Russia lifts 'terror zone' restrictions in Chechnya

Declaration brings end to years of conflict – and a new 'dictatorship'

Russia's decade-long war in Chechnya came to a symbolic end yesterday as restrictions labelling the region a "zone of counter-terrorist operations" were lifted.

Observers welcomed the move, saying restrictions had allowed widespread rights abuses to take place in Chechnya, but also raised concerns about the amount of power now concentrated in the hands of Chechnya's President, Ramzan Kadyrov.

"We are extremely satisfied," Mr Kadyrov told Interfax news agency. He said the end of the special measures would spur on economic growth.

The official end of Russia's counter-terrorist operation in its troubled southern republic could see up to 20,000 Russian troops moved out of the region and also eases restrictions on transport links and media access.

Significantly, it removes some of the last federal levers that impeded the former rebel fighter Mr Kadyrov from running the republic as he wished.

"The stage is now set for the full dictatorship of Kadyrov," said Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya expert at the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

Russia fought a nasty, brutal war with Chechen rebels between 1994 and 1996, the result of which saw the small, mountainous territory gain de facto independence from Moscow. But violence and lawlessness continued and in 1999, with the influence of Islamic militants on the rise, Russian troops re-entered the republic.

Pacifying Chechnya became a key goal of Vladimir Putin, who acceded to the Russian presidency in 2000, promising to track down terrorists and "waste them in the outhouse".

In 2003, with the war won but separatists still hiding in the mountains and Chechnya still a dangerous and violent place, Moscow embarked on a new strategy and Akhmat Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who by then supported Moscow, became President of the republic.

When he was assassinated in a bomb blast in Grozny in 2004, his son, Ramzan, became the most powerful person in the republic and by 2007, when he had reached the age of 30 years that is required to serve as President of Chechnya, he was duly appointed.

Mr Kadyrov has won support from many Chechens for the relative peace and stability that he has brought to the region. Using Moscow's money, he has rebuilt Grozny, and while there is still widespread poverty in the region, life is more stable and prosperous than any time in the past 15 years. The separatist resistance is demoralised and defeated, with neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia becoming far more troublesome for Moscow than Chechnya.

However, Mr Kadyrov's regime has been widely accused of rights abuses and torture, and an alarming number of his opponents, many of them in hiding abroad, have been assassinated. The highest-profile victim was Sulim Yamadayev, a powerful commander who had fallen out with Mr Kadyrov. He was shot in Dubai in late March.

Dubai police have implicated Adam Delimkhanov, Mr Kadyrov's right-hand man, in the murder, and arrested the Chechen President's stable hand in the Arab Emirate in relation to the crime.

The murder of Mr Yamadayev came not long after his brother Ruslan was shot dead in Moscow, several exiles were killed in Istanbul, and a former bodyguard who accused Mr Kadyrov of personally torturing him was assassinated in Vienna.

The murder of Mr Yamadayev, however, is the first time that a foreign state has directly accused Mr Kadyrov's associates of murder, and is a major embarrassment for the Kremlin.

That the Chechen leader, in spite of all this, was able to persuade Moscow to lift the restrictions shows how much sway he has with the Kremlin, and particularly the Prime Minister and former president, Mr Putin.

"This is the result of bargaining between Kadyrov and Putin," said Mr Malashenko. It is also a sign that Moscow has got into a bind with Mr Kadyrov – officials in the Kremlin are well aware of the nastiness of his regime and the bad publicity he generates.

They don't like his propensity to criticise decisions made in Moscow and to act autonomously, but they also recognise that he is impossible to remove without causing instability or bloodshed, and that for now at least, he is the best option that Moscow has.

Mr Kadyrov has outwardly remained loyal to Moscow and Mr Putin in particular, even naming one of Grozny's central streets Vladimir Putin Street.

But he has also promoted elements of Islamic law in Chechnya, such as polygamy, in defiance of the Russian constitution, and he has created a system where Moscow's laws exist only on paper.

"Chechnya now is best described as an 'internal abroad'" said Mr Malashenko. "Kadyrov gets 95 per cent of his budget from Moscow but is allowed to act as he pleases".

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