The text was originally published at Russia Direct
The more Ramzan Kadyrov becomes a national political figure in Russia, the more questions will persist about Kadyrov’s and Chechnya’s special relationship with the Kremlin.
If sociologists took to compiling a ranking of the most active media figures in Russia, one of the top three would almost certainly be the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Not a day goes by without his name topping news feeds and headlines.
Early June was no exception. YouTube blocked a film about the Chechen leader made by oligarch-in-exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia organization. Despite the block, anyone who wants to can watch this film without too much difficulty (after all, today’s information society does not recognize restrictions). But those looking for shocking exposés are likely to be disappointed.
The Open Russia project does not lay bare any new facts; rather it systemizes and arranges everything that has already been done countless times in the media and via social networks (thanks in part to the efforts of the film’s protagonist). It probes human rights issues in the North Caucasian republic, the special political and legal regime there, and its informal relations with the Kremlin.
Even the words of President Vladimir Putin about his “paternal feelings” toward the Chechen leader merely lend emotional coloring to a familiar picture.
The relationship between the heads of Russia and Chechnya is founded less on strict subordination than on a special format that allows a regional manager to receive a degree of autonomy higher than any other.
It is not the informational impact of the film that matters, but the fact that it was blocked, which demonstrates once again the considerable resources and influence that Ramzan Kadyrov wields. Nor is it likely that he personally had to place a phone call or seek help from his “spiritual father.”
The management style of “Chechnya’s CEO” is to take a hands-off approach — not only in the republic itself, but far beyond its borders. Also important is making friends and enlisting support, which can come in useful at any level of business administration.
However, most publications devoted to the “post-Soviet mountain dweller” record just the facts of his rapid rise, leaving aside the reasons for it. The main fact is, of course, that shortly after his thirtieth anniversary, he became the head of one of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus.
And today, eight years later, many experts (regardless of their personal feelings about him) do not see a serious alternative. What makes him irreplaceable? Is it simply Moscow’s desire to establish authoritarian order in the country as a whole and in Chechnya in particular? In the meantime, without answers to these questions any assessment of Russian policy in the North Caucasus is incomplete.
Ideologically the Chechen leader is fond of appealing to the traditions and history of his people. And surprisingly even his fiercest critics and opponents swallow the bait, reeling off statements about the “new stone age” in Chechnya.
In actual fact, the political system of Ramzan Kadyrov is a product of more modern times. Note that, in contrast to other North Caucasus republics, where complex models exist to coordinate the interests of different spheres of influence, the Chechen system is de facto autocratic.
In Chechnya, “Kadyrov” is not just the name of the leader. It represents the linchpin of the entire system.
For centuries Chechens have not tolerated being a vassal state inside a feudal system. For them, Kadyrov is the supreme leader, regardless of his age. Such a radical turn of events did not just happen by itself. Some fundamental premises lay behind it.
The first is the headlong degradation of the institutions of kinship, which began not yesterday but years ago. The process was rapidly accelerated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the two military campaigns of the 1990s. Today the concept of teip (clan) is nothing more than a journalistic stereotype. Suffice it to recall the confrontation between Kadyrov and Yamadayev, who belonged to the same teip (the Benoy clan).
That is not the only important premise. Whatever is written about “Chechnya’s special status,” it is worth bearing in mind the republic’s relationship with “Greater Russia” and what would have happened if the Kremlin had not staked all on the policy of “Chechenization,” which meant counting not only on local cadres (the logical and justifiable choice at a time of unresolved conflict), but also on the personification of power.
Struggling with the gubernatorial free-for-all of the 1990s, which stemmed from, among other things, the diverse models of government and management, Moscow opted for a system of miniature presidential republics. This universal approach solved the problem of unification, but not manageability.
The loyalty of these “presidents” was not a silver bullet for national unity, because isolated from its local value, it was of little use. The Kremlin chose not get too involved in resolving regional problems, preferring a system of “remote control.”
Chechnya in the 2000s became a symbol that the country had put the years of disintegration behind it. Nowhere else in the former Soviet Union had a separatist territory come back under central control.
In Russia’s case, the problem region did not just return, but turned into a showcase of loyalty and stability (although not total pacification, as evidenced by the clashes in Grozny last December).
However, the price of this symbolism was unprecedented political independence for the Chechen leadership. Whereas previously Chechnya existed under a kind of “one country, two systems” concept (as in the case of China and Hong Kong), in 2014-2015 Ramzan Kadyrov entered an all-Russian orbit, for which he should not be criticized.
Kadyrov thinks in different categories. If you need a symbol of stability so much, then let me take part in shaping your agenda, he seems to say. All the more so given that a confrontational style is Kadyrov’s trademark like no one else’s. Having been nurtured and immersed in it, he was able to build a chain of command inside his republic. The calls in Moscow today for mobilization invite the question as to where this model has shown its full worth. Many would answer without hesitation.
But the main difficulty lies in the room for maneuver. Until a settlement is reached on Ukraine (highly problematic, to say the least), the logic of mobilization and confrontation will persist. This, incidentally, is the result not only of the Kremlin’s desire, but also of the West’s eagerness to punish Russia for Crimea and Donbas instead of trying to resolve the conflict and reach a compromise with Moscow.
But indulgence of such a confrontational leader — in unison with the Russia’s growing reactionary ideological mood — is tipping the country into the archaic past, while marginalizing it internationally, not only in the West, but also in the East. In China, which claims to be a strategic partner of Russia, experts are extremely skeptical about Chechen home rule, seeing it more as a sign of weakness than strength.
70 years ago, on April 25, 1945, 50 nations opened the San-Francisco Conference that eventually resulted in the establishment of the UN. The Organization became the keystone of the international security system, while its basic principles, such as supremacy of international law, sovereign equality of states and joint approach to the settlement of international problems, remain the unchanged benchmarks of Russian foreign policy throughout decades.
For a major power like Russia, with the pretentions to be a global player, a question about state building in a small republic with limited international recognition is an obscure subject, just one element in the bigger political picture. However, a political crisis that unfolded in Abkhazia this year has given the discussions a new urgency.
Meanwhile, Western politicians have interpreted the authorization vote and the action in Crimea somewhat differently than Russian experts. So far, however, Russian authorities have been unmoved by threats of sanctions and visa bans, possibly because the stakes of backing down on Ukraine at the request of Western governments are higher than staying the course, as long as a full-scale war can be avoided.
Although recently Russians have started to pay more attention to its soft power projection in different parts of the world, Moscow has a long way to go to make itself look more attractive on this front. The Middle East is no exception.