January 14, 2003
Chechen war veteran flexes political muscles, sending shiver down the spine of the Kremlin - Another Russian general has emerged who wants to be a politician - a man who left his mark on Chechnya by helping raze its capital city
By Chris Stephen
Russia has a new pretender to the crown of warrior-king in the shape of Gen Gennady Troshev, its former commander in Chechnya. The bull-necked 57-year-old hit the headlines last month when he refused an order from the defence ministry to step down and move to another post in Siberia.
Angry that the ministry was blaming him for the manifest failures of the Chechen war, he went on television to denounce his sacking order. His dismissal as commander of the forces in Chechnya was later confirmed by special decree from President Vladimir Putin - though the reque to Siberia was quietly dropped.
Instead, Troshev has moved to Moscow, declaring he is 'considering' a political career.
This has made many people shudder, as it comes with reports that the army is already beyond the power of its civilian masters to control.
Later this month Troshev will publish his memoirs, in which he is expected to set out his stall as an ultra-nationalist alternative to the country's political leadership.
He is not the first general to try this path. In 1994 the deputy chief-of-staff, Eduard Vorobyov, refused to take up command of Russian forces in the first Chechen war, instead becoming an MP. Alexander Lebed, a former paratrooper general, stood against Putin in the 2000 presidential elections.
Neither made an impact: Vorobyov failed to attract a large following and the charismatic Lebed's political career died when he was killed in a helicopter crash last year.
Troshev aims to go better: already, he has powerful allies in the high command, notably army chief- of-staff Anatoly Kvashnin. Their complaints are familiar: first, that the army has been starved of support, both political and financial, to smash rebels in Chechnya and second, that under corrupt and incompetent civilian leadership, Russia has lost her great power status - and needs to claw it back.
An official on Putin's Human Rights Commission, Svetlana Gamushkina, told The Irish Times that the President admitted he could not control the generals in a meeting last month. 'He said that the army has become a separate political force. This is dangerous.'
Further evidence that the army is its own boss came earlier this month, when military judges derailed the country's most important war crimes case - the trial of a colonel accused of strangling a Chechen teenage girl.
Yuri Budanov had already admitted, during a two-year trial, that he abducted the 18-year-old girl, savagely beating her, then strangling her and ordering subordinates to bury her naked body.
The Kremlin had hoped Budanov's trial would demonstrate it was serious about introducing the rule of law into Chechnya. Instead, the army has derailed such hopes.
Army judges announced that instead of going to jail, Budanov would get mental treatment because he had committed the crime while suffering 'temporary insanity'.
Human rights activists were quick to complain. 'The Budanov acquittal is simply a travesty of justice,' said Elizabeth Andersen of US-based Human Rights Watch. 'If Russian authorities continue to shield servicemen from accountability and deny justice to their victims, the conflict in Chechnya may never be resolved.'
A prosecution appeal is taking place this week, but the military judgment is likely to be confirmed, in a body blow to efforts to 'normalise' Chechnya. 'The army is separate from anyone else,' Gamushkina says. 'It is a danger to society.'
Putin has fought against this, installing former KGB colonel Sergei Ivanov as defence minister and giving him the job of implementing wide-ranging reforms. They have failed to bite, though, and a second initiative, to put the FSB - the renamed KGB - in charge of the Chechen war has come to nothing.
Troshev is a veteran of both the current Chechen war and the one which raged from 1994-96 and ended in Russian defeat.
Born in the ethnic Russian community in the Chechen capital, Grozny, he became famous for declaring, early in the present war, that the shattered city should never be rebuilt so as to serve as a warning against treason to Russia's ethnic minorities. Later he demanded that captured guerrillas be publicly executed.
What has infuriated the Kremlin, however, have been his constant announcements over more than three years that the war is 'almost over'. These statements are invariably followed by new Chechen offensives, most recently on December 27th, when two suicide bombers detonated huge truck-bombs outside the province's administrative headquarters in Grozny, killing 46.
Talk of a coup, however, is far-fetched. For one thing, the army is in a mess. Hardly a week passes without a story of more desertions, incompetence and bungling within the country's under-funded, bloated armed forces.
Human rights groups say units raise cash in Chechnya by kidnapping civilians, then 'selling' them back to anxious relatives. Last September, an entire 54-man unit deserted its post in Volgograd, claiming living conditions were worse than prison.
This loss of prestige has angered the officer corps who, like Troshev, were brought up to expect Soviet-era greatness. Troshev is unlikely to demand a place in the Kremlin, but he will demand that military spending will rise.
Far from wanting a political settlement to end the Chechen war, the generals are already demanding its widening, to include an invasion of neighbouring Georgia to strike at rebel bases. Pressure for this is likely to grow with the coming of spring.
The other target will be central Asia. The army is furious that Moscow has allowed America to build a chain of bases in these former Soviet republics, long regarded as Russia's back yard.
How Troshev will flex his muscles is unclear, but flex them he will, and for Chechens, the outside world and the occupant of the Kremlin, this must mean trouble.