Anna Politkovskaya’s reporting is of enduring significance for the light it shed on abuses in Chechnya. Yet while her reports were compelling, her untimely death was not the only reason that they were incomplete.
Politkovskaya rarely focused on the other side of her story: the fact that human rights abuses in Chechnya did not begin in 1999, when Russian forces returned to the region. Though she regularly focused on the Chechens who have gone missing under the current Chechen administration, she rarely mentioned that the numbers of the missing were even higher during Chechnya’s three years of de facto independence. During those years, the Chechen hostage industry claimed more than 10,000 Chechen victims, according to some accounts.
Politkovskaya was certainly aware of these facts since, unlike many Western journalists, her championship of the North Caucasians began long before the second Chechen war. Yet her awareness did not show in much of her recent work. While this imbalance dovetailed with Western perceptions of Chechnya, the oversight proved unfortunate for her influence at home. Since most Russians knew that her story was one-sided, her genuinely important revelations were too easily dismissed.
Her murder raised inevitable apprehensions at home, while providing an excuse for another round of Russia-bashing in the West. Whether or not he was correct when he suggested that the murder may have been orchestrated by Russia’s enemies abroad, President Putin’s numerous Western critics have now demonstrated the salience of his point.
Nevertheless, it should, by all rights, be more difficult for the Kremlin to dismiss the current wave of criticism. This is for one important reason, of which the Kremlin is certainly aware. In the North Caucasus, it is no longer the time of the corrupt ex-Soviet elite, who governed many of the republics in the Yeltsin years. Nor is it any longer the day of their charismatic counterweights, such as Dzhokhar Dudaev and Shamil Basaev in Chechnya or Ruslan Aushev in Ingushetia. Rather, this is the dawn of the North Caucasian technocrats.
The emergent technocracy is illustrated nowhere better than in Chechnya’s neighboring Republic of Dagestan, where Mukhu Aliev was appointed by Putin earlier this year to be the republic’s first president. Though he served for more than a decade as chair of the local parliament, Aliev managed to avoid the factionalism and corruption that undermined Dagestan’s nascent democracy. With a doctorate in philosophy and a three-room, Soviet-style apartment, he is seen by most Dagestanis as a principled manager attempting to build a meritocracy while undercutting local corruption.
There are many similarities between Aliev in Dagestan and Taimuraz Mamsurov in North Ossetia. Much like Aliev, Mamsurov was the speaker of the North Ossetian legislature, and relatively free of political baggage. Already known for his decency, Mamsurov achieved overwhelming popularity when he declined to have his own two children released from the school in Beslan during the 2004 hostage crisis. How, he asked, would he then be able to look his neighbors in the eye? Less than a year later, Putin appointed him to lead his republic.
A few months after that, Putin appointed Arsen Kanokov to replace Valeri Kokov as the head of Kabardino-Balkaria. During Kokov’s 15-year rule, the republic was mired in political corruption and economic stagnation. As a wealthy businessman, Kanokov resembles neither Aliev nor Mamsurov, but he is a step up from his predecessor.
Back in Chechnya, the Kremlin anointed Alu Alkhanov as Chechnya’s president prior to the 2004 election that replaced his assassinated predecessor, Akhmed Kadyrov. A former policeman, Alkhanov is respected by most Chechens as a principled, if not particularly powerful, leader. Alkhanov lacks power vis-à-vis Kadyro’v 30-year-old son, Ramzan, who serves as Chechnya’s loyalist premier and leads a militia of several thousand men. The rivalry between Alkhanov and Ramzan illustrates two Weberian ideal types, "bureaucratic" versus "charismatic" authority.
Ramzan has had a role to play because Chechnya’s government is too weak to support Alkhanov’s bureaucratic approach. Through brute force, Ramzan gets things done, but Ramzan’s brutality was a regular target of Politkovskaya’s exposés.
Shortly after he rose to power in 2004, it was possible to view Ramzan as a necessary evil. Perhaps his brutality was the only realistic alternative to the brutality of Russian-Chechen warfare, on the one hand, and the brutality of Chechnya’s de facto independence on the other. But Politkovskaya never saw the necessity of Ramzan; she just saw the evil.
It is no longer possible to dismiss her point, given the Kremlin’s recent bureaucratic appointments in the region. If the Kremlin can support principled bureaucrats in Dagestan and North Ossetia, and something remotely along those lines in Kabardino-Balkaria, then why can’t it bolster Alkhanov in Chechnya and nudge Ramzan toward the sidelines? However slowly and painfully, Chechnya has stabilized in the past two years, and it will soon be ready for bureaucrats like Alkhanov.
Western observers might have paid more attention to Putin in 2000, when he tried to explain the complex reasons for Russia’s return to Chechnya. But Chechnya has changed since then, and Putin might now pay more attention to Western criticism in the aftermath of Politkovskaya’s murder. Three days after her murder, Putin denied that Politkovskaya had won much influence in Russia. If so, then one hopes that her death will help to accomplish what she sought to achieve with her life.