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Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Arkady Yedelev recently announced his latest estimates for the number of resistance fighters still active in Chechnya: 450, subdivided into 37 separate groups.
Those figures, provided during a press conference in Grozny on March 19, contradict earlier statistics cited by the Russian military and Interior Ministry. They also differ from estimates from the Chechen resistance leadership, which admits that not all groups of fighters are still under its direct control.
Yedelev's figure of 37 militant bands is down from his estimate of just six weeks earlier: "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on February 2 published an interview with him in which he gave the same total -- 450 men -- but estimated the number of individual groups at 46.
Two months before that, the resistance website kavkazcenter.com cited Colonel General Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Interior Ministry forces, as estimating the number of Chechen resistance fighters at between 800-1,000. And in early November 2006, the commander of the Group of Federal Forces in the North Caucasus, Colonel General Yevgeny Baryayev, was cited by kommersant.ru as providing a figure of 700.
It can be expected that the number of resistance fighters is likely to vacillate as a result of combat losses, but there are no indications that the resistance is short of volunteers. In April 2006, then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria Vice President Doku Umarov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus in a long interview that more young men seek to join the resistance than can be accepted into its ranks, in light of limited funding available. He said only the toughest candidates -- those who can withstand the bitter cold of the mountains in winter -- are accepted.
Umarov, who in line with the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Constitution adopted in March 1992 became president after the death in June 2006 of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, repeated in a recent interview with the Ukrainian nationalist publication "Banderivets" that the number of would-be recruits constitutes "a huge problem for us" since "we cannot provide all of them with weapons."
He expanded on that point in an address to the Muslims of the Caucasus posted on March 5 on kavkazcenter.com, saying that "thousands of young men turn to us, asking us to give them the opportunity to participate in the jihad. Unfortunately, limited resources do not allow us to do so."
But whereas in 2006 Umarov expressed regret that those not accepted into the ranks of the resistance have no choice but to leave Chechnya, he said in the recent address that "many young Muslims, both in Ichkeria and in other regions of the Caucasus [and also in Russia] are organizing themselves into military jamaats and acting autonomously."
In other words, the days when the North Caucasus resistance -- and its offshoots in the Volga and Urals -- constituted a single unified force that reported to, and coordinated its activities with, the Chechen War Council, appear to be over.
The emergence of autonomous fighting forces is likely to herald an intensification of hostilities, possibly over a larger geographical area than in the past. But it could create problems for the Chechen "core" of the resistance if Umarov and his supporters find themselves in competition for financial donations from Muslims in Russia and abroad.
The emergence of autonomous jamaats could also impel Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to try to co-opt their less experienced members in a "false flag" recruitment with the aim of either infiltrating and destroying the Chechen War Council headed by Umarov, or tasking them with committing acts that could undermine the Chechen cause.
Nor is the emergence of autonomous jamaats the only factor likely to affect the ongoing low-level fighting. In his interview with "Banderivets," Umarov admitted that the killing in 2006 of both Sadulayev and radical field commander Shamil Basayev negatively affected the timing and nature of subsequent military operations. And, he said, as a result of those losses (and possibly also of the death of field commander Sultan Khadisov in September 2006), the resistance has decided to switch tactics.
Umarov spoke in greater detail of those changes in his recent address, explaining that "we have reorganized some military structures. Plans have been revised, tactics have been changed, communications and coordination between individual groups of modjaheds, and between fronts and sectors, have been strengthened. The past autumn and winter were given over to large-scale preparatory work.... The activities of the Volga and Urals fronts are taking off."
In short, the periodic estimates by Russian officers of the strength of the remaining resistance forces in Chechnya are largely irrelevant in light of the military flexibility and ideological commitment of the North Caucasus resistance, the influx of volunteer fighters, and the expansion of hostilities from the North Caucasus across the Russian Federation.
UKRAINIAN PREMIER ACCUSES PRESIDENT OF VIOLATING CONSTITUTION. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych told journalists in Kyiv on March 23 that President Viktor Yushchenko is violating the constitution by ignoring court rulings on some regional appointments, Interfax-Ukraine reported. In particular, Yanukovych said Yushchenko has failed to comply with a court ruling regarding Kharkiv Governor Arsen Avakov, in whom two-thirds of deputies of the Kharkiv Oblast Council passed a no-confidence motion. "The president's duty is to relieve him of his position. The president is failing to abide by the constitution," Yanukovych added. Yanukovych argued that under the constitution, a no-confidence vote supported by two-thirds of lawmakers is sufficient to oblige the president to sack the head of a raion or oblast administration. Yanukovych also said Yushchenko has so far failed to reinstate Kyiv Governor Yevhen Zhovtyak in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling. Presidential staff chief Viktor Bakoha said later the same day that it is the Constitutional Court that should decide on the appointment of regional administration heads. "I think the prime minister was probably thinking about something else when he spoke about violating the constitution," Baloha added. JM
ROMANIA WITHDRAWS POLICE FROM KOSOVA DURING PROBE. Romania on March 23 withdrew 11 members of its 75-strong contingent from the UN police force in Kosova in the middle of a probe into their role in the deaths of two ethnic Albanian protesters in demonstrations on February 10, local media reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 14, and 15, 2007). The decision drew criticism from all sides. Tome Gashi, a lawyer for families of the two dead men, said on March 23 that the departure of the Romanian police was "another UNMIK scandal," and that "it will be will be even more difficult to reach the truth without the presence of the Romanian police," Radio-Television Kosova reported the same day. The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), which has been adminstering the Serbian province since 1999, said on March 23 that it "regrets that the Romanian authorities did not agree with the request of UN headquarters that 11 of these officers remain in Kosovo until April 6 to continue cooperation with the investigation." The Kosovar government expressed "disappointment" at the decision, Radio-Television Kosova reported on March 23. The Romanian Interior Ministry said the men were withdrawn as part of a troop-rotation scheme, and that they would be available to help in investigations. An independent inquiry is currently under way into the events of February 10. Both demonstrators died from wounds caused by rubber bullets fired by police. Police say the decision to fire was made after demonstrators broke through a police cordon in an attempt to storm government buildings. Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian police officers were also involved in the incident. AG