Russia on Thursday declared an end to its counter-terrorism operation in largely pacified Chechnya, lifting security restrictions that remained from a decade-old war that leveled towns and led to the death and disappearance of untold tens of thousands.
The announcement bolsters Moscow's strategy for normalizing life in the restive republic by transferring control to ironfisted Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a onetime rebel fighter who has switched allegiance to the Kremlin. Kadyrov has brought relative calm to Chechnya, but human rights monitors and critics say he has used kidnapping, torture and killings to stamp out opponents and silence ordinary Chechens.
Kadyrov greeted the announcement from Moscow with ebullience.
"We are extremely satisfied," he told the Interfax news agency. "The modern Chechen republic is a peaceful and budding territory, which is confirmed by thousands of our guests, including politicians, businessmen, journalists and artists."
To celebrate, Chechen officials held a free concert in Grozny, the capital, which was once crushed by Russian bombs but is now being resurrected, thanks to Kadyrov's dogged pursuit of cash from his government allies in Moscow.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the operation ended in hopes of boosting economic development and reconstruction, the government said. The declaration removes the Russian security forces' ability to impose curfews and roadblocks in the territory and could lead to the withdrawal of 20,000 policemen and soldiers, state media reported.
Russia launched an assault on Chechnya in 1999, wresting control of the breakaway republic from rebels in a protracted and bloody campaign. By 2000, a guerrilla war had taken hold, and scattered attacks continue to this day.
But in recent years, as the fighting slowed, Russian soldiers increasingly kept to their bases, giving Kadyrov greater leeway to quiet the streets as he saw fit. Special forces created for Chechnya were recently disbanded. Kadyrov told reporters that only a few insurgents remained.
On Thursday, critics pressed Russian authorities to investigate thousands of unsolved disappearances during the Chechen wars and under Kadyrov's rule.
Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the Caucasus for the human rights group Memorial, downplayed the importance of the declaration. He said Russia called its military campaign an "anti-terrorist operation" to circumvent national and international laws that would have come to bear in a declared war.
"In Chechnya this situation lasted on a territory of many thousands of square kilometers, and for many years," he said. "Now by dropping this false status, Russia technically returns the situation to normal."
He also pointed out that Kadyrov stood to gain still more power under the new arrangement.
"Now there are no forces comprised of Chechens and controlled by the capital," he said. "All the armed groups are controlled by Kadyrov."
This month, police in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, linked Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian lawmaker and close associate of Kadyrov, to the slaying there of one of the Chechen president's bitter foes. The allegation comes amid a rash of assassinations of Chechens in Russia and abroad. Many of the victims have been enemies or critics of Kadyrov.
He has denied any involvement in the deaths.