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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Ends Chechnya Operations

ReutersChechen children in national costumes dancing in Grozny on Thursday during celebrations of the Kremlin's decision to lift Chechnya's security regime.��
The Kremlin on Thursday declared that the counterterrorist operation in Chechnya was over, effectively ending a security regime imposed in September 1999 when federal troops poured into the North Caucasus republic and squashed separatists.

The decision marks the official end of the second Chechen war, even though open hostilities ceased several years ago, and promises to bolster the standing of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whose heavy-handed rule has drawn sharp criticism from opposition members and human rights groups.

Under the security regime, extra federal troops were deployed to Chechnya, travel was restricted, and journalists had to obtain special federal permission to enter the republic.

President Dmitry Medvedev instructed the National Anti-Terrorism Committee to end the security regime from midnight Thursday.

"This decision aims to create conditions to further normalize the situation in the region and to restore and develop its economic and social infrastructure," the committee said in a statement, Itar-Tass reported.

The committee, chaired by Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov, was created in 2006 by then-President Vladimir Putin as the top coordinating body to fight terrorism.

Kadyrov welcomed the news as historic. "Today the Chechen people are celebrating victory over terrorism and extremism. I cannot put all my feelings into words. April 16 will be a special day from now on," he said in a statement posted on his web site.

Celebrations erupted in Grozny as word of the Kremlin's decision spread. News agency pictures showed cars driving in the city center with large Chechen and Russian flags hanging from the windows. A crowd watched children in national dress dancing on a downtown square adorned with a giant billboard of Kadyrov.

Kadyrov said he thought federal troops should remain in Chechnya but argued that this was just because of its geographical location. "Our republic is a border region, and Russian troops are stationed here not because there is a danger from banditry and terrorism but in case of an outside threat," he said.

Chechnya borders Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in August.

The Interior Ministry said last month that 20,000 of its troops stationed in Chechnya would leave should the counterterrorist operation end. But it also said that the ministry's 46th brigade and the Defense Ministry's 42nd motorized infantry division would remain stationed in the republic, leaving more than 10,000 federal troops there.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said restrictions on foreign journalists remained in place but the ministry was looking into whether to lift them.

Critics have said that the relative stability in Chechnya has been bought at the high price of letting Kadyrov rule with little regard to laws and human rights. They also note that attacks by Islamic militants have largely shifted to the neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan. "The end of the operations leaves Chechnya totally under Ramzan's control," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "There will be nobody left to control him there."

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the security services who runs  the Agentura.ru web site, said that the decision had been controversial  because Moscow’s powerful security officials, the so-called siloviki, were  unhappy with seeing their influence in Chechnya vanish: “The flow of  information will be totally controlled by Kadyrov and his influence will be  stronger than that of the siloviki,” he said.

Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist State Duma deputy and former member of the parliament's security committee, said the Kremlin's decision was necessary but that he was worried about its political implications. "On the one hand it is unavoidable because [the security regime] greatly hampers the republic's development. On the other hand I do not have full trust in Kadyrov," he said.

"Who can guarantee that no rebels will descend from the mountains after the troops have gone?" he asked.

Kadyrov said that change would have big benefits for the local economy. "We will now increase construction activities and boost our appeal to investors," he said.

Timur Aliyev, an adviser to Kadyrov, said by telephone from Grozny that while investors have been wary of Chechnya, "now it is possible to say that there is no more danger."

The federal government has spent billions of dollars rebuilding the war-torn republic. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last summer announced a $4.7 billion program for the next four years, signaling a sharp rise in spending. The federal government spent roughly half of that amount over the previous six years to create jobs and fund construction projects, the Regional Development Ministry said. Chechnya, largely destroyed in two separatist wars in 15 years, earned just 5 percent of its budget last year, with the rest of its financial needs covered by federal coffers.

Ilyukhin said federal aid for Chechnya had risen out of proportion with other spending needs. "We spend more than our annual subsidies for national agriculture. We have fed Kadyrov enough," he said.

Hopes of economic benefits also rest on a plan to allow international flights at Grozny's airport. Kadyrov said in early March that the airport would likely receive international status in the spring, adding that Putin had promised to open a customs terminal there. During the years of Chechnya's de facto independence in the early 1990s, Grozny's airport turned into a regional smuggling spigot for goods imported from Turkey and the Arab countries. Chechnya was formally a part of Russia, although federal officials, including tax and border services, could not operate there.

Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that while lifting the security regime might have positive effects, there was no reason to rejoice. "We have no positive signs on the ground yet. Chechnya is outside of Russian laws. It remains to be seen if the situation will improve," Lokshina said by telephone from Grozny.

She said she was compiling a report about arson attacks on the homes of relatives of former rebels who had fled the country. She said that she had reports from at least 19 relatives who said their homes had been torched after they had refused to pressure the former rebels into returning to their homeland.

Kadyrov recently called for the return of rebel leaders, but with little success. At the same time, a number of his exiled foes have been killed in contract-style attacks. The most prominent victim, Sulim Yamadayev, was gunned down in Dubai on March 28. Kadyrov has denied involvement in the murders.