The text was originally published at Russia Direct
No sooner had the debate about the “Chechen trace” in the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov begun to wane than the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was back in the spotlight. The reason this time was the deterioration of relations between him and Russia’s federal law enforcement agencies starting in mid-April.
On April 19, 2015, an operation was carried out in the Chechen capital of Grozny, killing Dzhambulat Dadaev, who was on the national “most wanted” list. He was suspected of having organized the attack on Dagestani businessman Magomed Tazirov over a contentious tender. Such a “routine” police operation would hardly be a subject of controversy and debate were it not for some interesting details.
First of all, it was carried out in the Chechen Republic by police officers from Stavropol Krai and Interior Ministry units stationed in the village of Khankala, near Grozny. Second, the target of the operation was an ethnic Chechen, which elicited a strong reaction from Ramzan Kadyrov.
The Chechen leader not only criticized the actions of the police task force, but also stated that, if police from other regions were deployed again in areas under his jurisdiction without prior notification and approval of the Chechen leadership, his security forces would be ready to open fire with intent to kill.
Moreover, after April 24, when Chairman of the Investigative Committee of Russia Alexander Bastrykin quashed the resolution of the investigative bodies of the Chechen Republic to institute criminal proceedings against the “alien” operatives, Kadyrov condemned the decision on Instagram. (Social networks such as Instagram are now important information tools for Kadyrov to make his eye-catching statements.)
This latest scandal involving Kadyrov again raised the question as to the extent of Moscow’s control over Chechnya and its firebrand president.
How far indeed is the Kremlin ready to retreat if Kadyrov’s statement about using weapons not only against terrorists, but also against the legitimate forces of the Russian government (albeit operating in a neighboring region) failed to elicit a clear response from the central authorities?
True, in a statement on its website on April 23, the Russian Interior Ministry described Kadyrov’s words as “unacceptable.” However, all that the Russian public has heard on the matter is a statement issued by President Vladimir Putin’s official spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
“We saw it, heard it, read it. No further comment,” summed up a senior civil servant. As a consequence, the Internet and blogosphere are again awash with fears, phobias and alarmist predictions about the start of a “third Chechen campaign.”
But do Kadyrov’s most recent statements and actions represent something new? Have they shed light on some hitherto concealed trends? The answer to both these questions seems to be no.
In his dealings with federal officials, Kadyrov has never behaved in the manner of a typical regional leader. He has always had his own unique views on the timetable of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya, as well as on the issues of amnesty for past militants, military conscription for natives of Chechnya, and the right of fellow Chechens to serve prison sentences on home soil.
A separate topic of discussion is the presence of units of the Russian army on the territory of the Chechen Republic. On this point, he is at loggerheads with everyone in Moscow, except perhaps for Putin, for whom Kadyrov has always shown almost pious respect. In April 2015 he even made a point of mentioning that certain elements were trying to bring him into conflict with the Russian president. It is worth noting that Russia’s head of state, despite his vast resources of support and popularity, has not publicly tightened the leash on Kadyrov.
Kadyrov’s view of Chechnya and his role as leader
The Chechen leader has long promoted himself as more than just a regional head. He tries to play the role of protector of all ethnic Chechens, regardless of where they reside in Russia. Recall the inter-ethnic clashes in Kondopoga, Karelia (in northern Russia) in September 2006 and other lesser-known incidents involving ethnic Chechens.
And even when the “Chechen trace” appeared in the murder of Boris Nemtsov (which Russia’s leaders described as a dangerous provocation for both state and society), Kadyrov still continued to refer to the “heroic” actions of the suspects.
Hence, on this occasion, as before, the Chechen head has merely demonstrated that he considers Chechnya to be his de facto domain in which he is entitled to set the rules of the game. At the same time he views relations with Russia not as an institutional link between his regional government and the national legal and political bodies, but as a union with the Kremlin. For instance, during the April incident he again identified himself as “Putin’s foot soldier.”
“If I’m given an order, I’ll fulfill it 100 percent. If asked to go, I’ll go. I’m ready to die too,” stated Kadyrov.
This situation has suited Moscow for many years — not least because Kadyrov removed responsibility from the center for many heavy-handed actions to “pacify” the republic (the suppression of the Islamist underground, the affirmation of undivided authority).
And despite the considerable costs involved in establishing the special regime, he helped reduce the number of terrorist attacks and stabilize the situation in Chechnya (although one need look no further than the terror attacks in the second half of 2014 to see that this truth is not absolute).
But lately Kadyrov has increasingly and persistently demonstrated that he feels cramped inside a single republic. He sees himself as a politician of national and even international standing, and has been vocal on Ukraine, the Middle East and, indeed, Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical media outlet, attacked by terrorists in early January, 2015.
Why the Kremlin seeks to pacify Kadyrov
Kadyrov’s statements are starting to raise more and more questions (which are rarely made public, but, nonetheless, are a permanent feature in sideline conversations) among the federal power elite. There is an inevitable choice between outlays and acquisitions.
And there arises an acute and semantic dilemma as to which punctuation of “execute no pardon” is correct in regard to Kadyrov: “Execute! No pardon” or “Execute? No, pardon.”
It is a delicate balancing act between Kadyrov’s loyalty and willingness to fight for Russia’s interests and stability, and his growing ambitions and claims that stretch beyond Chechnya and even the entire region.
In this respect, the opinion of renowned Russian expert on the Caucasus Konstantin Kazenin is well founded:
“No matter what our attitude to today’s Chechnya is and whatever causes of its problems we see, any political project linked to a power shift in Chechnya should answer one question: ‘What will come afterwards?’” remarks Kazenin.
Not “who” as in a specific successor, but “what” as in the system of control. It is no secret that the current model is built around Kadyrov, and replacing it (including the “transition period” to a new format) could be the next in a long line of challenges for the Russian state.
Russia already faces the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) appearing in the North Caucasus, and is in conflict with the West over Ukraine and Crimea. Therefore, if one avoids abrupt emotional impulses, the most important task is to channel Kadyrov’s seething energy and “stabilize” Kadyrov himself.
Only in this case can the state and society be protected from the type of excess extravagance that has the potential to undermine the political and legal unity of the country. But the main point is not to allow a precedent to be created whereby force and aggressiveness are used to achieve special favor in the eyes of Moscow.
What does Kadyrov bring to the table? Political stability. In 2009 counter-terrorist operations of “national significance” were wound up in Chechnya. The separatists had either been physically eliminated (Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev), were in exile (Akhmed Zakayev) or had switched sides (Magomed Khambiev). The number of terror attacks, despite being an ever-present threat, declined steadily from year to year.
Waning of the Ukrainian crisis may recreate conditions favourable for the meeting between the Russian and Georgian leaders. However, normalization in relations of the two countries has distinctly set limits, for the global strategy of the Georgian leadership remains unchanged.
Since Russia’s key possibilities for development lie within the country, its main foreign policy goal is to block external negative influences and avoid being drawn into confrontation with opponents. Today Russia becomes a strategic balancer which should be interested in remaining independent in pursuing its own policy and assessing international events.
At present, the shape and structure of the military presence that will remain in 2014 is still unknown, but the vacuum left by the withdrawal will pose a challenge to the security environment in both Afghanistan and the surrounding region, including the three neighboring Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.