Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Puppet Government for Chechnya Takes Shape

In a move seen as the first step toward installing a puppet government for Chechnya, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday that an obscure parliament elected under Russian military occupation in 1996 was the "sole legitimate authority" in the breakaway republic.

Putin's announcement indicated that Moscow was de facto withdrawing recognition from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, with whom President Boris Yeltsin signed a peace accord in 1997.

The move raised more questions about how far Russia intends to go with its military campaign against Chechnya, on a day when Russian planes kept up their bombing of Chechen territory.

News media have been full of speculation that Russia, which denies Chechnya's independence claims, may seize part of Chechnya's territory and install a rival government loyal to Moscow.

"This [parliament] is the sole legitimate authority in Chechnya, and we give it full support," Putin said in televised comments with members of the rump legislature. "The legitimacy of all other bodies in Chechnya is, speaking mildly, conditional since they were not elected according to the laws of the Russian Federation."

Putin stopped short of denying Maskhadov any legitimacy at all. That was left to the rump parliament's speaker, Amin Osmayev.

"Maskhadov is not the legitimate president ... I insist on this view," said Osmayev. "We, the members of the Chechen parliament, represent the only legitimate authority on Chechen territory."

The parliament was elected in June 1996, during Russia's bloody and unsuccessful attempt to stop Chechnya from breaking away. At that time, Russia still occupied about half of the republic, including its capital Grozny.

The pro-Moscow legislature and the administration of Russia's puppet president, Doku Zavgayev, were both disbanded and fled Chechnya after Russian troops withdrew later that year.

In January 1997 Chechnya held its own parliamentary and presidential elections, which were monitored by international observers. Maskhadov won the presidency in a landslide, winning 65 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the elections "democratic and free."

Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed a accord on May 12, 1997, in which Moscow recognized Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate president. Eyebrows were raised at the time when Yeltsin referred to Chechnya by the name Ichkeria - which is how it is called by independence-minded Chechens. At the time Yeltsin said the treaty "puts a full stop to 400 years in which there has always been some sort of war."

Any mention of the accord, however, was mysteriously absent during Putin's announcement Friday, or in any of the Russian news media coverage of his comments.

Meanwhile, with the Kremlin's tacit approval, members of the defunct 1996 parliament were already touting themselves as Chechnya's new rulers.

Ali Alavdinov, one of the parliament deputies who met with Putin on Friday said that members of the legislature will form the "backbone" of a new Chechen government. Another deputy, Amin Asmayev, said that the 1996 parliament was "loyal to the Russian Constitution and Russian laws and intends to translate them into practice."

A third, Ibragim Suleimenov, said that the legislature was elected under "better conditions than when Maskhadov was elected president."

But Ruslan Aushev, the president of neighboring Ingushetia, said that Moscow "is making the same blunder" it made in 1994-96.

"I can't imagine what kind of advisers Vladimir Putin has if they advised him to take this road," Aushev was quoted as saying by Interfax. "The legitimate authority in Chechnya today is President Maskhadov, whether anybody likes it or not ... It is with him that Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a peace treaty in 1997, and it is with him that the federal government has been holding negotiations."

Aushev said that the move shows that Moscow is trying to oust Maskhadov, who "is being driven into a corner."

Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the BBC World Service who wrote a book about Chechnya, said that the idea that a pro-Kremlin government in exile will be accepted in Chechnya was far-fetched.

"History shows that any authority formed in Moscow does not enjoy any support among the population. This is as true today as it was in 1994," said de Waal, adding that claims that the pro-Moscow legislature enjoyed more legitimacy than Maskhadov were dubious.

Friday's announcement marks Russia's fourth post-Soviet attempt to set up a pro-Moscow government for Chechnya, which declared independence from Russian in 1991 when separatist President Jokhar Dudayev seized power there.

In August 1994, former policeman Umar Avturkhanov set up a so-called Provisional Council in opposition to Dudayev in the village of Znamenskoye in northern Chechnya. At the time, Avturkhanov said his pro-Moscow council was "the only legitimate authority" in Chechnya.

In February 1995, after Russian forces occupied Grozny, a pro-Moscow government was set up, with Salambek Khajiev - the only Chechen minister in Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet-era Cabinet - at its head.

Later that year, the Kremlin installed Doku Zavgayev, the region's Soviet-era Communist boss ousted by Dudayev in 1991, as Chechnya's titular president. Pro-independence Chechens referred to him as Doku Aeroportovich, in reference to the fact that he rarely left the heavily fortified Grozny airport - except to fly to Moscow.

Maskhadov, despite his inability to impose order on Chechnya's post-war anarchy, is still the type of leader most Chechens want, de Waal said. He added that the majority of Chechens reject both the radicalism of guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and rule from Moscow.

"Chechens want peace and security. They don't want Russian soldiers on their territory, but they also want a leader who can talk to the Russians. This is why they supported Maskhadov in 1996," de Waal said.

Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on the Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said, however, that after three years of independence - and poverty and rampant crime - some Chechens may be ready to support a pro-Moscow government if that meant stability.

"I know that there are a lot of people in Chechnya who will support this," said Malashenko regarding the government in exile. "I don't know the percent - more than half, less than half - but there are many there who are ready to reject the idea of a nation-based state in Chechnya."

"Right now in Chechnya there is no national leader. It isn't even a power vacuum: It is a power swamp. In three years of independence no one has built anything in Chechnya. Chechens feel like they have become a pariah republic whom no one needs."

"Right now everything depends on Moscow. But if they go about this with stupidity, then Chechen society will again consolidate against them," Malashenko said.