Russian Anger Grows Over Chechnya Subsidies PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 10 October 2011 07:22

 

 

MOSCOW — Twelve years ago, a little-known bureaucrat named Vladimir V. Putin began a war on Chechnya, vowing to crush a fierce rebellion and return the territory to the Kremlin’s control.

It was a decision that made Mr. Putin, then the prime minister, into the man he is today. In a matter of months, amid a rush of patriotic fervor, he was elected Russia’s president, and after more than a decade he has come close to neutralizing the Chechen insurgency.

But as he prepares to seek his second stint as president next year — an election he is virtually assured of winning — Chechnya could become a liability.

Resentment over the lavish subsidies paid to Chechnya and other regions in the mostly Muslim North Caucasus to secure loyalty after the war has spawned a movement dedicated to cutting the region off financially.

In protest last week, hundreds of people, mostly young men, marched across the Moscow River from Mr. Putin’s office, shouting, “Stop feeding the Caucasus!”

Their anger was forged not only by continued separatist violence in the North Caucasus — and related terrorist attacks in Moscow — but also by the regional elites’ brazen displays of wealth. For his 35th birthday last week, Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, put on a glittering celebration complete with a troupe of foreign acrobats and a performance by the British celebrity violinist Vanessa-Mae.

Some critics have even called for the North Caucasus to be severed from Russia completely, a surprising turnaround given the amount of Russian blood and treasure spent trying to keep it. An opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, a Moscow polling agency, in May found that 51 percent of the population would not care if the country’s borders were redrawn to exclude Chechnya, higher than at any time during Mr. Putin’s leadership.

The protest movement, though still nascent, is potent enough that Mr. Putin has been forced to publicly defend his policies in the region. He has achieved relative stability in Chechnya in recent years by investing in Mr. Kadyrov, a former rebel, who has employed brutal tactics to bring the insurgency there to heel.

But violence has spread from Chechnya to other regions in the North Caucasus and beyond, and with elections for Parliament and the presidency months away, it will be increasingly hard to sell the Russian people on continuing these policies, some analysts say.

“This will become one of the main issues of the upcoming elections,” said Aleksei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader allied with the protest movement.

Speaking of the Kremlin’s predicament, he said: “On the one hand, they have promised the Caucasus elite huge amounts of money in exchange for votes and stability. On the other hand, they see that the Russian population is seriously unhappy about this.”

The debate has exposed a rift over the main premise behind nearly two decades of intermittent war in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus. Russia’s leaders say the resource-rich region is fundamental to Russia’s territorial integrity, worth the billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives spent in holding on to it.

In recent years, Moscow has financed more than 90 percent of Chechnya’s budget, according to Russia’s Finance Ministry. In April, Mr. Kadyrov, the Chechen president, asked for almost $17 billion in additional federal money for infrastructure projects like rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed in the war. Russian officials justify the expenditures as necessary given the destruction and the security needs there.

For Mr. Putin, it is clear that the North Caucasus holds special significance. The fight there is an important pillar of his legacy, linking him with a nearly 300-year struggle to subdue the area.

“The North Caucasus is not ballast, but one of the pearls of Russia,” Mr. Putin said in August in a meeting with youth activists from the region. “Through it, we affirm and defend a significant portion of our geopolitical interests in this part of the world. For us this is very important.”

There are signs that the Kremlin is trying to co-opt the anger over the Caucasus ahead of the elections for Parliament, in December, and for president, in March. Kremlin-friendly politicians like Dmitri O. Rogozin, a nationalist leader and Russia’s ambassador to NATO, have begun giving voice to the popular complaints while urging support for Mr. Putin.

For many, however, Mr. Putin’s policies in the region appear to have led to an expensive dead end.“Our infrastructure is degrading, the population is getting poorer, and along with many other bad things, we see huge amounts of tribute being paid to the Caucasus,” Konstantin Krylov, an organizer of recent anti-Caucasus protests, told reporters last month.

“For this amount of money we could buy ourselves an atoll somewhere in the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “The climate is better there, and it would be easier to turn into a vacation area. I would seriously consider trading Chechnya for Vanuatu.”

Not a small amount of xenophobia and downright racism underlie much of the criticism of the Caucasus policy. Most opponents of help for the region are self-described nationalists and soccer fans, for whom “Russia for ethnic Russians” is a common battle cry. No one has protested the large subsidies allocated to the sparsely populated Far East.

But their views appear to have begun to resonate more widely. They point out that while there are still regions in central Russia that lack adequate plumbing and regular electricity, Mr. Kadyrov has overseen a construction boom in Chechnya, complete with a multimillion-dollar stadium, an enormous mosque named after his father and a high-rise business center that includes an apartment complex more than 40 stories tall in the capital, Grozny.

There is also the matter of Mr. Kadyrov’s fleet of luxury cars, his private zoo and his racehorses.

Asked last week where such wealth comes from, Mr. Kadyrov told journalists, “From Allah.”

Most Chechens, meanwhile, are deeply impoverished. Unemployment in parts of the North Caucasus is as high as 55 percent, according to the North Caucasus Federal District administration. Some independent experts say the figure is above 80 percent. “All the expenditures are made without any control,” said Mr. Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader. “We see an absolutely impoverished population and a few bearded men who drive around in Mercedes that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is leading to tensions.”

Immense social disparities, in fact, are among the reasons experts say violence continues to plague the region. In August, two suicide bomb attacks killed at least eight people in Grozny during celebrations at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Similar attacks occur almost daily in neighboring Dagestan, and Moscow continues to be a prime target of extremists from the region, with deadly attacks on an airport and the subway system in recent years.

“Russia has effectively lost the war,” said Andrei A. Piontkovsky, a prominent Moscow-based analyst. “Moreover, Russia pays reparations as the losing side.”

“The most frightening thing,” he said, “is that there is no escape from this situation. It is a situation that Putin created, step by step, over 12 years.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/world/europe/chechnyas-costs-stir-anger-as-russia-approaches-elections.html?_r=2

 

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 10:54
 

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