Copenhagen, the Dubrovka crisis erupted. Putin claimed that Maskhadov was the mastermind behind this terrorist attack. So who would support him now? Now the Kremlin had nothing to stop it from “Chechenizing” the terror perpetrated in the rebellious republic by appointing loyal Chechens to run it. In 2003, Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov became president of Chechnya. (He had been a KGB agent since 1981, according to KGB files discovered in 1996.) One of his ideas was to take control of Chechen oil away from Russian generals. He was killed in a terrorist act at the May 9 celebration at Dinamo stadium in Grozny.
Conspicuously, his son Ramzan, who always accompanied his father as the chief of his guard, was in Moscow at this precise time. In the early morning of the next day, all of Russia watched how magnanimous President Putin could be as he compassionately embraced Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin was happy: Akhmad Kadyrov was a well-educated Chechen patriot who could put up resistance against the Kremlin from time to time, while his son had completed only three years of education, and his patriotism was measured solely by money and power. Moscow was evidently convinced that Ramzan would successfully “normalize” the republic. Meanwhile, the West looked away to avoid damaging cooperation with Moscow.
Politicians are not concerned about rampant poverty, atrocious corruption and contract killings in Chechnya – or about the fact that the language of instruction in Chechen schools is Russian, while the mother tongue is taught merely two hours per week. The Council of Europe will once again “express concern”; the European Court will once again rule in favor of an ordinary Chechen against Russia. But this will not save even one of several thousand Chechens who have been imprisoned without trial and are now dying of torture in Russian camps and prisons. These steps will not restore the meaning of a life lost for one’s motherland.
“Putin is my idol. I would give my life for him,” says Ramzan Kadyrov. He must be perfectly aware that he can enjoy celebrating his birthdays as long as Putin is in power.
The United States is committed to working with its Allies and partners to keep pressure on Russia to live up to its commitments and to begin the process of peacefully restoring Ukraine's full sovereignty over Donbas