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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

POWER PLAY: Thugs Occupy Power Vacuum In Chechnya




Just one trip to Chechnya makes it clear for any reporter who covered the last war in 1994-96 that Russian troops are trapped in the Northern Caucasus, and the conditions are even worse than during the last go-around.


Chechnya no longer has any central authority, depriving Moscow of a dubious luxury it had during the last war, which was to retreat and leave the task of reconstructing the region to whoever was left.


Even Chechen clan society is powerless to step in and fill the leadership vacuum. Its traditional structure, based on the authority of elders, was destroyed over these years of war and aggression. Without this social underpinning, the republic is fragmented and traditional clan law - however backward it may have been - has been buried in the rubble.


Moscow's only option now is to assign duties previously fulfilled by Chechnya's clan elite - resolving internal conflicts and sustaining order among the youth - to criminal bosses who have taken the place of that elite. Moscow's hiring criteria, therefore, is limited to whether or not the thugs are loyal to the federal center.


Consider Beslan Gantemirov. Once the mayor of Grozny, Gantemirov was convicted of corruption. Today, Gantemirov is a free man, not because he was pardoned - though he does defend his innocence - but because he brokered a deal with Moscow authorities just as the Chechen conflict was heating up.


Now, under this semi-clemency, he is regaining his former position as an oil king in Grozny. His black, armored four-wheel drive Ford sport utility vehicle is well known around Chechnya.


The Ford turned up in Mozdok once, and the reporters there had a chuckle at its license plates. They read "O 001 BG 95," BG stand for Beslan Gantemirov. The plates are homemade, Gantemirov's driver confirmed, and, if read correctly, are a sort of political ad as well. From the 001, we are to understand that everyone is to regard Gantemirov as Chechnya's No. 1 man.


But these plates carry another less presidential message. On Russian license plates, the last two digits, in this case 95, indicate where the car was bought and registered. The number 95 is not Chechnya's registration code, and the fact that the car still bears plates from another region indicates it was never officially reregistered, a process required whenever a car owner changes his or her address.


The majority of cars stolen in central Russia make their way to Chechnya. In fact, car smuggling, illegal oil-trading and kidnapping are Chechnya's three biggest businesses.


There is no doubt that Gantemirov is fighting side by side with the Russians for the reward of oil. Other leaders in Chechnya are also eager to get their hands on the some 5,500 home-spun oil refineries across the republic. If Russian troops withdraw now, the region will collapse in an internal war of rival, oil-hungry gangs. Even if Russia's fragile victory comes off, Chechnya's gangs will remain as numerous as ever. Closed schools, a ruined social welfare system and unemployment will draw more and more teens into gangs. And in the battles that will come of that, God only knows what side loyal leaders-in-law like Beslan Gantemirov will fight on.


Yevgenia Albats is an independent analyst and journalist based in Moscow.